Use This Method to Get a Bale Ready for Planting
Straw bale gardening is all the rage this year and since I’ve started my new garden from scratch I thought I would give it a try. There are several benefits to this specialized kind of garden. It requires less weeding, it takes less space than a traditional garden and you can plant earlier because the bale decomposition warms the plant roots.
There are a few things I have learned about the process as I was experimenting with how to condition straw bales. On a weird note – they don’t have straw bales in my part of Texas (something about the wheat not getting high enough for a second cutting) so I’m using a hay bale. All the literature I read said that hay bales were not desirable for this project because of the seeds. The guy at the feed store promised it will not have any more seeds than straw – we shall see. My hay bale was not green and freshly cut, and after a month of conditioning, the bale has not sprouted any wheat. I don’t know if purchasing it fresh would make a difference.
You should place the bale where you will use it for planting because once it gets waterlogged it will be heavy and impossible to move. Maybe not for you muscle gals, but it was for me.
Put several layers of newspaper or cardboard under it. This helps with water retention. I actually used a cardboard box big enough to turn up the sides and help with retaining water. That cardboard kept the water from running out the bottom at the beginning of the process and has worked well.
Place the bale on its side with the twine going around the bale. This will keep it intact while it is decomposing.
Make sure the cut side (not the folded side) is placed up. This will allow the water to reach deeper into the bale and keep it moist longer. Just do your best with this. It really is evident which side is the cut side, and which is the folded side, once you look at it that way. The cut side has more “straw tubes” showing.
You Need to Condition the Bale
Have you ever placed your hand into a compost pile, one that is working properly? The inside can be downright hot, even getting up to 200 degrees. when it’s in the process of creating that wonderful product for your garden. Straw bale gardening works off that same idea and the processes that create compost. You are going to use conditioning to quickly speed the decomposition of your bale. If you skip this part your plant roots will be affected by the heat created from the composting process and it will kill the plants.
During the conditioning process, my bale went from 136 degrees on day four to 63 degrees on day eleven. For the first three days, all you have to do is water the bale thoroughly, from the top. Here’s the watering schedule:
Day 1 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet. I just went out in the morning and gave it a good dosing. If you have a really hot day, you should check it again in the evening.
Day 2 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet.
Day 3 – water the bale and make sure it stays wet.
Add Organic Fertilizer
For the next 6 days, you are going to add organic fertilizer. I used a 5-5-3 dry mix that I got from Old Farmhouse Feed before I left Oregon, however, any nitrogen rich fertilizer will work. Some people use their own natural nitrogen and send their husbands out to pee on it. I think I’ll pass! Anyway, I just used 1/3 of a cup of the dry fertilizer and put about half a cup of hot water into a big container till it was mixed and somewhat dissolved. Then I added cold water to make 12 cups and poured that over the bale. Then I gave the bale a good watering.
By the end of the 4th day, there was a noticeable difference in the bale. The nitrogen has really started the composting process and it smells earthy. I could visibly see the decomp beginning. Our Black Lab is attracted to it (probably because of the fish bone and feather meal in the fertilizer) and it has been almost impossible to get her to quit rubbing against it. I did eventually build a better fence!
Day 4 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Day 5 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Day 6 – add liquid nitrogen with the watering to speed up the decomp process
Now you will cut back on the nitrogen by half and continue as above for three days. Fertilize and water…
Day 7 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 8 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 9 – add half of the liquid nitrogen and water thoroughly
Day 10 – Water thoroughly and continue to water the bale until the internal temperature reaches the temp outside. You can use a thermometer or put your fingers inside and gauge how warm it is.
Once the temperature has stabilized you are free to plant in it. Some people just push aside the straw, make a hole, and plant. Others remove a few inches of straw and add potting soil to plant in. I think this will certainly work best if you are planting seeds directly in it – the soil will give it something to grab.
The only things you need to do after planting is continuing with occasional watering and give it a weekly (or maybe even semi-monthly) fertilizing with liquid nitrogen at half strength. You will know when you need more nitrogen if the leaves of your plants start to turn yellow.
