Best Plants to Grow in Straw Bales

Best plants to choose
Photo by .matter.
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The great thing about straw bale gardening is that you can grow just about anything in a bale that you can in the ground; however, some plants grow better in bales than others. In this chapter, you’ll learn which vegetables and fruiting plants thrive best in straw bale “soil” and how many of each you can grow per bale.

Plants that don’t do well in straw

The list of straw-wary plants is pretty slim, so let’s start with the few that should be avoided.

Top-heavy plants like standard corn are too tall and heavy—a straw bale may break apart under their weight, or it may topple over. If you do want to grow corn, choose a dwarf variety instead. As the bales naturally raise the plants off the ground by a foot or two, top-heavy plants are at risk of being blown over by the wind (although good supports should help to avoid this).

Corn is too top heavyPhoto by Alternative Heat

Running plants, or plants that spread by growing “offshoots” with their own roots, can be hard to manage in a straw bale your first time around. Save these for your second season.

How to grow tomatoes in straw bales

As a relatively costly fruit to buy, warmth-loving tomatoes are a popular choice with home gardeners everywhere. Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and are easy to grow in straw bales. Growing them in straw is relatively similar to growing them in earth.

Growing tomatoes in strawTomatoes are fantastic straw bale candidates and come in nearly endless varieties. Photo by knitsteel

Tomatoes need full sun and will need support unless you are growing a bushy or tumbling variety with small fruits.

Planting them directly into the bales

Providing it’s warm enough, you should have no problem getting your tomato seeds to germinate and grow if you prefer to plant them directly into the bales. Plant the seeds at the depth specified on the pack, or around a quarter of an inch. However, tomato seeds do need a temperature range of 70° to 80°F (21° to 27°C) to germinate so you may prefer to start them off in pots in the house.

Tomatoes straw bale gardeningRow of straw bale tomato plants. Photo by Laura Hamilton

Planting from pots

If you are planting young plants from pots, ensure you make a hole deep enough to get all of the roots and an inch or two of the stem into the bale. This is because tomatoes have tiny hairs on their stems, called adventitious roots, which can develop into roots if they come into contact with a growing medium. The result for you is tomato plants with a stronger root system, which can only be good.

Best tomato varieties for straw bale gardening

Start small with the cherry tomato varieties (they weigh less) and, if all goes well, install stronger supports for some beefsteak or brandywine tomatoes for your second season.

Some straw-friendly varieties include:

  1. Sungolds (they’re easy to grow and taste extra-sweet, too!) Ripening sungold tomatoesPhoto by Selena N. B. H.
  2. Black cherries (for real tomato flavor in a small package) Heirloom black cherriesPhoto by Ed Castillo
  3. Carmellos and stupices: they’re great mid-sized varieties that won’t overwhelm your bales.
    Stupice tomatoesPhoto by nociveglia

Root vegetables and tubers

Root vegetables and tubers are two great, low-maintenance options for straw bale gardening. They strive in straw bales because their roots can spread more easily than in dirt and their stems have a much easier time making it to the surface to grow into a plant. Root vegetables of all kinds grow best in loose soil that retains moisture but drains easily—that’s the very definition of straw.

Reinforce your root veggie bales

Make sure you use reinforcements around the bales (like containers or fencing) as the root vegetables’ growth may weaken the bales over time. Wire fencing, wooden frames, and large containers work perfectly.

Straw bales in containersRaised beds provide extra support for your bales. Photo by knitsteel (cropped)

How to grow potatoes in straw bales

Potatoes, the world’s most well-known tubers, are perfectly suited to straw bale gardening. The huge advantage of growing potatoes in a straw bale has to do with depth. Because the baby potatoes form on the stem, you would normally need to build soil up around them in order to keep them underground. If you plant the potatoes too deep in soil to begin with, the stem may struggle to reach the surface and grow into a plant.

Potatoes in strawSkip the scrubbing by growing your potatoes in straw. Photo by J.H. Fearless

Keep them covered

With straw bale gardening, you can avoid this problem because the stems can grow more easily up through the straw. Plant your seed potatoes 4-6 inches deep and make sure they are well covered with straw to avoid any light reaching the tubers, as this can turn them green. Keep covering the stems as they emerge, ensuring that only 1 inch is showing at any time.

If that sounds too much like hard work, you can also plant the potatoes at a depth of 16-18 inches and leave them to it.

Straw bale potatoesPotatoes growing in straw bales without reinforcements. Photo by Terri Bateman

Early-maturing varieties such as Yukon Gold or Red Pontiac grow well in straw. Your crop will need a lot less cleaning than potatoes grown in soil – just wipe off the damp straw and you are ready.

Carrots

Growing carrotsPhoto by woodleywonderworks
Carrots, like potatoes, are easy to grow in straw. They come in many colorful varieties, from classic orange to red, yellow, and purple. Plant them mid-spring and give them 2-3 months of growing time before harvesting. Because carrots are easily bruised, it’s better to pick them with your hands and skip any metal tools. To make this easier, wet the bale shortly before harvest and the carrots will slip free much quicker.

Turnips and radishes

The hardy turnip and radish grow well in full sun and can take as little as 30 days to be ready for harvest. Turnips can be grown well into October in most areas, so they’re a perfect crop to keep fresh food on the table as fall’s chill sets in. Radishes in particular need full-sun areas because, if a nearby plant blocks even some of its sun, the plant will use all its energy to produce leaves.

