Straw Bale Gardening 101
Are you looking for a way to start growing vegetables in just a few weeks – quick and easy? Maybe you have rocky or poor soil and the prospect of carting in new soil just seems too costly and time consuming. Maybe you live in a rainy or cold part of the world and would like to get a jump on your growing season, but it’s just not cooperating outside. For these reasons, and many more, straw bale gardening is right for you.
This post is part of the 30 Ways of Homesteading Round Robin from The Prepared Bloggers Network. Be sure and look below for other great homesteading and gardening posts. There are affiliate links in this post
Benefits of growing in a straw bale
- // Cleaner veggies. No soil means no dirt to wash off.
- // Inexpensive growing container. You can purchase a straw bale for about $5.
- // No digging required. Once the bale is conditioned, you just make space inside and plant away.
- // Improve your poor soil. After the season, the soil beneath it will be soft, pliable and full of beneficial earthworms.
- // It is easily removed. If you are a renter you can have your garden and move it too.
What kind of bale?
Most experts recommend that you use a straw bale because it has the least seeds. I’m using a hay bale for my project because it’s harder to find straw in Texas. I have not had any problem with weeds or grass growing in it. Straw or hay bales from alfalfa, wheat, oats or rye are suitable, but straw bales are preferred. Use what you can get and be sure to pull sprouts as they occur. You will want a bale that is held together tightly with baling twine encircling the bale in two to three places.
Get the bale ready for planting
Before you can actually plant in a straw bale you need to condition it. Basically you are starting the decomposition process before planting so the heat the bale makes when it breaks down will not damage your plants. If you don’t do this you will kill your plants – the straw will just be too hot inside. Read my previous post that describes the 10 day process of conditioning a bale.
The bale should remain moist at all times. In the conditioning phase, water will escape easily, but I’ve found that once the bale is ready for planting it pretty much acts like a sponge and retains moisture nicely. I give it a quick watering each morning and I think that the placement of a cardboard box underneath also helps to trap excess water.
You may want to set up a soaker hose system (this seems to be common) to give your bales regular water. You can also set up a 2-liter pop bottle drip system. This will take a few days to empty and makes fertilizing individual plants easy.
There are not a lot of nutrients in a straw bale so you need to make sure that you give your growing plants an adequate supply of the basic nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium). This helps to counteract the microbes that are at work breaking down the straw bale. Find an Organic All Purpose Fertilizer (similar to this brand found on Amazon) and set up a semi-weekly schedule for application.
- // Nitrogen deficiency is very common and shows up as yellowing of old leaves before their time.
- // Potassium deficiency shows up as a purpling of the leaves,
- // Brown leaf edges can indicate a potassium deficiency.
Straw bale beds can also be fertilized with the application of soil, manure, compost, or a mixture of these. After the bale is established with crops you can add compost tea, blood meal and fish meal. Just keep an eye on the crop for deficiencies.
When to Plant
Once the conditioning is complete and the bale temperature falls below 80 degrees, you are ready to plant. Generally, a bale is ready when the temperature remains fairly constant at a depth of about 3 to 4 inches. I used a meat thermometer and waited until the internal temperature was 75. Then we had a few days of rain and by the time I actually got to plant the bale temperature was as 65 degrees.
How to plant
This is perhaps the easiest part. You can push aside the straw and fit the pots of your plant inside the slit or you can remove some of the straw and make an indentation just the size of you pot. That’s what I did. I make a hole, added a bit of soil and fertilizer and then set the plant inside. I backfilled with soil and watered it well.
Another option is to make pockets or holes about 3 to 4 inches deep by gently loosening and carefully removing a small amount of the straw. The number of pockets can vary depending on what you are preparing to plant. These slits will also work if you are planting seeds directly into the bale. Use the recommended spacing on the seed package and add a bit of soil into the slits for the seeds to take hold.
What to plant and how much
Anything can grow in a straw bale, the possibilities are endless. Try these plants and quantities. Don’t be afraid to experiment with planting on the sides and ends.
- // 2-3 Tomatoes
- // 4 Peppers
- // 4-6 Cucumbers
- // 2-4 Squash
- // 2 Pumpkins
- // 2 Winter Squash
- // 2-3 Zucchini
- // 6-8 Basil
- // 6-8 Strawberries
- // Lettuce spaced per package directions
- // Beans spaced per package directions
A word of caution from Root Simple “My tomatoes flourished but, due to the high nitrogen, made more leaves than fruit. I’m not saying you shouldn’t plant tomatoes in straw bales–results will be better than in poor soil, but it’s hard to regulate the amount of nitrogen when prepping bales.”