Truthfully, I kind of fudged my nitrogen days. We had a few nights of freezing weather in the middle of my experiment and I didn’t water. We’ve had some heavy rain days and I didn’t check on the bale at all. Even still, the transformation over a two week period has been dramatic and my bale is now ready to plant. First up? Cherry tomato and basil.
You have effectively created a quick mini compost pile from a $5 straw bale! I hope this post will inspire you to try straw bale gardening. I will continue to update as the season progresses. Please check out my series of posts about creating a small garden from scratch and six planning tips for creating a garden from scratch.
UPDATE: April 2016 – I now have 2 seasons of straw bale gardening under my belt. The bales last a surprisingly long time and if you can keep them bound together, there is a possibility of using the bale for succession planting. This year I planted broccoli and then once it was harvested I planted snap peas.
Straw bale gardening really is easy!
Related: Why your garden needs a straw bale | PrepaprednessMama
Please share your straw bale gardening success in the comment section below.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long do straw bales last?
If built correctly, a house made out of straw bales can last up to 100 years if not more. Even so, a structure built using straw bale can be tilled back into the earth, so almost nothing will go to waste. Making the most out of a straw bale home’s lifespan is worthy given the rise of energy costs. Straw bale insulation is technically a densely packed cellulose fiber, so it provides great heating at minimum costs.
Does straw bale get moldy?
It is a possibility, but it’s not a guaranteed fact. However, straw bales are packed tightly, so you might notice mold growing from too much humidity. This is especially true when it rains or snows too much within a single year.
Do termites eat straw bales?
Hay provides food value to animals and insects, but straw does not. Straw is used to build houses because it does not attract rodents, termites or other insects. Actually, a conventional, stick-built house is more likely to suffer a termite infestation than a straw bale house.
Do straw bales attract mice?
Hay has grass seeds that might attract mice, but straw bales have absolutely nothing that’s edible, so they shouldn’t be able to attract mice on their own. Straw bales stacked for supporting walls and structures have no holes in which mice can tunnel and no spaces in which to build nests, but hay bales stacked in a barn have many.
We hope that the information presented in this article was useful for you. Whether you want to get straw bales for planting or for putting up a new cozy home in the countryside, we have struggled to give you the best information that we could. Best of luck in whatever you want to do with straw bales.
Nan Harrison says
I had my first straw bale garden last year..actually my first garden period. I loved it!! I had 6 and had them in a circle…at first it was great when the plants were small, but as they grew bigger it became pretty difficult to get all the way around the plants inside the circle. This year I’m going BIGGER…maybe 20 bales or so…but arranged in an open-end rectangle, that will make it much easier to walk and water from both sides. I don’t do the soaker hose like most do because I really enjoy watering my garden by hand in the evening…barefoot! I know it say’s it is better to water in the morning….and sometimes I did…but mostly I watered mine in the evening. Good luck…can’t wait to see how your hay bale works out for you!
Hi there! I decided to spread the hay out in a raised garden and then put store bought cow manure on top. I also add powder blood meal and water it daily. Would the process time be shorter? I live in texas as well!
First try with conditioned bales–planted 4 sweetpotato slips (beauregard) in 2 bales. Only additional fertilized 1 time. 95 days later, opened bales and harvested 30+ pounds of already clean sweet potatoes. I have heard that you can do the same for red or Irish potatoes. In addition, I grew 2 tomato plants in same bales at same time. Since then I have grown cucumbers and bell peppers and okra—this system works great without any tilling and no grass or weed interference–2 THUMBS UP ||
Wonderful Cliff! I have not tried potatoes but after your success, that is next on my list.
Cliff, thanks for the great insight. I’m trying that this year in a couple of my straw bales.
I am new to bale gardening. Can a person use miracle grow to condition the bale and use it again during the growing season as fertilizer? If so is it best to use one specific miracle grow fertilizer over another, I know there are a few different kinds to choose from.
