How to Plant, Grow & Harvest in a Straw Bale Garden
After prepping your bales, it’s time to plant your plants and tend to them as they grow. In this last chapter, you’ll learn how to decide whether potting or direct planting is a better fit for your garden, how to keep your plants healthy as they grow, and how to harvest different types of vegetables in a straw bale garden.
How to plant in straw bales
You can plant seeds directly into the bales using seed starting or potting mix, or grow your seeds in pots before planting out the young plants. One great advantage of straw bale gardening is that ordinary garden soil will have long been home to slugs, snails and other bugs, who will jump – or crawl – at the chance of nibbling your baby plants.
A squash seedling growing in a straw bale. Photo by Scott Sherrill-Mix
As with all growing your own, ensure you don’t plant out any delicate young plants until the risk of frost has passed.
Pot or plant direct?
On the whole, it’s best to plant your seeds directly into the straw bales. This allows the plants to spread their roots out between the stalks and gain a good anchorage to support themselves. If you prefer to plant your seeds in pots, perhaps in a greenhouse or indoors on the window sill, simply make sure they’ve got a good firm root ball before planting into the straw bale as directed below.
Photo by Kurt Morrow
Planting seeds directly into the bales
- Either: sprinkle seed starting mix over the bales to a thickness of one or two inches (if you’re watching costs, it’s fine to use ordinary potting mix, providing it doesn’t have any big lumps which could impede germination). Or: using a trowel, dig a hole three inches down into the straw and fill it with compost. This method will save on compost if you’re only planting two or three plants in the bale. Some seeds can be sprinkled directly onto the bale. Photo by Melinda Myers
- Don’t be tempted to top up with soil from your garden, as it may contain bacteria, weed seeds and even slug or snail eggs.
- Sow your seeds as per the instructions on the packet – generally speaking, larger seeds such as cucumber can be pushed into the soil, whilst smaller seeds, such as lettuce, should be sprinkled on the top and watered in (you can sieve growing mix over the top although this is not essential).
- Water the seeds with a fine sprinkler head. Or if, like me, you can be a little heavy-handed with the watering, then water the compost before you sow the seeds! As long as they’re kept moist, they will germinate.
Planting out young plants from pots
To plant out from a pot, push a trowel into the bale, twisting it until you have a hole wide enough to fit your plant’s entire root ball. Include all the compost from the pot too. If your plant is small, add extra compost. Essentially, you need to include enough for the roots to become well-established before they spread out into the straw.
Photo by Ruth Temple
How to maintain your plants for a healthy harvest
Once your plants are settled in to the straw bale garden, you’ll have to perform a few regular tasks to help them grow. Just like in a soil-based garden, they’ll need supports, regular watering, and weeding as they grow.
1. Watering and fertilizing
Straw bale gardens require a lot of hydration because straw dries out far more quickly than traditional soil. Depending on your climate, you may need to water as often as once per day, although a simple irrigation system and a timer can cut out this process entirely. A good rule of thumb is to keep watering until water leaks out of the bottom of the bale and to water again when the straw no longer feels wet.
Photo by knitsteel
Generally, you can continue to fertilize your plants with seaweed mixes, compost teas, and other organic fertilizers once every one to two weeks until harvest. Be sure to check the instructions for your specific plant before putting together a fertilizing plan, as some plants may need more or less frequent fertilization than others.
Photo by Doug Beckers
Weeding in a straw bale garden is easier than in a soil garden for two reasons: one, far fewer weeds creep into straw than into soil, and two, the bales are elevated to make weeding less uncomfortable. You can avoid weeds in the first place by separating the bales from the ground with cardboard, newspaper, fabric, or membrane, or by placing the bales on a weed-free surface like concrete. You can also keep the weeds on distance from your bales using a string trimmer.
When they do sneak in, though, weed as you would in soil, pulling the plants from as close to the base as you can to make sure their roots come up with the stalk. Be careful not to weaken the bale as you pull. Luckily, it’s much easier to pull weeds from straw than from soil.
3. Pruning and maintenance
Just like in a regular garden, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for any dead or unhealthy-looking leaves and fruits. If you notice a rotting, discolored, or pest-infested fruit on one of your plants, remove it immediately (but carefully). Otherwise, it will drain necessary nutrients that the healthy fruits need to continue growing.
Photo by Frances
The same goes for leaves—carefully removing any heavily yellowed or shriveled and dried leaves will free up more energy for the healthier ones. This is particularly important for flowers.
4. Utilizing supports
Before you started the growing process, you installed supports for your fruiting plants. As they grow, you’ll need to secure many of their vines and stalks to the supports to keep them growing in the right direction. Use twist-ties, twine, or loosely-looped wire to hold them in place.
Photo by Steven Reynolds
Plants like squash, beans, melons, cucumbers, and peas either climb or twine around supports on their own and will usually not need ties to hold them in place long-term. However, ties can be used as-needed to help train the plants to grow in the desired direction.
How to harvest from straw bales
Photo by Laura Hamilton
After weeks to months of care, you’re finally ready to harvest the fruits of your labor and enjoy the flavors of your hard work.
Harvesting is one of the easiest parts of the gardening process; luckily, it’s virtually the same for soil gardening as it is for straw bale gardening. Fruiting plants and leafy greens will grow at about their normal rate, and the normal signs of ripeness (rich colors and the proper size and firmness) will clue you in that it’s time to pick.
Harvesting root vegetables
Photo by Jess
Root vegetables are the only plants that will require a slightly different approach come harvest time. Carrots may be easily dug or pried from the straw, as will turnips and radishes.
Harvesting your potatoes
Potatoes, however, grow a little deeper; to get to the lower levels of potatoes in the bale, you’ll need to cut the bale’s twine. Then, separate the straw into its natural sections or “layers” on either side of the potato plant before pulling it from the straw. Make sure to root through the straw when you’re done, as some of the potatoes may have been dislodged during the process.
How to reuse and recycle your bales as compost
In cooler climates, straw bales may last for two years, although they will be starting to look rather tired. If your bales are still in decent shape (not falling apart), you can safely reuse the ones that grew leafy vegetables and fruiting plants to grow winter veggies in a greenhouse or store them in your shed for the next season.
Use caution with root veggie bales: turnip, carrot, and radish harvests may leave the bales in serviceable condition if you’re careful with them, but the digging necessary to harvest potatoes will leave the straw in those bales too loose for reuse.
Straw can be reused as mulch. Photo by peppergrasss
Gardeners in warmer climates can recycle their bales onto the compost heap at the end of the growing season – which could be Christmas in some places.
Remember the bales are heavy when full of water, so you may wish to allow them to dry out under a tarp before moving them. If you don’t have a compost area, covering them with tarp or old carpet will allow a good amount of breaking down of the straw in situ. You can then fork the straw onto beds to soak their nutrients into the soil.
Try it yourself
Photo by knitsteel
If you love growing your own but don’t have the space or the right soil for a productive vegetable plot, straw bale gardening is definitely worth a try. Beyond the initial two weeks of preparation, you should find yourself with minimal weeding and pests to deal with. Instead you can enjoy growing and harvesting nearly any plant you choose in a container that is entirely natural. If you like to learn (much) more about straw bale gardening, it’s worth to check out Joel Karsten’s books for more in-depth tips and straw bale techniques.