In the Garden Blog
Cincinnati's Garden Blog
We’re all familiar with container gardening and the many benefits it has to offer. But, here’s another exciting option to growing plants in pots, straw bale gardening. Why not grow plants in straw or hay bales?
Similar to container gardening, straw bale gardening allows gardeners to grow plants just about anywhere a straw bale will fit. Do you have terrible soil, need to let the garden sit fallow for a year, don’t like bending over, have limited space, or no soil just asphalt or concrete, etc.? Then, straw bale gardening is for you!
Benefits of Straw Bale Gardening
- It is an excellent choice for gardeners with physical challenges because it is raised and easily accessible from all sides.
- Bales reduce watering because they hold moisture and also great for keeping nutrients.
- Worms love them.
- Straw bales protect your plants from soil-borne diseases.
- An economical choice that besides watering and feeding is somewhat foolproof.
- No digging and minimal weeding.
- When finished, just till them into the soil and use them as mulch for the next series of bales. Or use in the compost pile.
- By purchasing organic straw (hay) bales, you can grow organically as well. And, hey, who else do you know that grows a garden using bales of straw (hay)?
Supplies Needed for Straw Bale Gardening:
- Bales of straw (hay can be used, but are full of weeds and grass seeds) Try to find wire or nylon tied bales, which will last longer and find bales that are tightly baled. If string tied, feel free to add wire or nylon twine around them to help hold them together.
- Stakes to place at the ends of the bales to help hold them together, as well as staking plants that need staking.
- Soil-less potting mix, quality grade bagged Garden Soil mix, SweetPeet, Posey Power, compost, compost / topsoil/ rotted manure mix, etc.
- Fertilizers – Nitrate of Soda, Urea, and granular garden fertilizer (5-10-10, 10-10-10, etc.), high N lawn food, or water-soluble such as Miracle-Gro. For organic/natural gardening, use Espoma’s Garden food, Seaweed, Liquid Kelp, Bloodmeal, etc. Straw bales will need nitrogen, especially early in the process. Hay bales won’t need as much if any.)
- Plants and or seeds (Just about anything can be grown in straw bales, including some root crops.)
Find your growing location:
- Select a site that will receive at least 6 hours of sunlight each day (more is better), with good surface drainage. (Greens can be grown in less sunlight.)
- Before bales are wet, choose your growing location. Wet bales are difficult to move!
- Position your bales in rows, squares, different shapes and forms, side by side, create a maze, stacked on top of each other, etc. Try to position them to end to help hold each other together.
- Place a stake in the ground at the ends of the bales to help, should the strings rot and break. You may lay the bales flat on the ground (strings touching the ground) or on their side. You want the string to run around the bale and not in contact with the soil. Either way works. (Strings touching the ground will rot faster. Wire or nylon tied bales are preferred).
- If you intend to grow greens (spinach, lettuce, etc.) bales on their sides work best. Early in the season, you can grow greens on the cut sides. Then, turn the bales flat and grow summer crops after harvesting the early greens.
Preparing Your Bales Naturally:
For 2 months, let your bales weather. Be sure to put them in place before they weather! It will give you a jump start on this process. It is the easiest and best way to go. It allows you to skip down to Day 10.
During the natural weathering process, I recommend adding some fertilizers just before you’re ready to plant.
Preparing fresh or unseasoned bales close to planting season:
Place the bales where you want them, then soak the bales thoroughly and keep them wet – daily. This starts the bale ‘cooking’.
Add approximately ½ cup of urea, bloodmeal, or choice of fertilizers to the top of each bale and water in well. Do this each day (3 applications total). It adds N and gets those bales ‘cooking’. You can even put a light layer of compost, SweetPeet, etc. on top if you’d like, adding more microbial activity. Keep the bales moist.
Apply ¼ cup of urea, bloodmeal or above substitutes per bale and water in well (the cooking process is slowing down). Keep the bales moist.
Use 1 cup of 5-10-10, 10-10-10, lawn food, organic fertilizer, or something similar per bale and water in well. Keep the bales moist!
After Day 12 -14 (may take a little longer): Bales should be ready for planting. As an addition to the bales, many straw bale gardeners will apply a 1-3 inch layer of composted material (bagged garden soil, soil-less mix, compost, topsoil compost mix, etc.) on top of the bales. Especially applies if growing greens such as spinach and lettuce, or if planting flowers or veggies from seed.
For planting rooted transplants, use a hand trowel to pull the bale apart just enough to insert the roots of the plant as you would planting in the ground. You may add a little of the compost (bagged garden soil, soil-less mix, topsoil compost mix, etc.) into that pocket planting as well.
The bale should close back around the plant’s roots. After planting, water in. For tight bales, a saw or doorknob saw drill might be needed to cut a hole for planting.
Water and fertilize your bales as needed, depending on the plants growing in the bales, using water-soluble fertilizers or granular garden fertilizers sprinkled on top of the bales.
(Use Espoma’s organic fertilizers if growing organic or not – good stuff!) To help reduce watering, cover the bales with landscape fabric just before planting.
Also, soaker hoses underneath the fabric or on top without fabric are a great way to water.
What can you grow?
Besides limited root and taller growing crops (like corn), your choices are wide open. Some recommended crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cole crops, salad greens, peas, onions, cucumbers, squash, melons, herbs, and beans. Click Here to Find the Perfect Edibles!
How do you plant?
Plant on the same basic spacing as you would in the ground. With a maximum of 2 tomatoes per bale, 2-3 peppers per bale, 6-8 cucumber vines per bale, 3 squash per bale, etc.
How to add excitement to your bales
Try adding a few annuals or perennials, especially vining ones, to cover up some of the bale corners and add a little extra color to your straw bale garden. You may try total annual or perennial gardening by the bale! A great conversation piece, and you’ll be the talk of the neighborhood.
Problems you may experience?
- You may experience ants. I don’t suggest doing anything besides maybe using natural controls or baits listed for use around edibles.
- Have mice or voles in the bales? Use baited snap traps to reduce populations.
- Weed and wheat seeds will grow at the beginning. Just hand pull, and they’re gone.
- Mushrooms may appear (bales are decomposing) so leave them be or just knock them over and eliminate them. Don’t eat them, and no, they won’t affect your edibles.
- And sometimes the bales are so tightly baled; it’s hard to plant in them. Hopefully, if you seasoned them naturally (2 months or so) they will be more flexible to plant in. Otherwise, it may involve electrical powered tools to cut holes in the straw bale.
A Cool Idea for Straw Bale Gardening
Extend the planting season with a straw bale cold frame!
Here’s a great way to bale garden in a small area as well as extend the season. Take 6 bales and place them in a rectangular shape, with two bales on the sides and one for each end. If you can find an old window or storm door to fit over the opening in the middle, you now have a cold frame for growing greens early (or just make one with PVC pipe or 2×2’s and cover with clear plastic).
Add compost and loamy topsoil in the middle. Grow greens in the middle early, harvest, and then look to grow potatoes in the middle as the spring season warms (no cover). When the weather warms, plant the top of the bales like you usually would with summer veggies.
As the season winds down, harvest the potatoes, and then replant greens in the middle, using your cover as the weather gets colder, extending your green season right into early winter. But, maybe more depending on the weather.
Cincinnati Gardening Made Simple! Have a question? Ask our experts!