My other question is are there specific plant species you’ve noticed that do exceptionally well in a bale garden in comparison to others, and are there ones that you’ve noticed that do very poorly? For instance I know corn is something you should not ever plant in a bale garden, are there others?
HI Ashley, Thanks for stopping by! You are right, corn isn’t going to be a success in a straw bale, either are root crops like carrots, beets and potatoes. The bale will not offer enough structure for the plants once it starts to break down. As far as fertilizer I’ve found that liquid works better than granular (I think it penetrates the bale better) and you can use the same fertilizer to condition a bale as you use during the growing cycle. I hope that helps, happy growing! ~Shelle
Bernadine Newland says
We had very good success with carrots and onions in our straw bales last year. We will be trying potatoes this year.
Actually, beets do beautifully.
Can I reuse the bales a 2nd year? If so, do I recondition them just like I did the 1st year?
This is untrue root crops all grow very well in bales.
Everett. Dulek says
Can’t wait to try this in northern Wis.
It works surprisingly well Everett! I’m just finishing my broccoli harvest this week and then I will use the straw as mulch on my new garden.
When is a good time to start this process in Texas?
Hi Melissa, I’m in Texas too. The best part about straw bale gardening is you you can start pretty much any time. My first year I starting conditioning my bale sat the beginning of January. Then I did it again in September and I’m still growing in those bales, right now, in February.
Ian Wright says
Last year was my first year of straw bale gardening. i took two weeks to prepare my bales. however i did not first lay down a barrier or any kind. that was my only mistake. this year i will be using landscaping cloth. that said my garden was a great success. i managed to plant and harvest seven crops of radishes and three of spinach and two of salad greens
last year as a garden of eight bales which i intended to turn into mulch at the end of the fall. this year the plan is for thirty to forty bales. the idea being to improve my traditional garden
i will also be trying out the idea of vertical potato towers using straw.
Wonderful Ian, I had a good bale year too and I’m just getting ready to put the straw on my new garden.
I am having a really difficult time finding organic straw bales in my area (NH). I’m not sure what my options are, but someone suggested covering the top of non-organic bales with organic potting soil. Would this make any difference at all? I’m still hoping that someone gets back to me with organic bales to sell, but most farms I have contacted say it’s hard to find and then wish me luck. Any input is appreciated!
Hi Melissa, adding soil to the top of the bale can certainly help, but eventually the roots of the plants will grow down into the bale. If it was me I would grow in the local straw bales and then plant and fertilize with organics. You are right, they are VERY hard to find.
Frank Vanderpool says
Can I get my bales and leave them out all winter till it’s time to start the conditioning
Alan Todd says
I live in a desert area. Is there anything special I need to do other than water more?
Hi Alan, just make sure the bale stays wet during the conditioning stage. You’ll be surprised how much water they hold!
Sam McColl says
anyone doing this in the uk? I’m on the west coast of scotland and am about to get my first haybales. I have collected a few buckets of urine – the hay is a week late! how much urine on each bale every day?
Hi Sam, you rally can’t give it too much nitrogen during the conditioning phase. Just pour in a few cups and then water.
The only fertilizer I could find was lawn fertilizer 10-10-10. I hope this works!
Hi Marybeth, yes, it will work.
I used two different lawn fertilizers: 29-0-0 and 30-0-4 Will these both work? The first fertilizer was much fine granules than the second. The second did NOT fully disappear into the bales like the first one did. Does this mean that there is a problem? I watered my bales a lot (hours with a soaker hose).
How do I know if my bales are ready? We had a lot of rain during the last week two so I don’t know if it got hot inside or not. At day 12, using my finger in the bale, it seemed to be just slightly warm if anything. I am now on day 17 and itching to plant.
patrick baysinger says
I put 8 straw bales in my son’s garage. The straw has been in a farmer’s barn since cut.
My son’s family is going away for the weekend.
Should I worry about a fire hazard?
Should I just spread the bales on the floor of the garage?
