Getting Started With Straw Bale Gardening

Gaye LevyGaye Levy | Jul 3, 2019

Gardening can be a huge hassle when you are first getting started.  Not only do you need to find an optimal location with adequate sun, but you need prepared beds and decent soil conditioned with plenty of organic material.  Preparing the beds is not difficult but it can take time and significant expense, especially if you are starting from scratch.

As a result of my recent move, I faced the prospect of building beds, bringing in soil, and doing the arduous work of getting my food garden ready for to go in time for spring time planting.  All of this was complicated by my lack of familiarity with the area as well as need to assess fencing given the local wildlife.  As I like to say, it is “all too much” to do at once and so I considered going with container gardening this year.

Luckily, serendipity stepped in and a long-time reader and author in her own right, Susan Perry, wrote to me about her great experience with a straw bale garden.  I was hooked and invited Susan to share her expertise with us, including the steps needed to get started.

Getting Started With Straw Bale Gardening | Backdoor Survival

For the Easiest Gardening Ever, Try Straw Bales!

Last April, after many years of gardening, my enthusiasm was starting to wane. I still had that rush of Spring Fever gardeners always get, imagining handfuls of perfect, fresh green beans and huge, ripe tomatoes infinitely better than store-bought. But memories of the effort involved kept sneaking in. Did I really want to be out there watering and weeding all summer long?

Thank goodness I came across an article about a growing method called straw bale gardening. The article claimed that after a simple initial setup, there was very little maintenance for the rest of the summer.

By the time I finished reading, my enthusiasm was back! I was out the door heading for Lowe’s that afternoon to get some straw bales.

What Is a Straw Bale Garden?

It’s a container garden, using a straw bale as the container!

Here are the steps:

1. Set the bales in a sunny spot with the cut edges up and the strings on the sides. They can be in straight rows, angles, a big circle; you can have one bale or ten, whatever fits your space.

2. Sprinkle about two cups of nitrogen fertilizer over the top of each bale.

3. Water the bales to saturate them and work in the nitrogen. Check them every day and add water as needed to keep them wet.

4. In about two weeks, the straw on the inside starts to turn into compost. Now you’re ready to plant!

5. Tap in your seeds to their proper depth. For started transplants, use a pointed stick or tool to make a small opening and tuck in the roots.

Group plants together that need similar amounts of water. For example, tomatoes, peppers, and leafy greens like a lot, while most herbs like to get a bit dry between watering.

To add to the fun, you can plant small herbs and flowers down the sides of the bales.

6. As your plants grow, keep an eye on them for how much water they need. If your area tends toward hot, dry weather, a soaker hose makes it easier to keep things moist. If leaves start turning yellow, add a bit more nitrogen.

To support tomatoes, cucumbers, and peas, you can pound a fence post into the ground at each end of a row, then attach heavy string or wires to each post, stringing the wires down the row above the bales. You can also stake plants individually.

What I’ll Do Differently Next Year

For the most part, I was thrilled with the results. The no-weeding claim was not an exaggeration! I harvested twice the cucumbers from one-fourth the space of previous years, and the grape tomatoes just wouldn’t stop. They spread over their stakes and out into the yard so far I had to set up benches for them. Even with only three plants, we couldn’t eat them fast enough, and I froze the extra.

But there were also a few things I could improve on. Next time, to prevent water from running through the bales and onto the ground, which happened most times I watered, I’ll lay down some black plastic to go underneath, and wrap some from the base to about halfway up the sides. This would also reduce how often the bales need water. And to hold back the grass, I’ll put down mulch around the edges.

By mid-summer, several bales had collapsed when the string disintegrated. The plants keeled over, their roots were exposed, and they never quite recovered. So, next time I’ll wrap a wire around the sides of each bale to reinforce the string.

The seeds that were supposed to be planted one-half inch deep were difficult if not impossible to cover with straw. I eventually sprinkled potting soil on them, but some were already dead, so it would be better to do this at the start.

What Plants Can Be Grown In a Straw Bale?

Vegetables, flowers, herbs, even potatoes can be grown this way!  There is one exception: don’t plant perennials like asparagus or rhubarb, since the bales can be used for only one year, two at the most. (After that they make excellent mulch.)

Which reminds me, the other thing I’ll do next year is plant strawberries! In the past, I’ve had terrible luck with diseases, but with the berries so high off the ground, they should do much better.

What Equipment is Needed?

