How to Build a Straw Bale Garden: Layout, Preparations & Irrigation
Once you’ve compiled your supplies, it’s time to start preparing your straw bale garden. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to pick the right spot for your plants, create a functional layout and how to prepare the site for growth and watering.
Step 1: Find the right spot
Anywhere you can grow a vegetable garden you can place your bales. Photo by Sally
The first thing you need to do is position the bales in a way that encourages your plants to grow. Treat this decision the same way that you would the question, “Where do I put my vegetable garden?” Instead of soil, you’re using straw bales; most other factors remain equal.
The spot you want depends entirely on the type of plants you’re growing.
- Full sun plants will need to be in direct sunlight for at least six hours per day. These plants include tomatoes, corn, peas, beans, cucumbers, and anything else you grow for its fruit (instead of its leaves or roots). If these plants are on your straw bale list, place their bale in an area that receives no shade for six to eight hours per day.
Straw bales placed in full sun. Photo by knitsteel
- Covered porches or tree-dappled spaces won’t be a good fit for these fruiting plants. An open front yard or uncovered porch will be perfect.
- Partial sun plants can tolerate some shade throughout the day without damaging their growth. Generally, vegetables grown for their leaves or roots (not fruit) are the best choices for partial sun locations. These plants include basil, arugula, carrots, and cabbage. The less sunlight leafy greens receive, the less bitter they’ll tend to be.
- Place these plants in partial (less than six hours of full sun per day) to dappled shade (like in areas with trees that let moderate light through, but never direct sunlight).
Beneath the bales
In addition to considering the amount of sun your plants need, you’ll also want to choose an appropriate surface for your garden. Typically, you’ll have four choices: soil, clay, grass, or concrete.
- Concrete is ideal because it minimizes the risk of weeds and pests.
- Soil and grass are perfectly suitable bases for your straw bale garden. To minimize weed growth, use a barrier like straw, fabric, or membrane to separate bales from earth. Bales directly placed on grass. Photo by Ruth Temple
- Clay-heavy soil: Make sure to put down a fabric, straw, or membrane barrier if you choose a clay-heavy location; otherwise, the wet bales will turn the ground beneath them to mush.
Step 2: Picking a layout and design
Straw bales positioned in small squares with paths for easy maintenance. Photo by Scott Sherrill-Mix
Once you’ve found a spot, it’s time to think about layout. The design of your straw bale garden can be as creative or simple as you wish. The most important thing is making sure you can move around the bales easily: leave enough room on either side of the bales to water, trim, weed, and harvest your produce.
If you’re growing in an open space (like a garden or a back yard), leave enough room to walk around the bales and tend to your plants’ needs. If your bales are placed directly on the grass, leave enough room for your lawnmower to pass through.
The best design for your straw bale garden will depend on what you’re growing and where you’re growing it at.
- When you have plenty of open space, experiment with more complex designs. Build them into a simple castle, make a step design, or position them into a square block with flowers on the inside and edible veggies on the outside.
- For more traditional gardeners, the classic row design works great for straw bales, too. Bonus: you can organize your plants into sections and leave plenty of room for walking between rows for maintenance.
- If you’re straw-bale-gardening on your porch or deck, cover the sides with screening or wooden slats for a more artistic appeal. For an added element of design, place the bale in a metal feeding trough.
- For city-dwellers, tying a bale with string and hanging it on the inside of your balcony rail is a great space-saver.
Balcony and decking gardens
For those gardening on a balcony or deck, building a frame for your bale is a must-do. Use pressure-treated garden lumber and, for ultimate versatility, add caster wheels to the bottom of the container.
Building a deck-based garden comes with some unique considerations: namely, drainage. The base of your container should be made of slats (metal or wood) with plenty of space between each so water can drain easily.
The container should be raised at least an inch above the surface of the deck or garden; otherwise, air won’t circulate properly between the garden and the surface and the decking may start rotting.
Step 3: Preparing the ground
Cardboard is a cheap and easy way to prevent weeds from growing into your bales. Photo by Joe
Unlike traditional soil gardening, straw bale gardening allows you to leave the ground in as-is condition. However, if you place your bales directly on the grass, be sure to separate grass from straw with one of the following to deter weeds.
- Old newspapers
- Membrane (made from plastic, burlap, or netting, for example)
If your property is rife with pests like moles and groundhogs, lay galvanized bird wire beneath the bales so diggers don’t destroy your hard work.
Step 4: Placing the bales
Place the straw bales narrow side up. Photo by Ruth Temple
As mentioned earlier, the bales can be placed in any design that allows you adequate access to your plants. Once you’ve picked your pattern, place the straw bales narrow side up so that the strings that keep the bale in place are positioned on the sides. Otherwise, you risk damaging the string when you’re planting, and digging through string can make it hard to plant properly.
When you look at the narrow sides of your bale, you’ll notice that one side of the straw looks like it’s “folded” and one side appears to be cut. Place the cut side up—this exposes the hollow straw tubes, which are crucial for getting hydration to your plants.
Step 5: Making a path
A simple garden path can easily be made from mulch. Photo by Maia C
After your bales are in place, adding a garden path is a great way to provide both functional and decorative features.
- Straw itself can be used to line your garden path. It’s soft on the feet and blends in well with your bales. Bonus: it also helps deter weeds from your garden.
- Mulch or wood chips work great at keeping weeds at bay, and are a great low-maintenance way to add interest to your garden. They’re also soft to walk on, which is particularly beneficial for bale gardens placed on concrete. Use fabric or membrane for an extra level of protection and to make sculpting the path easier. To learn more about producing your own mulch and wood chips, see our review of the best chipper shredders.
- Gravel or stone is an excellent choice for those after a more organized, upscale feel. Unlike mulch and straw, it also lasts forever with occasional weeding (as opposed to mulch’s 3-5-year lifespan) and doesn’t get soggy.
Step 6: Building supports
Straw bale garden using different support methods. Photo by Scott Sherrill-Mix
Once you smooth out an easy-to-use path, it’s time to think about vine supports. Whether or not you need supports will depend upon the type of plant you’re growing.
- Vine tomatoes will always need supports, and you’ll want to use them for other nightshades like peppers and eggplants if space is an issue.
- Cages, trellises, and standard stakes work perfectly. Note that you’ll need to tie these vines directly to the stakes; they won’t climb naturally. Caged tomato plant. Photo by Drew Stefani
- Vine plants like melons, cucumbers, and squash (like zucchini) produce more aesthetically pleasing fruit when they grow on supports, but they won’t need them to survive.
- Use cages or trellises to support vine plants. They will climb the supports as they grow. Photo by woodleywonderworks
- Peas and beans usually need something to climb.
- For most varieties, walls (wire or wood based) work fantastically, but designs like stakes, teepees, and trellises will keep them standing tall, too. These plants climb or wind up supports on their own mostly. Photo by Chiot’s Run
In short: if it creeps or grows in a vine and you don’t want to risk rot or oddly-shaped fruits, give it something to climb.
How to create supports
Many materials can be used to create DIY supports for your straw bale garden. Branches made from everything from willow to bamboo create an earthy and sturdy support system. Metal or plastic fencing stakes, on the other hand, are the most permanent staking solution.
Use the material of your choice to create simple stakes by placing one at each end of the straw bale and at several-inch intervals in between. Run either twine, wire, or additional branches between each stake, securing them firmly to each one. As the vines grow in, use twine to tie them securely to the stakes.
Top-heavy plants need extra supports
Tall or top-heavy plants such as vine tomatoes or raspberry canes will need a little extra care. Their roots will be less well-anchored in the straw bale than in the soil, so particularly strong staking techniques like trellises, cages, and walls will be necessary to support their weight.
Step 7: Installing a watering system
Photo by knitsteel
Watering can be a chore to begin with, but straw bale gardens in particular require fastidious watering in their infancy. Straw has a looser structure than soil, so water runs through it faster. Straw is always decomposing, which—like compost—creates heat, so more water is lost more quickly that way, too. And, finally, good air circulation (straw isn’t airtight) allows water to evaporate more quickly.
Brand-new bales will need to be watered more than once a day in hot, dry climates. If the hands-on approach isn’t your style, install a simple drip irrigation system to control water usage and go light on labor.
You can buy a ready-made drip irrigation system online or from a garden center, or you can make a soaker hose by following the steps below.
Making your own drip feed system
Photo by Drew Folta
Soaker hoses can be added to the bale garden once it’s ready to plant – so after you’ve finished the initial feeding and watering process. You can buy a 50 foot one online for under $50 or, if you would prefer to make your own, here’s how:
Photo by knitsteel
- Step 1: Using a very sharp pin or strong needle, prick holes in a length of garden hose. It’s generally easiest to lay the hose flat on the ground before starting. Go for one hole per inch of hose.
- Step 2: Avoid pricking the holes in a straight line, because the water won’t run out sufficiently if the hose gets twisted; instead, rotate the hose as you make the holes.
- Step 3: Fix one end of the hose to your faucet and lay the remaining hose across the bales.
- Step 4: Block off the far end of the hose using a sprayer head. This can remain switched off as you need the water to seep through the holes in the hose, but can be used for overflow if the water pressure is high.
- Step 5: Water every day while you’re conditioning the bales, then reduce watering to every 2-3 days for 5 minutes at a time (or until water begins to seep out of the base of the bale).
- Step 6: Differences in climate may require you to water more or less than specified here, so use the dampness of the bale as an indicator. If it dries out by the end of the day, water it again; if it’s still soaked, leave it un-watered for another day.
DIY drip-feed system for smaller gardens
Straw bale gardening does use a lot of water – more than normal soil gardening – so, if you’re looking for an environmentally friendly DIY project or planning a small balcony garden, consider capturing natural rain water in barrels to use before employing your faucet’s help. Then, take it a step further and turn your garden into a recycling system by skipping the drip-feed hose and using your unwanted plastic jugs instead:
Photo by an.difal
- Step 1: Remove the lining from the plastic cap and poke several tiny holes in it using a needle.
- Step 2: Pierce the cap itself using a hot needle or very small drill bit.
- Step 3: Fill the bottle with water, replace the cap and push the bottle cap-first down into the bale.
This will enable you to save on water as well as watering time.
It’s time to condition the bales
Once you’ve designed your straw bale garden to accommodate your plants’ needs (and suit your gardening style), it’s time to condition and fertilize your bales so you can finally plant your seeds.