Hi Patrick, I know that bales can catch fire but I don;t know the specifics about what causes that to happen. if you are worried about fire hazard, move the bales outside or spread them out like you suggested.
It’s been our experience with bales of straw & hay stored in hay lofts prevent fire to sprinkle rock salt between layers If bales are dry, they should be fine, it’s the fresh cut, green bales that can become combustible.
If the bales are not newly cut and baled I wouldn’t worry about fire. Don’t stack them and please leave adequate ventilation between them. Combustion happens if the bales are to wet. There are a meriad of chemical actions that take place in a hay bale and any rancher worth his salt will know what moisture levels are best for various types of grass used in hay manufacturing. Different types of grass produce varrying amounts of protines for the animal. Alfalfa for instance is typically baled with a very high moisture content in order to retain the leaf on the stem. It’s probaby not cost effective or desirable for bale planting. The short of it is if it’s been a barn for a while and you didn’t water or fertilize it i’d not much worry about a chance of fire. No rancher wants his hay crop to go Up In Smoke although it has happened. I’ve been around animals and hay 50 of my 65 years took a slight vacation for the county and to try Married life. It’s in your blood. One can’t quit ranching forever?
I’m starting my straw bale garden this year. I was gifted liquid nitrogen. I was told by another person that the liquid nitrogen would freeze the microbes and not heat up the bale. They suggested I not use the liquid nitrogen but others said it would be OK. Since this is my first attempt I would really like to do it right. Is liquid nitrogen OK?
Hi Brittany, I think I would try it as an experiment on 1 bale before I put liquid nitrogen on all of them. Be sure and let us know how it worked!
I should have said it was liquid nitrogen fertilizer
We are first time straw bale gardening… we put weed and feed fertilizer on one time by mistake 🙁 Nitrogen is 28-0-0. Is this ok or do we need new straw bales. I have blood meal and bone meal to us. The first time was an oops. What should we do?
I think you’re OK Ken. Just use the blood and bone meal in the future. It’s probably heating up nicely!
how did your garden end up using weed and feed? i just made the same mistake, caught it early though and only did two treatments, switching to regular fertilizer tomorrow.
I am trying out straw bale gardening this year and I’m so excited. I know someone that said she put potting soil in the top of the bale and did not condition it? Will this work or is conditioning crucial for success?
Hi Gail, I also put potting soil on top of my bale, but I do it after it is conditioned. The conditioning is very important. It’s what takes your straw and makes it plantable by beginning the composting process. The inside of the bale is heated to around 135 degrees, which is much too hot for plant roots. If you skip this part you run the risk of “cooking” your plants roots once you begin watering and the bale starts to break down.
Cheryl Cain says
First year straw bale gardener here. I’ve got ten bales. Used nitrogen granules for 8 days and they seemed to penetrate okay. Final fertilizer was Miracle-Gro Shake n Feed and it seems to be sitting on the top. Wish I had used liquid! Also, my bales are cut on the string side, so I’m working with folded straw on the top. I guess I’ll wait a few days to plant and water like crazy to try to get the Miracle Gro to penetrate.
Am I doomed??
I think you will have a harder time getting the water to penetrate with the folded side up. It will be hard but not impossible. Take your fertilizer granules and dissolve them in water next time, then you can add it as liquid to the bales.
First timer here….How important is the barrier under the bales? I don’t know how I missed that…..& what happens without it?
Hi Deana, the barrier is not that important. The reason it did it was to kill the grass underneath. It will work with or without the cardboard.
Hi! This is my first year straw bale gardening. I’ve been using your method for a few days now, but I can’t seem to get the bales warm at all. I’m really worried because I already got the bales late. I’m trying to do it organically. Was this one organic? I’m using blood meal, an organic fertilizer and I am going to try fish emulsion and kelp tomorrow. Thanks!
Hi Elizabeth, it does take a few days for it to heat up. The fish emulsion is a good idea, that will really get it going.