Basic: straw bales, nitrogen (ex. Organic Blood Meal)

Optional: soaker hose, plastic sheeting for ground cover, stakes, fence poles & wire

What are the advantages?

1. Less work.

With the bales above ground, there’s less stooping and bending, and no digging, aerating, or tilling. Your knees and back will thank you! You can even place the bales on a pallet for additional height.

2. Weeds are virtually a thing of the past.

Any lurking in the straw are killed by the heat the first two weeks. The few that might appear later can be plucked right out with your thumb and finger.

3. It’s economical and healthy.

Going organic has never been easier! Straw bales cost about $5, and a bag of Organic Blood Meal is less than $10. You’ll also avoid spending money on soil amendments, fungicides, and disease and pest control.

4. Plants grow faster.

Straw decomposition in the interior of the bales provides a warmer environment. This fosters quick root development and faster plant growth.

5. Gardening is possible even if you have poor quality soil.

Your plants will have no idea that you could never garden before!

If you’ve been wishing you could be on the cutting edge of something, a straw bale garden may be just the thing. It greatly reduces the work of growing fresh produce and increases the yield in a small space. And as an added bonus, you’ll have a fresh topic of conversation for your next social event!

I’m sending all gardeners out there best wishes for happy garden times and a lovely harvest!

For more information, this is the book I recommend: Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten.

The Final Word

About the same time Susan contacted me,  a number of Facebook fans started chatting about their success with straw bale gardens.  I literally did a little dance.  A straw bale garden is giving me the life raft I need to get a garden going quickly, easily, and within budget this year. I am so excited!

How about you?  Have you used the straw bale method of gardening and if so, do you have tips and strategies to share?  I would love to hear about them!

 

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[related-posts]

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Below you will find  the items related to today’s article as well as other personal favorites.

Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten:  This is the definitive book on straw bale gardening.  I was able to preview a copy at my local library before purchasing the print version.  Did I mention I was excited?  Setting up a straw bale garden this summer is going to save me in materials and hours of labor.

Life On the Mountain Farm:  Susan’s book is being featured in the next Prepper Book Festival.  In the meantime, take a peek.  It is a chronicle of Susan’s experience leaving the corporate world and buying a mountain farm in North Carolina where she gardened, grew a medicinal garden, and eventually learned so much that she began to teach others about natural living.

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Author Bio: Susan Perry, M.A., has been an Herbalist and Health Educator for over twenty years. She is the author of Life on a Mountain Farm, available at Amazon.com, and Medicinal Herbs and Natural Health. To read her articles on medicinal herbs, natural health and rejuvenation, or to learn about her online courses, please visit her website susanperryherbs.com.

 

 

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20 Responses to “Getting Started With Straw Bale Gardening”

  1. I’m in the process of moving also. I had figured on potting a few vegetables in big containers this year, and getting raised beds ready for next year. I’m thinking now about getting a couple of raised beds framed up, then using the straw bales inside them, maybe lining the beds with cardboard first. Perhaps I’m dreaming, but MAYBE the straw bales will compost right where I need it for the next season. Think it might work?

    Reply
    • I’d say this is a great idea! Unless you are moving to a very cold climate like Alaska, they should make great compost for the following year. When the first growing season is over, you could encourage the bales to decompose by chopping things up a bit and keeping them moist.

  2. thank you for this great article on straw bale gardening. my husband and I rent our home and cannot break up the yard for gardening. however, we have been given permission to take care of the flower beds as we wish…. so looks like we will be having a garden this spring anyway. bonus is my painful back from 25 years of nursing will be happy. i am super excited for spring to get here now.

    Reply
  3. Very similar to straw bale gardening is Ruth Stout’s “How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back” and “Gardening Without Work-For the Aging, the Busy, & the Indolent”. This woman has been my gardening hero since the early 70s.
    I do have one BIG caution, however-know where your straw comes from. There have been quite a few reports of persistent herbicide poisoning in gardens because the farm that sourced the hay/straw sprayed to reduce weeds in the field. This can also be a problem with commercial compost and manure. Just a word to the wise.

    Reply
    • thank you for the heads up, i would have never thought about pesticide contamination.

  4. I’ve been noticing straw bale gardening around the interwebz lately too … this is a most timely post! 😀

    Reply
  5. I would really love to try this, but real “straw” is almost non existent in South Texas. Yes there is plenty of hay, but it’s full of weed seeds and johnson grass seed.

