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 Catherine Cronin (Ireland) on November 17, 2011 at 1:40pm

So, Bob...how does one get certified or even a Master Gardener ?

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 Catherine Cronin (Ireland) on November 17, 2011 at 1:32pm

Oh Dear....this is getting a bit technical for an auld Irish wan to understand. I would be interested in trying this method, but I could only understand plain or easy explanations,sorry :(

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

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