It’s been a week since I’ve started using the fertilizer. I skipped a couple days. The last day i did most of them was Saturday. I tried one with 1/2 cup fish emulsion. It is slightly warmer at 72°. They look like they are starting to decompose, but it could just be the granular fertilizer on top. It’s not super warm here about 60°. How warm should they get? Should I be worried about killing any bacteria? Or should I just wait until they get down to about 60°? When I was setting them out, they smelled a little of cat pee and I’m not sure if that would be something to worry about or not. I am getting some plastic today to put over them to get the greenhouse effect. Hopefully this helps!
Did it work Elizabeth? Let them decompose until a thermometer reads about 75°
They got up to 90° one day! Is 75° all? I took a break for a few days just because I’ve been so busy. I just finished putting more fish and I also put black plastic on the top. I’m assuming this will help a lot.
I have a question about the organic fertilizer used to condition the bales. You said you used a 5-5-3 mix, 1/3 cup per bale diluted in 12 c water. I have a 5-5-5 mix (the Dr. Earth brand), so, the same amount of nitrogen. I like the idea of 1/3 cup–it sounds so much more economical than the 2 cups I thought I had to use! It seems like those using conventional/non-organic or even blood meal fertilizers are using more volume per bale. Did 1/3 and then 1/6 cup per bale really work for you? How big are your bales? Thanks.
Hi Emily, My bales were standard size purchased from the local feed store. I used hay instead of straw because I couldn’t get straw at the time of year I was starting. The 1/3rd cup mixture did work well for me. It took 4-5 days before I started to see the bale breaking down.
Awesome, thank you! I’m on day 4 of watering so I’ll go put that 1/3 cup on now. 😀
The goal is to get about 1/4 cup of ‘pure’ nitrogen on each bale, per application. You can do this with 1/2 cup of 46%-0%-0% (Urea), 1 cup of 23%-0%-0%, or 4 cups of 5%-0%-0% (milorganite or blood meal) per bale per application.
You can get by with less, but the micro-bugs in your bale want that nitrogen, regardless of how much material you add in order to deliver it.
Betty Jane says
My first year at hay bale gardening. I started out small with just six bales. Tomatoes, green beans, yello squash, spearmint and basil.
I’m so pleased with how it’s going. I’m already looking forward to expanding next year.
Hi Betty Jane, how is that spearmint doing in a bale? So far I have only grown annuals
This is our first year attempting hay bale gardening, we have about 20 bales in an “E” shape on top of landscaping fabric. We conditioned with a 28-0 4 fertilizer, but realized about a week after our last application that we were using Weed & Feed. It’s now been 2 weeks and 2 days since our last application, and we’ve been watering the hay bales heavily every day, plus we’ve had a LOT of rain. Our hope is that the “weed” part has washed away or evaporated by this point. We haven’t planted anything yet- do you think we’ll be OK, or is the hay a total loss?
Hi Catie, I would plant in just one of the bales and see if the “weed” part destroys the plants. No need to ruin everything.
I’m starting now in the fall with a greenhouse and hay bales my temps have been as high as 145 how low should they get before planting
Hi Dwight, I waited for mine to get back down to about 120°
Jane H says
My hay bale was not green and freshly cut, and after a month of conditioning, the bale has not sprouted any wheat. I don’t know if purchasing it fresh would make a difference.
If you purchased a bale of wheat then what you purchased was straw ! Oats, wheat, barley any grain crop that is baled is straw. The part that is baled is the stalk and stems of the plant that is left over (in other words the by-product) after the grain is harvested. Hay is a completely different crop grown specifically for feed. Hay is made from various grasses grown for their nutritional value. Such as timothy, rye grass (not the grain rye) and orchard grass. Hay crops also often times include various legumes such as alfalfa or clover. At least that’s how we do it up north.