    Reply
  6. Read the book ‘Possum Living’ some time…

    Reply
  7. It was interesting for me to read. I appreciate this article and find it so useful. It is different but I want to try it in my garden as well.

    Reply
  8. Will this method work in Texas? We are so hot and dry most of the year.

    Reply
    • It might take a bit more diligence to keep the bales moist. I’d try using the plastic underneath and partly up the sides, then add some kind of mulch on top. When I’m mulching garden beds that have plants closely spaced, I put down the mulch first, then move it aside for planting. Good luck!

  9. I just ran across this article

    //thegrownetwork.com/hidden-dangers-straw-bale-gardening/

    while looking up information on one of the guests on Coast To Coast AM. Apparently the persistence of modern day herbicides can have deleterious effects on gardening efforts for years after the poisons are introduced into the food chain mechanism.

    Read the comments as well as the article: it sounds to me like the PTB might be trying to introduce doubt into the channel about this in order to either create a disincentive for nurturing our kitchen gardens or to try and get us to ignore the potential problem and fail miserably in our growing efforts, eventually to abandon them altogether.

    More research would seem to be warranted. Apparently Organic Gardening is now Rodale’s Organic Life (lord save me from the rebranding “geniuses”) which has become a totally online publication as of the last issue (Feb/Mar 2017). There’s an article on conducting a bioassay of your growing medium here

    //www.rodalesorganiclife.com/garden/do-you-need-test-your-compost-contaminants

    There was a Frontline Special on Rachel Carson which aired just last week. Have we really come very far since Silent Spring warned us about the future of our planet if we gave in the “conveniences” of modern pesticides and “better living through chemistry”?

    Reply
  10. Thank you for the good article. I have a few thoughts to pass on. We’ve never used straw bales for this purpose. We’ve always grown vegetables and fruits in a garden, raised bed or tubs. But I wanted to point out there is a difference between straw bales and hay bales.

    In theory, proper composting will kill off many weed seeds but in our experience it hasn’t. Of course we are in a short northern clime so that may be part of the problem. But we flew in large quantities of “composted” manure and it was a disaster. We introduced all kinds of non-native weed species to our garden that have been prolific ever since. So I merely point out that if the hay or straw has weed seeds that have not been destroyed by composting, they may be a source of weeds if tilled into a garden. Straw will have much less chance of weed seed.

    When I read about the black plastic around the base essentially making a “bathtub”, that’s a nice idea. Some may be tempted to set the straw bale in a large basin so that it could absorb water as needed. But any pooled water will be host to mosquitoes which is making the news these days.

    For people who grow strawberries like that beautiful picture in the article, here’s an idea for you. I have always rejuvenated our beds by letting the runners develop every few years. I would be tempted with the straw bale strawberries to let the runners develop until they are starting to show roots, snip them off in the fall and heel them in some soil for over wintering. Next spring, the little plants can be replanted and you’ll have a jump on the season.

    Reply
    • I’m sure you’re correct about putting the bales in a bathtub! My suggestion about using plastic would leave a space at ground level where water could drain out, but more slowly. Also, plants need water, but are not happy and will eventually drown when its roots are sitting in it!

  11. I learned about straw bale gardening a while ago, but I was leary to try it out because of the idea of pesticides in the straw. I felt like, unless I was really sure where the straw bale came from, I couldn’t be sure of what was actually there. Also, I had read from a few folks, that you have to be careful about mold. If conditions are right, mold can develop inside the bale, so you have to be aware of/watch out for that.

    Reply
  12. Would like to subscribe your regular E-mails

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    • Go to this page to subscribe: //eepurl.com/ly45n

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  13. Hi Gaye,

    I may have missed an article where you mentioned it, but where did you end up moving to? I know you wanted to get off the island and had been looking for a place to relocate.

    Reply
    • I have relocated to Arizona. Although I have not moved there yet, we have purchased a mountain retreat on one acre near Payson AZ on the Mogollon Rim. Once we are settled, I plan on a follow-up article with the reasons why we picked this location over others.

    • Welcome to Arizona!! My husband and I own a ranch in northwestern Colorado and we spend our summers there. But as we have gotten older we found the winters hard to deal with, so we purchased a home on 2 acres near Kingman and we spend the winters here. We have some good friends who own 10 acres and a home in Payson. They are also Colorado transplants and they love the Payson area. Hope you do too. Best of luck on your move. I look forward to reading your article once you are settled in.

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