Created from the stems of grain plants, fluffed straw is usually used as animal bedding, a foil to keep birds away from newly seeded lawns, or as mulch around strawberries.
But kept tightly twined in bale form, straw can function as a biodegradable raised planting bed, bringing herbs to an easy harvesting height and keeping lettuce from browsing rabbits.
“I haven’t had a vegetable garden in years, but this year I am planning to have a straw bale garden,” says Annelisa Aubry-Walton of Mount Joy. “I have back trouble, and haven’t got around to building raised beds, so straw bales sound like the right choice for me.”
Their temporal nature is part of the appeal, requiring little long-term commitment from those attempting a first garden or even just a new location for a vegetable bed. And they’re a cost effective way to try out large-scale container gardening without the investment.
Simply select a site for this season, place the bales on their sides in whatever formation is most appealing, and prepare to plant crops to enjoy until frost. (Straw bales will contain some grain seed that will sprout, but it is easily pulled out. Hay bales on the other hand will carry more tenacious grass seeds and plenty of weeds that can become problematic.)
Before preparing the bales for planting, commit to their placement, preferably in the sunniest part of your property with easy access to water. Soaking wet bales are challenging to budge. Ensure you have room to move or even mow between rows. If you are wheelchair-bound, make sure your chair can fit easily between the rows. For extra sturdiness, you may want to have the bales support each other in your layout. On uneven surfaces, you may want to hammer in some stakes or shore up with stones or concrete blocks at the corners. If you’re placing them in the hopes of smothering undesirable plantings like ivy, you may want to first lay down sheets of newspaper.
Before planting, the bales need to start the process of decomposing, especially if they’re newly harvested. (Bales aged six months or longer are a better choice, if available). Thoroughly soak them with water and leave for about week. They will initially heat and cook for a bit, and then cool back down. Some gardeners like to speed up decomposition of fresh bales by adding ammonium nitrate to the bales to further cook them. Organic gardeners often employ fish oil or compost tea as a more natural, slower acting fertilizer once the bales are planted.
When the bales are cool to the touch, they’re ready to plant. You’ll need to add compost or potting soil where you want the plants to grow, either by parting the straw and filling the holes with soil, or layering the surface with several inches of soil. Seasoned straw bale gardeners report the greatest success with transplants over simply sprinkling seeds on top. Use your trowel to force the bale open where you want to place the plant, then allow the straw to spring back and hug it tightly in place.
The most successful plants will be those best suited for container gardening. This is a temporary garden, so plan to plant annuals. Instead of planting varieties of plants that need tall supports like tomatoes and beans, look for bush varieties or construct sturdy stakes. Veterans of the practice report that root crops are not as successful as when planted in the ground. Vining crops like squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and melons reportedly thrive, especially when they can drape down the sides of the bales. One bale near the house can support a small herb garden. Just remember not to crowd the bales. Space requirements are the same as in the ground, so two tomato plants per bale will be plenty. Plants like nasturtium can be tucked in the sides of the bale to spill down and the base can be planted in marigolds to add color.
Just like with container gardening, it is important to keep your straw bales well watered. Soaker hoses linked to rain barrels may be the most efficient way to tackle this task. Feed with your preferred fertilizer, being careful not to over fertilize. (If you are getting all growth and no fruiting, cut back). The bales will also sprout bits of wheat or oats, which can be cut or pulled, but they won’t threaten your crops. Those who garden with straw bales report few pest, fungal, and rodent problems. After your harvest has been killed by the frost, you can simply break up the bales and allow it all to rot in place to enrich the soil or add it all to your compost pile.
Researching straw bale gardening online invariably leads to Kent Rogers, “the strawbale man” of North Carolina, who can be found on Facebook at “Straw Bale Gardening – No weeding, no hoeing, no tilling”. A straw bale gardener since 2005, his advice on the Dave’s Garden website (davesgarden.com) features a lively question and answer section and his basic instructions can be found on the Carolina County website (carolinacounty.com) in the March 2009 issue.
Other web links with articles on straw bale gardening include: