Straw Bale Gardening ‒ The Complete Beginner's Guide

In this five chapter guide you’ll learn exactly what straw bale gardening is all about. By planning and preparing in advance, conditioning the bales, and choosing the right plants, you can build a solid basis to start growing and harvesting your own fruits and vegetables from straw bales this season.

5 chapters
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What is Straw Bale Gardening and How to Get Started

Getting started
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Straw bale gardening is a great way to extend your growing season, create a garden in areas with less-than-ideal soil, and make tasks like planting and weeding less labor-intensive. In this first chapter, you’ll learn about the benefits of a straw bale garden and what you’ll need to create your own.

If you like to get your hands dirty right away, continue to chapter 2 for the complete instructions on how to build a straw bale garden.

What is straw bale gardening?

Straw bale gardening is a gardening technique perfected by Joel Karsten where the bales acts as natural containers for your plants. They’re like growbags at a fraction of the cost and without the plastic waste. This makes it a great choice for anyone with hard soil or no soil at all, as all the magic takes place above the surface of the ground.

Straw bale gardenStraw bale garden in July. Photo by knitsteel

Not only that, but straw bale gardening can lengthen the growing season too. This is because, to stimulate their roots and get them growing well, plants need warmth at their feet in spring. Straw bales heat up much more quickly than soil due to the decomposing process, so this method of growing is especially useful in cooler climates, where the soil can stay cold for weeks into spring.

Why does straw get so hot?

The answer is in the same process that reduces garden waste to compost: once moistened, the straw inside the bales starts to decompose, initially producing high levels of heat. After a couple of weeks, this heat reduces to comfortably warmth, perfect for your plants. The hollow stems of the straw act as – you guessed it – straws, sucking the water you pour on the top down into the plant roots inside the bale.

Tomatoes and cucumbersWarm, moist straw bales create the ideal environment for plant growth. Photo by dog.breath

Some benefits of straw bale gardening

  1. No soil needed
    Straw bale gardening is especially useful for gardeners that have poor or no soil at all. As the bales act as completely natural containers for your plants you can grow about anywhere you want.
  2. Longer growing period
    The decomposing straw creates warmth giving you a head start in spring and a longer growing period into fall, providing you up to a month of extra growing time.
  3. Natural raised beds
    If you find stooping difficult, or you’re just a fan of raised beds, straw bales provide an excellent ready-made container for your fruit and vegetables. Unlike raised beds, with straw bale gardening the bale itself forms the frame so no messing around with wood and nails.
  4. Suited for small spaces
    Even if you only have access to a balcony or flat roof area, you can still find a corner for a bale or two. Bales can even be hung off a balcony rail. Positioning the balesIn most gardens you can fit a bale or two. Photo by Ruth Temple
  5. Less weeding & no soil-borne diseases
    Because they’re new to your garden, straw bales are far less likely to be packed with weed seeds than ordinary garden soil. Soil-borne diseases are far less of a risk too. Providing you avoid hay (see below for more details), you’ll find few weeds grow in your bales. Any that sneak in can be readily pulled out because the straw is much looser than heavy garden soil.
    Straw bale tomatoesTomatoes growing in straw. Photo by Robyn Anderson

Downsides and considerations

  1. Straw dries out more quickly
    Compared to regular garden soil straw tends to dry out more quickly, especially in warm dry climates, so be prepared for frequent watering, or install a drip feed system as explained in step 7 of chapter 2.
  2. You need to add nitrogen & other nutrients
    Plants need nitrogen and other nutrients to thrive, so you need to condition and fertilize your bales to add these in the process. See chapter 3 on how to condition straw bales.

Which type of straw to use

When choosing your straw, try to go for wheat, oats, rye or barley. These bales will be made up of the bare stalks left after harvesting; the grain-rich tops have been chopped off and the seeds removed via the threshing process.

Less well-known crops such as alfalfa or vetch might be easiest for you to source, depending on where you live, but avoid corn or linseed bales if possible as the stalks will be coarse and therefore slow to degrade. Linseed, or flax, is the slowest as it also contains oil which slows down the decomposition process.

Wheat, oat, and barley straw Wheat, oat, and barley straw create better growing conditions than hay bales. Photo by Scott Sherrill-Mix

Hay just won’t cut it

Hay bales are best avoided, because they contain the entire stalk and seed heads (they’re food for horses, after all), plus they may have other plants – grasses and field weeds – mixed in which will then proceed to sprout all over your bales. If you don’t mind giving an occasional haircut, hay has one advantage over straw: it’s packed with nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth.

Lack of nitrogen

Straw doesn’t contain much nitrogen so you need to add it via fertilizers, as explained in chapter 3. However, it’s longer lasting than hay and, if you live in a cooler region, you could find yourself getting two seasons’ worth of use out of your bales.

PlantersPhoto by coconinoco

Where to buy your straw bales?

Many garden centers, plants nurseries and home improvement stores will sell straw bales. You can often find them at animal feed stores, or ask at your local stables. Even if they don’t have any to sell, they should be able to give you the name of a supplier.

Source your bales directly from an organic farm

If it’s an option, farms are great places to source your bales as you’ll be getting them at cost. Ideally, see if you can find an organic farm: this way, you avoid the risk of putting your plants in a growing medium packed with the toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers used by so many non-organic farms. With the growing popularity of straw bale houses, you might even be able to ask a local builder where they sourced their bales.

Where to buy straw balesFarms are often the cheapest source of straw bales. Photo by Neil Howard

How much do straw bales cost?

Cost will depend on where you live, but could be as low as $1.5 going up to $12, so it’s worth shopping around.

Other things you need:

  1. Fertilizer: there are many types available but, if in doubt, go for a general flower and vegetable mix, preferably organic. We’ll dive deeper into this subject at the end of chapter 3.
  2. Compost for initial planting – seed is preferable but standard compost is fine. You shouldn’t need more than a bucketful per bale.
  3. A trowel for planting – or a stick will do.

When you have the right bales and tools for your garden, it’s time to build and design your plants’ new home with the right layout, location, and irrigation system in chapter 2.

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