We started our straw garden plot with left over old straw bales that had fallen apart. The great part was we didn’t have much for weeding. If something popped up I just threw a few handfuls of straw on to. Done. We had terribly thick weeds and thistles. Now even potatoes grow to a good size ready for a couple hours of sun and off to the root cellar. No cleaning required. We are in a cold climate. Straw allows me to plant earlier to get a full growing season. I hadn’t thought before about conditioning the bales. I’ll try that this year. Thanks for the info.
Lone pine gal from Alberta
Kenneth Thompson says
need help i prep my 10 bales with 34-0-0 days 4-5-6 this is day 8 still NO heat why?
I have a question i live in central california and my hay bales temp is 110 degrees is that to hot to start planting or not hot enough im on day 9
My second year I didn’t condition the bales properly with fertilizer and the tomato plants were FAR smaller and less productive. Do t skip that step! Also, I put down landscape cloth first, the pull it up around the bales and tuck it into the string of each bale. This keeps it very neat looking, and holds in some liquids during watering. Be sure to stake plants with tall strong stakes, as the plants will be an extra foot or so taller by harvest time, placing lots of stress on whatever holds them up.
I have 10 straw bails that was used to insolate a house out side during the winter do I still have to condition these bails and prep them…
No, they do not need to be conditioned if they have been outside for a season. The purpose of conditioning is to get them to begin composting. Yours already have!
I’m worried to plant IN my conditioned hay bales because the temp has never gone below 120 degrees F. My tomato plants are a foot tall now, from seed, and I need to get them planted. Will 120 degrees kill them? We discontinued nitrogen a week ago and have been soaking them daily. The outside daytime temp has been 60-90 degrees F. Should I wait? There are 12 bales, 3 across and 4 long in a rectangle and they’re surrounded by a large planter box my hubby built. There are about 2 inches of space around the bales sides between the wooden box and bales. Is it bad to have this structure built around them? Please advise. Thank you ?
How did it turn out Lauri?
Doris eileen bain says
I have 5 concrete block beds 20′ x 4′ x 3′ tall. I plan to fill with wood chips to 1′ deep then straw bale 14″ x 37″ x 18″ laying side by side so 14″ tall (now 26″) . First condition the bales then add compost to top. Just getting started as morning temps in 20’s, daytime in 40’s. Any suggestions?
Kathy Maher says
Please tell me what is wrong. I’ve done hay bale gardening for the past three years with little or no problems. This year however, I stopped fertilizing after 14 days and my straw bales are still not cool enough and we are on week 4. The bales are actually breaking downing and when I stick my hand in, it is hot, hot. Should I keep waiting? Start over? Ifeeling very discouraged at this point. Please help!
Petra Lopez says
I know this is an old post, but I thought I’d ask any how…I’m on day 4, about to start fertilizing my two bales, do I pour my fertilizer water mix all over the bale or only in the areas where I plan on putting a plant? I was going to put three cherry tomato plants in each and a few herbs on the edges to it spills over….so to speak 😉
Christine Rozmarniewich says
Good morning from Canada!!!
This is my second year hay and straw bale gardening. Last year I started with 40 bales of hay and what a successful garden!!!! You can plant any kind of vegetable or flowers except corn from research I’ve read..I did plant tall sunflowers that looked amazing!!!
This year I have 64 bales of straw and hay. Potatoes last year were amazing…everything was amazing and you can’t beat the flavor!!! Some sites do not recommend hay bales, I say poppycock!!! I used non animal grade bales because they’ve already started to decompose, and it helps the farmers get rid of older stock. We got into this gardening method because we insulate our rv during winter to keep our floors warm but we were stuck k with balez i didn’t know what to do with. And then I found bale gardening. I will never ingrown garden again!!! My husband built me a 4x8x2 foot bin to try no dig potatoes. I just recently planted 24 potatoes and I’m planting Brussels sprouts in between as a companion. Good luck k to everyone and don’t be shy, try this method of gardening!!!
Have you had any fungas gnats in your straw while conditioning? I’ve been using neem oil and sticky traps to help with this and my straw is breaking down well, but I’m afraid there’s larvae deep down underneath. I try to stir a few times a week. Any suggestions?