Fruiting plants

Fruiting plants are excellent candidates for a straw bale garden. Just remember that, if it hangs or climbs, it needs a support. For your first year, avoid extremely tall varieties to avoid the challenge of a weakening bale. Try out the plants below for a great start to your first straw bale season.

Squash:

Yellow squash, zucchini, and other small summer squash varieties are solid (and colorful) options. Make sure you stake them if you don’t want them growing into your walkways. Squash plants need a lot of nourishment to thrive, so condition these bales thoroughly with compost or other nutrient sources before planting.

Squash plantSquash will flourish in straw bale gardens. Photo by .matter.

Strawberries:

Put their bale in a sunny spot and plant them in the spring, and you’ll have a sweet hay-bale treat waiting for you in a few weeks. Keep in mind that they need eight hours of full sun every day to flourish. For best results in a straw bale, choose a variety that doesn’t produce runners; or, if your plant does, clip back the runners so the original plant can produce more fruit.

Strawberry plantPhoto by Fabian

Other good options:

Eggplants, peppers, and other nightshades are great choices with a variety of culinary uses. Just be sure to give them stakes or allow them ample room to grow. Eggplants in particular are happiest when they have about three and a half months to fully fruit, so plan accordingly.

EggplantPhoto by Jim, the Photographer

Leafy greens

Greens, like root veggies, are easy to grow and perfectly suited to straw bale gardens. Try the classic and versatile greens below to make the most of your growing season.

Lettuce

Lettuce is the classic salad green and can be grown in both the spring and fall, but stagger your plantings—it grows quickly. For uninterrupted harvests, plant new lettuce seeds every two weeks. Keep in mind that, if you reuse the bales, the straw may become too loose after 3-4 plantings and you’ll need to replace them. Lettuce grows best with a constant supply of compost and nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, so add some to the bale 2-3 weeks after each planting.

LettucePhoto by Dwight Sipler

Spinach, kale, and chard

They’re easy to grow and require minimal maintenance. All three can grow well into the chilly months for year-round nourishment. They’re perfect for salad, sautees, and more, and really help you make the most of your straw bale space. Plant spinach and kale in the early spring and then again in the fall; they tend to lose their delicious flavor when summer heat sets in. Chard is the most versatile of the three: a spring planting will keep you busy harvesting until first frost.

Young spinach plantsLeafy greens are easy to please in a straw bale. Photo by Jason Bachman

Herbs

Growing your own flavoring and garnish makes the gardening experience all the more fulfilling, and herbs are just as simple to plant and harvest as leafy greens.

Basil

Basil can be used to season a variety of dishes—particularly of the Italian variety—but it shouldn’t be planted until after the last frost of the season. It grows best in full sunlight, and is ready to harvest once the plant starts growing buds.

Basil herbsBasil is the perfect garnish for your garden. Photo by Hirotomo Oi

Cilantro

Cilantro grows fairly quickly and can usually be harvested four weeks after sowing its seeds. Like most herbs, it will grow into a healthier plant in full sunlight.

Cilantro herbsPhoto by Wheeler Cowperthwaite

Parsley

Parsley is grown as a spring and summer crop in most regions. The more sun it has, the happier (and more flavorful) it’ll be.

Cruciferous vegetables

Like herbs, cruciferous vegetables are easy growers with a wide array of applications. They usually produce well into the fall and winter to help you extend your growing season.

Cauliflower and broccoli

Cauliflower and broccoli are great in-between-season crops because they can be harvested until at least the start of winter. Plant them as early as late-spring, give them access to full sun, and keep their bales moist, and you’ll have both delicious and versatile veggies into the winter. These plants grow best when their bales are treated with plenty of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Blossoming broccoliPhoto by Ting Chen

Cabbage

Cabbage is best harvested in late fall, and looks stunning when its leaves burst from a straw bale. Be sure to plant cabbage where it can get at least six hours of full sun each day. Like cauliflower and broccoli, it does best in bales treated with nitrogen-rich fertilizers.

Colorful cabbage plantsColorful cabbages are a great candidate. Photo by ccharmon

How many plants should you plant per bale?

The plants you choose will determine how many you can grow in each bale. The seed packet should give you a guide to spacing but, if in doubt, always allow more space than you’d expect when you look at the baby plants, and you can’t go wrong.

You can also grow a mixture of plants within each bale, perhaps a salad mix of tomato, cucumber and lettuce.

Below is a rough guide but do check the seed packet for more details.

Two plants Three plants Four plants Five plants +
Corn (dwarf)

Squash

Melon

Okra

Tomato

Potato

Eggplant

Zucchini

Chard

Spinach

Pepper

Cucumber

Cabbage

Garlic

Beet

Carrot

Cauliflower

Pea

Bean

Radish

Annual flowers

Herbs

Lettuce

Spinach

Companion planting – Attracting bees and pest-eaters

In addition to the favorite fruits and veggies that fill your bales, it’s also a good idea to plant some annual seeds into the sides of the bale. Marigolds, nasturtiums, dwarf cornflowers, and borage are all great choices. Not only will they look lovely, but they will also attract pollinators and pest-devouring insects such as lacewings.

Companion plantingPhoto by Shane Byrd

Alternatively, you could plant perennial herbs such as chives (also a favorite of bees) or even strawberries which are, of course, grown above a scattering of straw to avoid rotting on the damp earth. Remember to remove perennial plants towards the end of the bale’s life, to avoid them turning into compost too.

Ready to start planting

Now that you’ve picked your plants, it’s time to start planting. In the final chapter, you’ll learn how to plant in a straw bale garden, how to keep your plants healthy as they grow, and what to do when the fruits of your labor are ready for harvest.

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