You’ve been thinking about gardening.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to grow your own fruits and vegetables?
But there’s a problem.
You don’t have a big enough space. At least that’s what you think. And the only space you have is a small portion of your deck or balcony.
You’re thinking about container gardening but wonder if there’s an alternative.
What you’re looking for is straw bale gardening. It’s a method where you can grow your fruits and vegetables without worrying about space or the soil.
What is straw bale gardening?
It’s a method of gardening where you grow plants in straw bales. The bales work like natural containers for the plants.
This is good because you can use them as growbags but without the plastic. This is a suitable method of gardening when the garden soil is poor or there’s no soil at all.
The straw bale gardening helps you extend the growing season because there’s no dependency on the soil. The bales remain warm due to decomposition well after spring.
It’s suitable in colder climates where the soil can stay cold for weeks before spring.
What are the benefits of straw bale gardening?
The biggest benefit of straw bale gardening is that you don’t need soil to grow a garden.
You get an instant garden in a location of your choice. This makes it possible to grow in small spaces like balconies, patios, decks, or a small garden.
The straw bales are above the ground which makes them work like a raised bed. There’s less problem of weeds or pests affecting the garden.
Since there’s no soil involved, it does not have a problem like poor drainage, low nutrients, and clay soil.
The straw bale works with decomposition which raises the temperature in the bale. This means you can grow for a longer period of time than possible in soil.
Once the growing season ends, the straw bales may decompose and you’ll have rich organic material. This can be used in your compost or added to the garden beds for nutrients.
What are the materials to use for straw bale gardening?
The best material you can use for the bales is wheat-straw. You can also use alfalfa, buckwheat as substitutes in case you have them. You also have the choice to use barley, rye, or oats for the bales.
The benefit of using such material is that they decompose fast. Their tops are taken off. They don’t have seeds because they’re taken off with the threshing process.
The only problem with some of these materials like wheat-straw is that it’s poor in nitrogen so you need to use fertilizer.
It’s not good to use hay or pine straw bales because their tops are not taken off. They contain lots of seeds that will cause weeds to grow. And they will not break down fast.
It’s also not good to use linseed or corn because they’re coarse and slow to degrade. Linseed contains oil which makes it very slow to decompose.
Where can you buy the straw bale materials?
The best places to buy the straw bales are at local garden centers, nurseries, and home improvement stores. You could also try some stables if there are some near you.
They might not be selling the straw bales but they may know where you can go to get them.
It’s best to get the straw bales from an organic farm. That helps ensure there are no toxic chemicals from pesticides or fertilizers in them.
What design can you use for your straw bale garden?
The design of the straw bale garden can be as simple or complex as you want. The important part is to leave enough space between the bales. This helps with the pruning, harvesting, weeding, and watering.
For a simple design, you could place the straw bales in rows like a regular garden bed. When growing on a porch or deck, you can place the bale in a metal trough.
Growing on a balcony or deck means you need to use a frame. It should have wood or metal slats at the bottom to allow good drainage.
And it should be raised at least an inch above the deck to allow good air circulation otherwise the deck can rot.
How to prepare the ground for the straw bale garden?
You’re using straw bales so you don’t need to prepare the soil. But if there’s grass you’ll need to place a barrier.
This could be something like cardboard, newspapers, fabric, or membrane made of plastic, fiber.
This barrier will help separate the straw bale from the soil. This helps protect it from pests and weeds.
If moles and groundhogs are a problem in your garden, you can place galvanized bird wire beneath the bales.
Where should you place the straw bales?
Vegetables are going to need a lot of sunlight. So it’s best to place the straw bales where a lot of sunlight is available. You can also check if there’s easy access to water.
It’s best to place the bales before you start watering them because watered bales can become quite heavy.
If you’re going to have a rooftop garden, do check the structural integrity before starting the garden.
You should place the bales in a position that makes it easy for you to go around them. This helps you while maintaining the garden.
Keep the narrow end of the bales on top. This helps keep the strings on the sites. And makes it easy to plant in the bales without being obstructed by the strings.
One narrow end of the straw bale has the straws cut while the other end has them folded. You want to keep the narrow end with the straws cut at the top. This helps with hydration as the hollow straw tubes help with the flow of water into the bale.
What can you grow with straw bale gardening?
You can grow almost the same plants that you would grow in a raised bed or container. You can grow from seeds or from transplants.
Top-heavy plants like corn are not suitable to grow with this gardening. They can topple the straw bale or break them. You can consider growing dwarf varieties.
Tomato plants are easy to grow in a straw bale. You need full sun and support unless they are the dwarf or bush varieties.
You can start small with cherry tomato varieties and then grow the beefsteak ones.
Root vegetables and tubers are great to grow in straw bales. The loose straw helps them spread their roots. They may weaken the bales in time. But you can protect them with reinforcements like fencing or wires. You can grow potatoes, carrots, turnips, and radishes.
Fruiting plants are great to grow in straw bales though you may need to support them if they grow tall. Plants like squash, strawberries, eggplants, and peppers grow well.
It’s easy to grow greens in the straw bale garden as well. This could be lettuce, spinach, kale or chard.
The same could be said about growing herbs as well. It’s easy to grow basil, cilantro, and parsley in the straw bale garden.
You can also consider growing cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.
How to prepare the bales for the garden
You need to prepare the bales before you can use them in the garden. It’s best to buy the bales at least two weeks before you begin planting.
