Feeling very honored to be asked by GS to add a blog about growing in straw bales!  Thank you, GS for your confidence.....

 

Straw Bale Gardening is an idea which provides low maintenance gardening that results in great plant performance and is a perfect gardening solution to poor soil or limited space in your yard.

It is also a wonderful answer to the problem of not being able to tend a garden the traditional way due to physical limitations or handicaps that restrict a gardener from lifting, tilling, or bending to weed.

This method of gardening has been found to work well in climates from the coldest areas in the north, down to the southern hot spots.  If it grows, it can be grown in a straw bale.  Using straw bales is simply replacing garden soil on the ground and lifting it up to become a container filled with conditioned straw compost as a growing media.

Vegetables, herbs, and flowers become an impressive display when grown this way, as it produces very nice, healthy plants without weeds. There also is a noticeable lack of pest activity around plants grown in straw bales.  No pesticides needed!

Be sure to use straw bales, and not hay bales. 


Straw bales are made from the stem end of the grain.

They can be placed anywhere. It takes ten days to get one set up for planting; determine where they will be placed before starting, because once the watering process begins, they are too heavy to move around after that. 

Take advantage of fences by putting the bales alongside the fence so the vines can climb without having to build a trellis when thinking of locations to place the bales.  If no fencing is available, a trellis or pole inserted into the bale for tomatoes and other tall or vining plants to grow on will work the same as it would as planting into the ground. Use at least a 6 foot length pole as shorter ones will topple with the weight of the plant.

To condition the straw bale for planting, thoroughly water every day for ten days.  This is very important as it will heat up and “cook,” softening the straw for growing.    

After 7 days of watering,  add fertilizer:  a fish emulsion or mulch tea to keep things organic, or if a synthetic fertilizer is preferred, choose an equal balanced one of 10-10-10.

Continue to water for a few more days, allowing the bales to cool after cooking. Using the bales while in the heated process of breaking down will cause the plants to suffer and die.

After a week of preparation with watering and adding fertilizer, check to make sure the temperature has cooled inside the bales.  Once cool, add plants.

Make a slit in the straw with a sharp trowel, add a cup of good potting soil and then place the plant down in up to the first set of leaves. Scrunch the straw back together around the plants, watering daily to establish.

Supplimental watering is required when growing in bales. Think of it as a hanging basket planter with sphagnum lining. It drains well and dries out faster when the weather gets hotter.

Soaker hoses placed on top of the bales works very well as a watering option.

When planting tomatoes, pinch off all the lower leaves just to the tops and plant them deep.

Pepper plants do not like to have their stems covered, so only insert them to the depth they are planted in their starter pot.

If using seeds instead of plants, sprinkle good potting soil along the top of the bale to place seeds on. Cover seeds according to planting instructions.

When planting potatoes in straw, break open a bale and after placing the potato eyes in a row on the ground, shake loose straw over the tops of them. Water well, but make sure they're not soggy. As the plant tops grow through the straw, add another layer around the plants repeating as the plant grows through the straw. When it's time to harvest the potatoes, lift the plant out of the straw and cut your potatoes off.

Straw bale growing is especially nice for vining plants such as cucumbers and squash planted in the bales, as the bale gives them something to grow on instead of the ground. At it looks pretty once the vines cover the bales, too! :)

The bales will provide two seasons of growing, after that they will break down and can then be “recycled” into the compost bin to be used again for mulch the next season. 

It’s a never-ending usage cycle!

Hay bales, cut from the seed tops are used for livestock feed and contain wheat/oat seeds that will sprout.

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Comment by Beth Strassman on January 19, 2014 at 2:13pm

Hi Great blog. Have always wanted to try this and I think I finally will this year.  I live in between zones 6 and 7 (closer to 6) and am wondering when it's time to start preparing the bales?  Should I do it while it's still cold outside?  Also, if I can start them now would it be possible to grow some things early under some sort of protective cover such as an old 2 liter bottle?

Comment by Bonnie Hannum ~ Missouri, USA on November 17, 2011 at 2:05pm

Thanks again, Bob.  Consider me an intrepreter since I understand both mindsets, Catherine! ha.  You do a wonderful job with plenty of on hands gardening know how without wasting time with technical jargon.  I've always thought it can't be shared if it can't be understood.

Nothing to be confused about with photos, tho; we all know that lush green flourishing plants wilt with a freeze, so since the weather temps across the midwest have dropped now, and Missouri is definitely in the midwest, it's reasonable to consider that the photos along with all the other photos posted on GS now are either from the past summer bounty, or are people that live in temperate climes....

Yep, squash are in the strawbales; I'll take a picture today of how sad they look now.  I am contemplating a cold frame by adding old windows to the wilted bales, or maybe I'll just let them decompose through the winter and start fresh next year.  This is their 2nd year.  

I think the longevity issue would be more of covering the plants to keep the nip off rather than the temperature of the ground they're in. Many can withstand cold air temps as long as the frost doesn't touch them.  Of course, that thought doesn't apply to all plants, as in tomatoes which like warm soil and the fruits change in texture and flavor when temps drop....

 

Comment by Bob (Z9B Florida) on November 17, 2011 at 1:37pm

Ur right, Catherine...gardeners come in different sizes and interest levels.  I had a group of certified Master Gardeners on a tour of a local botanical garden lately and it's an entirely different experience than a group from a garden club.  :)   Pleanty of room for all.  Bonnie's done a good job raising the bar with this article.

Comment by Bob (Z9B Florida) on November 17, 2011 at 1:21pm

I was actually more interested in the source of your information.  I've got notebook pages of Florida University and various extension office info on straw and hay bale growing.  Now I am confused, the photos you posted were not from a few days ago but your garden at a different time?   Are the squash you mention having just picked in strawbales?  I'm just trying to gage longevity of bale vs. in ground in your area. Thanks again.

Comment by Bonnie Hannum ~ Missouri, USA on November 17, 2011 at 1:02pm

Oh, sorry,  I forgot about your request for extension link info;  I just did a google search for current cost of hay and straw bales and found the extension info from the list it gave. Iowa University is one I like to follow for midwest info, but you could check for information pertaining to your state.....

Comment by Bonnie Hannum ~ Missouri, USA on November 17, 2011 at 12:58pm

Thank you Bob.   I have hundreds of photos backlogged from summertime that I haven't had time to post,....Gardens have gone yellow and shriveled with the temps the end of October; with the exception of the Butternut squash. Although they are looking rather sad today now, too, with the freeze we got last night. I had 4 squashes hanging in that I was babying through the chilly nights, decided since the vine was still green I would leave them since they were on the small side and wanted to see if they'd get bigger.  (They did, but not significantly.) Ah well.  Pulling them off today and eating tonight to see if there is any good flavor to them since they were left out in the cold.

That's another good thing to point out with bale gardening; when that first cold snap comes through the end of September (I wrote the date and will have to refer to it later) I cover the plants with plastic sheeting (deflated limp poly-tunnel! ha) until it warms back up.  Usually a week, and then it always warms back up again until November. So I get an extended growing time (excluding tomatoes, but especially flowers!) squeezed out of the season. 

Be sure to let me know how your February planting goes, will you?  Will be interesting! Thanks~

Comment by Bob (Z9B Florida) on November 17, 2011 at 7:19am

Good additions.  Yes, the closer relationship to container that itself does not provide nutrient value is an important point.  I did not pickup until now that these are pictures of your own garden with straw bales and they certainly look wonderful for this time of year.  

Straw runs about $4 per bale more in this area but as you point out, does offer advantages over haybales as some say, hay does over straw.  Idea:  next season try hay as well as straw and see if the problems you mention on weeds and the need for preconditioning are as significant.  I plan to do the same in our February planting using the same plantings in each for comparison.  Can you please provide a link to the Extension article(s) you refer to?   Excellent article, Bonnie.

Comment by Bonnie Hannum ~ Missouri, USA on November 17, 2011 at 2:06am

Whoops, the last part of that reply was cut short.....

