Do you need a solution for lack of space or sunlight in your yard? An easy alternative to planting in the ground is straw bale gardening. Straw bale gardening is great for beginners and experienced gardeners looking for alternative gardening methods.
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What do you do when you want to plant a garden, but you don't have a good spot in your yard? Maybe the only sun you have is on your back patio where there's no soil. Or maybe this is your first year getting into gardening and you don't want to dig up the yard. Maybe you have tried gardening and you just can't get that rocky or clay soil to grow anything!
An easy, fast and efficient way to get a garden (or additional garden space) is the straw bale garden. When I learned about straw bale gardening, I was excited to try it out. I had 700 square feet for growing, but I wanted to expand. I wanted space to grow some of the plants that like to spread out, like squash, watermelons and cantaloupe. But I didn't want to take space away from the plants I already had in the garden, like tomatoes, peppers, beans and herbs. Straw bale gardening seemed easy enough, so I gave it a shot.
It turns out, straw bale gardening is a great alternative to planting in the ground. Here's how you can start your straw bale garden.
What is Straw Bale Gardening
Straw bale gardening uses "conditioned" straw bales for planting. A bale of straw is simply the dry stalks of grain cut from the field and baled together to form a rectangular bale held together by twine. Straw differs from hay in that it is the dried out stalks, so the inside of the straw will be hollow (like a drinking straw). Hay is grass or grains that have been harvested before they go to seed and dry out. Usually, straw will be a more yellow or golden color and hay will be closer to green. Straw is better for straw bale gardening because it doesn't have the weed seeds in it that hay will tend to have.
Tip: Leave the twine or string on the bales to help them stay together through the season.
Straw bales usually measure about 18 inches tall, 18 inches wide and 36 to 40 inches long. You can fit two to six plants in each one depending on the plants and how large they grow. Be creative to find a different configuration that works for your space and needs. Make sure that you get your straw bales placed where you want them (with at least six to eight hours of sun) before you start the conditioning process. Once they are wet, straw bales will be heavy and difficult to move.
Example of a 10 x 10 space: If you had a 10 x 10 space, you can do the math and figure out that you could put about three bales in a row and have about three rows with 18 inches in between rows to walk. Or you could put two rows right next to each other, have some space between and then two more rows, which would get you twelve bales in the same space.
Tip: Leave enough space between the bales so that you can run a lawn mower between them if they are on the grass.
Preparing the Bales (Conditioning)
Once you have your bales where you want them, it's time to start conditioning. The conditioning process is a composting process to get the bales decomposing. The bales will continue to break down throughout the season to supply your plants with the nutrients they need to grow.
There are different schedules you can follow to condition the bales. In general, it takes about two weeks to condition the bales. Using organic fertilizers and sources of nitrogen may increase the time it takes to condition the bale.
Sample Schedule for Conditioning
At the end of the conditioning process and throughout the growing season, you will want to use a balanced fertilizer that contains N, P and K (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium). Again, I recommend organic fertilizer or using organic materials such as bone meal for phosphorous and kelp meal for potassium.
For conditioning, you can use any fertilizer that contains high amounts of nitrogen (N). I only use and recommend organic fertilizers. When looking at fertilizer (organic or chemical), there are three numbers on the bag. The first number is the percentage of nitrogen, the second number is the percentage of phosphorous, and the third number is the percentage of potassium. We are most concerned at this point with the first number (nitrogen). Make sure the percentage of nitrogen is over 5%.
When I conditioned my straw bales, I used a combination of organic fertilizer and blood meal. I ended up buying a 50 pound bag of blood meal that my local farm store was able to order for me. If you have a large straw bale garden, you may want to look into investing in a larger sized bag of blood meal to save some money in the long term.
Tip: Make holes in the bale if using granular fertilizer or blood meal. The grains will be able to penetrate better than placing it directly on top of the bales.
Make sure that you are watering your straw bales every day. Skipping this step will slow down the decomposition process.
As the bales are starting the process of decomposition, they will heat up. You can stick your hand inside or use a thermometer to check on the temperature. It should feel warm inside the bale and it should be wet. You may even get mushrooms growing on the bales. That's a good sign!
After about two weeks of the watering and fertilizing process, your bales will cool down. Once they do, it's time to plant!
You can plant almost anything in a straw bale. There are some plants that do better than others, but your options are limitless! You will want to plant things like peppers and tomatoes from seedlings that you have already started or have bought. Seeds like melons, squash, cucumbers and beans can be started from seed directly in the bales.
Here are the general guidelines of the number of plants per bale:
- Cantaloupe: 2 plants per bale
- Cucumbers: 4 - 6 plants per bale
- Eggplant: 2 - 3 plants per bale
- Peppers: 3 - 5 plants per bale
- Pumpkins: 2 plants per bale
- Squash/Zucchini: 2 - 3 plants per bale
- Strawberries: 3 - 4 plants per bale
- Tomatoes: 2 - 3 plants per bale
There are a few ways you can plant in the straw bale. The first method is to dig a hole in the straw bale in the spot you want to plant and place the seedling in the hole. The hole should be big enough to accommodate the roots of the plant you are transplanting. Fill the hole with potting soil or a nice mix of compost and potting soil.