Move the bales to the location where you want them to grow. It will be difficult to move them once you prepare because they’ll get heavy.
Water the bales thoroughly till the water drips from the bottom of the bale.
Spray the surface of the bales with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. You can use ½ cup per bale of such fertilizer.
You need to water the bales thoroughly every day. And apply the fertilizer every other day.
Apply the nitrogen-rich fertilizer every day for three consecutive days. Reduce the amount you apply to half from the previous week.
Water the straw bales thoroughly every day.
At the end of the week, sprinkle 2 cups per bale well-balanced fertilizer and water well.
The high nitrogen will help fasten the decomposition and at the end of two weeks, the bales will be ready for planting.
The temperature of the bales should be about 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s higher, you’ll need to wait for a few days and check again.
Fertilizers you can use
You can use a simple organic multi-purpose fertilizer that is high in nitrogen. Liquid feeds are good but even pellets are good as long as you dissolve them well in water.
Seaweed mix is good for fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and cucumbers as they contain good enzymes and minerals.
Fish oil is high in nitrogen, amino acids, potassium, and phosphorus. It’s available to plants in 1-2 days so good for initial growth.
Compost tea is good for initial growth as it provides nutrients fast. It reduces the chance of diseases and provides beneficial microorganisms.
How to plant the straw bale garden
The best way to plant in the straw bale garden is by using seeds. The roots can develop and grow strong in the straw bale. Make sure the frost has passed before planting.
You can put a 2-inch layer of good, moistened potting soil on the surface of the bale. Then tamp it down, smoothen it, and water gently.
You can put the seeds into the potting soil at the required depth and spacing. Then water regularly so the seeds can germinate.
You can also plant seedlings of tomatoes, eggplants, peppers. Make a gap in the top of the straw bale and set the roots.
Put a good potting soil to cover the gap and the roots. Make sure the plant is in line with the surface of the bale. You can stabilize the plant with more potting soil if required.
Water the roots gently. You can keep about one or two plants per bale.
The tomato plants need support with stakes, fences, cages, or trellis. You can also grow dwarf varieties.
How to use supports in the straw bale garden
If you’re going to plant indeterminate or determinate tomato plants, you’re going to need support for them. The best support you can use is to put in stakes through the bale and into the ground.
Tomato cages can work for small varieties of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. These plants grow tall where the bales can get soft and topple over with the weight.
Such plants won’t grow on the support by their own. You need to tie them and encourage them to grow.
Vine plants like melons, cucumbers, peas, beans, and squash can grow without support but it’s best to use one. They will climb on the support as they grow.
You can use a support that could be stakes, trellis, cages, teepees. The stakes could be made from bamboo, plastic, or metal.
You can place them at the ends of the bales and several inches apart. Then tie the plants to them with twine for support.
How to maintain the straw bale garden
Watering and fertilizing
The straw bales need more hydration than soil because the straw dries out fast. That’s why you need to water at least once per day. More when the climate gets hot. You can use drip irrigation to reduce this manual work.
You need to water the straw bales till the water drips from the bottom. You can water whenever you feel the straw is dry.
You can add seaweed fertilizer and compost every week or couple of weeks. Check the requirements of your plants when it comes to water and fertilizer.
You don’t have to do as much weeding as you would when growing in soil.
To avoid the problem of weeds, you can separate the bottom of the straw bales from the soil. You can add a layer of membrane like plastic or fiber, fabric, cardboard, or newspaper.
You won’t have a problem of weeds when the straw bales are placed on a concrete floor.
It’s easy to pull out weeds from the straw bales because the straw in them is quite loose. You can even use a string trimmer to get rid of the weeds.
Pruning and maintenance
Every day you can check the plants for dead or diseased fruits and leaves. If you notice them, it’s good to remove them fast but carefully.
Such fruits and leaves can drain nutrients from the plants and the fruits.
You should remove any yellowing leaves from the plants as they can drain nutrients as well from the plants and flowers.
How to harvest from the straw bale garden
Harvesting is the same as you would do with a garden that is grown in soil. The fruits and vegetables will show signs of ripeness when they’re ready for harvesting.
The root vegetables like carrots and turnips can be dug from the straw when they’re ready for harvesting.
For vegetables like potatoes, you’ll need to do a little extra to get them out. That’s because the potatoes grow deeper into the bale. So you need to carefully separate the straw before you can get them out without damaging the bale.
How to reuse the straw bales after harvesting
The straw bales start decomposing as soon as you have prepared them for your garden. But how fast they fully decompose depends on the climate.
In colder climates, they may take up to 2 years to completely decompose. If they are still in shape after harvest, you can reuse them for fruiting and leafy vegetables.
When you’ve planted root vegetables, you need to be careful when harvesting them. You can damage the straw bales and they may not be reusable.
In warmer climates, the straw bales may decompose fully by the end of the growing season. If that happens, you can put them into your compost pile.
You can put the decomposed matter into your garden bed as nutrients if you separate out the straw and dry it out.
Straw bale gardening can help you get started growing your own fruits and vegetables.
There’s no need to worry about the soil in your garden or the space you need.
Take the first step to building your straw bale garden. Figure out where you can get the best organic straw bales for your garden.
Check out your local garden center, nurseries, or home improvement center.
You can grow your dream garden. You can enjoy home-grown vegetables. And you can be organic.
So let’s get started.