Supply and demand is always a factor, and at the current time US Ag dept. reports that both are moderate to steady with prices averaging between $2 and $5 for hay bales , with some areas going as high as $10 a bale in coastal regions. Straw bales are comparative in pricing with reports of $3-$6 a bale. I’m sure there are fluctuating prices depending on the area of purchase.

Hope this answers your questions satisfactorily; I suppose with the depth of my reply I could have started another blog subject: “M.H.O. analysis of hay v straw use” haha.

Cheers!

B

Comment by Bonnie Hannum ~ Missouri, USA on November 17, 2011 at 2:00am

Thanks, Bob. It's nice to get feedback.

Well, the choice is of course, purely individual;  
pros and cons to both -- I did not necessarily intend to write a comparison analysis between straw and hay, but I am happy to offer my simple opinion between the two. Thank you for
asking.

The reason I even mentioned hay in the blog was merely to comment that there is a difference between hay and straw, since many people think it’s the same thing. (Sort of like, - Is it a slimy snail, or is it rich and creamy Escargot?) Same thing, but It’s all in the preparation.

As I initially explained in the blog, straw is made using the stems of the grain, (no nutrient value, and normally used for animal and fowl bedding, layering over seed for protecting sprouts, etc.) while hay is made using the seed top portion of the stalk, which carries all the grain nutrients and is essential for feeding livestock, and use for grinding into
meal.

My personal preference for straw is that it does not sprout oat, barley, wheat, or grass that compete with my plants which I then have to weed out of the bales as does with hay.

I also prefer straw over hay for the fact that you mentioned, which is hay decomposes much faster than straw and I would like to keep my “planter” usable for as long as possible without having to replace.

Hay is the softer, ‘greener’ part of the stalk, while straw is stiff and has very little nutrient affordability. (because of being pressed while going through the cutting process.) It
is in this instance, for intent and purposes, merely a vessel.  
It makes an acceptable natural container for growing plants, just as coconut husks, sphagnum mosses, etc. do for containing plant material.

As for the conditioning process with watering a week before planting, that is a necessary step whether you plant in hay or straw, according to Extension reports, which are explicitly instructive in this step because as you will find with any other green plant material it heats
up when bundled closely and confined as it is as a bale. The temperatures rise to that of a cooking compost pile, and if you place your plants directly into the bales without utilizing the conditioning step, you will end up killing your plants. (So they advise.)   I have never just planted straight into the bale without first conditioning it.  If someone is into experimenting with how that works, I hope they'll let us know the results.

Since I’m mentioning extension guidance, I’ll add here that they also advise to use ammonium nitrate in the conditioning process to speed up the breakdown of the straw or hay. I don't personally use this step because I garden organically and do not like adding chemicals to my gardens. To each their own. 

Fertilizing the bales, whether organic or chemical, is also a matter of choice, but not a necessity. If you fertilize your gardens or potted plants as a preference, then fertilizing the hay/straw bales would also be a personal choice one would make. It’s not necessarily a great
debate.
If one prefers not to fertilize, then I would think that step would be eliminated at will.

Nutritional value from the bales (straw or hay) is little to nothing. It’s only being used for a containing purpose, not a feeding replacement as in say, hydroponics. (That’s a whole other subject blog!)  lol!

Supply and demand is always a factor, and at the current time US Ag dept. reports that both are mo

Comment by Bob (Z9B Florida) on November 16, 2011 at 7:38am

Good stuff, Bonnie!  

Folks around me have been doing this for many years (I discovered a few months ago) and do use hay bales.  When I reasearched the differences between straw and hay I came up with the same points you discuss so I asked them about why they choose hay.  First was cost and availability; second, was it does not require ten days to get the bale ready to go, they wet it overnight and then make a small opening in the bale and add a couple of handfuls of soil and plant away; thirdly, the hay breaks down faster and the bales are generally used for no more than two seasons plantings which is one year here in FL; lastly, the hay is then just used as mulch in bed areas or put in the compost. 

Have you run across any analysis of the availability nutrients from hay vs. straw bales?   I seem to recall some discussion on that in one university publication but can't put my finger on it right now.  The idea being that hay does not require the additional fertilizers you mention to use in straw....

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