A bale will be good for growing for about a year. After that it will have broken down and is well on its way to being compost. You should plan on using it for that purpose and set up a composting system. If that’s not possible, use it as mulch in the garden or flowerbeds, or incorporate it into your garden soil.
If you placed your bale over a grassy or less than optimal growing area you will be surprised about the quality of the soil underneath. It will be soft, pliable, full of earthworms and other beneficial insects. Not a bad trade for so little work!
To learn more about straw bale gardening:
Washington State University Extension – Washington State University / Straw Bale Garden – Oklahoma Cooperative Extension – UA Cooperative Extension Water Wise Program has an interesting take on it by making a double bale system and enclosing it in metal roofing.
The current straw bale gardening expert is Joel Karsten who wrote “Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten” ( FYI, Joel will be speaking at this year’s FREE Home Grown Food Summit April 6-12, 2015). It is worth a trip to the library to check out his book. Personally, I’m going to watch his free video and purchase the book for myself because straw bale gardening is a technique I plan on continuing.
The Prepared Bloggers Network is at it again! We’re glad you’ve found us, because the month of April is all about homesteading.
Homesteading is a lifestyle of self-sufficiency. It is characterized by growing your own food, home preservation of foodstuffs, and it may even involve the small scale production of textiles, clothing, and craftwork for household use or sale. Most importantly homesteading is not defined by where someone lives, such as the city or the country, but by the lifestyle choices they make.
The Prepared Bloggers are passionate about what they do and they each have their own way of achieving self-sufficiency. Grab your favorite drink and enjoy reading about the 30 Ways of Homesteading!
Crops on the Homestead
Straw Bale Gardening from PreparednessMama
Crop Rotation for the Backyard Homesteader from Imperfectly Happy
Benefits of Growing Fruit from SchneiderPeeps
Succession Planting: More Food in the Same Space from 104 Homestead
Crops to Grow for Food Storage from Grow A Good Life
Winter Gardening Series from Our Stoney Acres
How To Build a Raised Garden Bed For Under $12 from Frugal Mama and The Sprout
How to Save Carrot Seeds from Food Storage and Survival
Animals on the Homestead
Getting Your Bees Started from Game and Garden
Homesteading How-To: Bees from Tennessee Homestead
How to Get Ready for Chicks from The Homesteading Hippy
Selecting a Goat Breed for Your Homestead from Chickens Are a Gateway Animal
Adding New Poultry and Livestock from Timber Creek Farm
Beekeeping 101: 5 Things To Do Before Your Bees Arrive from Home Ready Home
How to Prepare for Baby Goats from Homestead Lady
How to Prevent and Naturally Treat Mastitis in the Family Milk Cow from North Country Farmer
Tips to Raising Livestock from Melissa K. Norris
Raising Baby Chicks – Top 5 Chicken Supplies from Easy Homestead
Making the Homestead Work for You – Infrastructure
Ways to Homestead in a Deed Restricted Community from Blue Jean Mama
Building a Homestead from the Ground Up from Beyond Off Grid
DIY Rainwater Catchment System from Survival Prepper Joe
Finding Our Homestead Land from Simply Living Simply
I Wish I Was A Real Homesteader by Little Blog on the Homestead
Endless Fencing Projects from Pasture Deficit Disorder
Essential Homesteading Tools: From Kitchen To Field from Trayer Wilderness
Homesteading Legal Issues from The 7 P’s Blog
Why We Love Small Space Homesteading In Suburbia from Lil’ Suburban Homestead
Preserving and Using the Bounty from the Homestead
How to Dehydrate Corn & Frozen Vegetables from Mom With a Prep
How to Make Soap from Blue Yonder Urban Farms
How to Render Pig Fat from Mama Kautz
How to Make Your Own Stew Starter from Homestead Dreamer
Why You Should Grow and Preserve Rhubarb! from Living Life in Rural Iowa
It’s a Matter of Having A Root Cellar…When You Don’t Have One from A Matter of Preparedness
Please share our round robin with everyone! Leave a comment below – What is your favorite way of homesteading?