If you are starting plants from seed, dig a hole in the straw bale, fill it with soil or a nice mix of compost and soil. Place the seed in the hole. Make sure you plant it at the depth that is given on the package.
Another method for planting is to add two to four inches of soil or a nice mix of compost and soil to the top of the bale. Then you can plant the seeds into that layer of soil. This would work best for smaller seeds.
Once everything is planted, make sure that you water the bales regularly. You will also need to stake tomatoes and trellis vining plants as you would in any other garden setting.
Benefits of Straw Bale Gardening
- Easy - you can do it anywhere there is sun
- Inexpensive - straw bales can run anywhere from $2 - $7
- Fast - bales are ready in about two weeks. You can wait until almost the very last minute to start your garden
- Less pests - straw bales are off the ground so pests have a harder time getting to them
- Less disease - Because they are self-contained, disease is more rare and doesn't spread through soil
- Convenient - Again, the height gives an advantage of not having to reach all the way to the ground
- Reusable - You can get two years out of the straw bales. Then they will be a great addition to the compost pile.
Drawbacks to Straw Bale Gardening
- Water - it took a LOT of water for my straw bale garden to do well.
TIP: put cardboard under the straw bale to help retain moisture or use a drip irrigation system.
- Sourcing - Be very careful about where your straw bales come from. Make sure that there were no herbicides used in the process. You could end up killing all of your plants if there is residual herbicide on your bales.
- Short-term - After two years, you will probably need to buy new straw bales
My Experience with Straw Bale Gardening
I was able to expand my garden with very little work overall using straw bales. My garden had about 20 bales of straw. I had a large space for growing the straw bale garden. The reason I chose to use straw bales was because I didn't have enough space in my regular garden. There wasn't enough time in the season to get a good plot started in my clay-like, rocky soil. Straw bales were a quick and easy way to gain extra space for growing.
If I grew another straw bale garden, I would work on the layout a little bit more. I put the bales in rows with not enough space in between, so I had a lot of hand trimming to do to keep the grass under control.
I set up a sprinkler to water the bales each day. It took a lot of water to keep the bales from drying out. If I didn't water every day during the hottest part of the summer, I would have lost my harvest.
I didn't have a lot of problems with pests, other than squash bugs. Those seemed to be unavoidable this year. The bales were a good height, and they didn't have to be weeded. Some wheat grew in the bales from wheat seeds left behind. That didn't cause any issues for my plants, though.
My bales stayed together well enough to plant another year, but I have expanded my garden in other ways, so I no longer need the straw bale garden. I am using my bales as compost in my deep mulch garden instead. Nothing goes to waste when straw bales are reused in this way.
Toward the end of the season, I didn't give my straw bale garden enough attention. I didn't keep adding enough balanced fertilizer, and I think my plants suffered because of this. The good thing is, you can learn from my mistakes and make sure that you don't let your straw bale garden go!
If you are looking for an alternative to growing your vegetables in the ground, this may be the method for you! It's easy, fast and convenient. Anyone can use this method, from those of you just starting out to experienced gardeners and everyone in between. Start with a couple of bales of straw and see how you like it.
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Organic Fertilizer Use this organic fertilizer to condition your bales of straw.
Bone Meal Using bone meal is a great, organic way to get phosphorous into your straw bales.
Kelp Meal Kelp meal will help with potassium.
Blood Meal Blood meal is great for adding nitrogen.
Thermometer This thermometer is handy for measuring the temperature inside the straw bales. It can also be used to measure the temperature in a compost pile or even in the soil.
Tomato Stakes Use these to stake your tomatoes as they grow.
Drip Irrigation System Your straw bales will need a lot of water. A drip irrigation system is the most effective method.
Sprinkler If you don't get the drip irrigation system, a sprinkler can work for watering your garden.
Fertilizer Basics for Beginners
Beginner’s Guide to Starting Seeds Indoors
Heirloom, Hybrid, Organic, and GMO Seeds: What does it all mean?
12 Easy Vegetables to Start from Seed
Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Garden
After I’ve planted how often do you need to fertilize?
I would fertilize every week or two. Definitely keep a close eye on your plants to see how they are performing and if they are needing more nutrients.
I tried straw bale gardening last year and had a good harvest. My question is - do I need to do anything to them this year before planting? I have good amount of bale left and want to replant in them this year. Thanks!
Dotty - you shouldn't need to do anything special to the bales this year. I would probably continue to add some kind of fertilizer to make sure there are enough nutrients for this year's crops, but other than that, they should be good to go. Good luck!