How to Fix Straw Bale Gardening Problems

Fixing Problems

A straw bale garden is a fantastic alternative to traditional gardening, especially if you lack space or have a garden with low quality soil. However, it’s not foolproof, otherwise everyone would be using it. And, like any gardening method, it comes with its own share of problems.

In this final chapter of our series, we’ll discuss the possible issues with straw bale gardening, and most importantly, how to fix them.

Herbicides

The first problem you’ll come across when starting your straw bale garden is making sure you buy your bales from the right source. Bales are typically made out of wheat straw, and as with most agricultural endeavors, there’s a good chance that the wheat crop has been treated with herbicides and other toxic substances.

Herbicides have no place in organic gardening, and they can also be very harmful to your plants. They can cause stunted growth, curled or misshaped heaves, browning, and in severe cases, they can even kill your plants. Some vegetables, such as bush cucumbers and tomato plants, are particularly sensitive to them. Herbicides will also leak into the soil as you water the bales, and persistent herbicides, such as glyphosate and triclopyr, can remain in your garden soil for almost a year.

How to Fix It
The only way to avoid herbicides in your vegetable garden is to buy straw bales from an organic farm. By using organic straw bales you’ll also make sure that they’re are not contaminated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Straw Bale Stack in Field

Straw Is Taking Too Long to Decompose

After buying your bales, it’s time to condition them. On average, the straw bale conditioning process takes 10 to 14 days. However, if after two weeks, your straw still looks like it hasn’t started composting, that could be a problem. Or worse, if after about a week you don’t notice a dramatic increase in temperature, with the bale getting up to 150°F (65.5°C), it could indicate that the composting process hasn’t actually started.

How to Fix It
If your straw bale is taking too long to decompose, this is usually a sign that you’re not using enough nitrogen fertilizer or that your bale is too dry. Make sure you give the bales a thorough watering and use a fertilizer that’s rich in nitrogen. If all this fails, you can try jump-starting the composting process by adding some beneficial bacteria for gardening soil.

Straw bales with soil

Straw Gets Too Hot

As the straw decomposes, you’ll notice that the bale gets very hot. This is normal, and it’s also similar to breaking down organic matter in a compost heap. Although temperatures can get as high as 150°F (65.5°C), it’s highly unlikely that your straw bale gets so hot it will actually catch fire.

How to Fix It
Patience, patience, patience. After the first week of composting, your straw bale will gradually get cooler. Once it reaches a temperature of around 100°F (38°C) or less, you can start planting vegetables in it. If the straw bale is still too hot after two weeks, you can try watering it down to lower the temperature, or just wait a few more days until it has cooled sufficiently.

Straw Dries Too Fast

Straw bale gardening uses a lot of water. In fact, when you compare it to traditional gardening, you may find that you need to water your bales almost every day. This can be very labor-intensive, especially when you start planting seedlings, and later in the season when your garden vegetables start maturing and bearing fruit.

How to Fix It
The best way to prevent your straw bales from drying too fast is by installing a drip-feed irrigation system or using a soaker hose. We have a few tips on how to make your own in chapter 2. Also, be patient. Straw bales dry out quicker in the first couple of months, but as the straw turns to compost, you’ll find that they retain water surprisingly well.

Lack of Nutrients

If there’s one major problem with straw bale gardening, it’s that it could potentially provide fewer nutrients for your plants. Straw has very few nutrients, which is why it’s important to condition and fertilize your bales before you start planting. Yet, no garden is perfect, and if this is your first time using the straw bale method to grow vegetables, you may find that some of them are struggling.

Here are the most common types of nutrient deficiencies for plants growing in a straw bale garden, and how to identify them.

Nitrogen Deficiency
One of the most common problems in a bale garden is the lack of nitrogen. The symptoms of nitrogen deficiency in plants are easy to spot, a common sign being pale or yellowing leaves, which indicates chlorosis. Other symptoms include stunted growth, older leaves that start wilting too soon, premature flowering (or bolting), plants that produce lots of roots but very few new leaves, and signs of necrosis in the leaves and stems.

Potassium Deficiency
Potassium is another nutrient that’s crucial for plant growth. The most common sign of potassium deficiency can be seen in plants with brown or scorched-looking leaf edges, yellowing between leaf veins, curling leaves, purple spots on older leaves, as well as stunted growth. It is most noticeable in crops such as potatoes, tomatoes, and Brassicas such as beets, cabbage, or cauliflower.

Phosphorus Deficiency
If your plants lack phosphorus, you’ll notice the signs in spring, especially in younger plants. Symptoms include stunted growth, small leaves and very few new stems and shoots, leaves turning pale or an abnormally dark color, and purple or reddish spots on older leaves.

Calcium Deficiency
Calcium deficiency in plants can be tricky to spot. On one hand, you’ll notice that older leaves will look normal. But if the newer leaves and stems are small and deformed, it’s a sign that your plants are struggling. Other symptoms include dark leaf veins, pale green or yellowing leaf edges, as well as blossom rot, especially in tomatoes.

How to Fix It
The best way to avoid a nutrient deficiency is to make sure that you condition your straw bales correctly. Use a high nitrogen fertilizer at the start of the conditioning process, such as manure tea, then gradually add more fertilizer that contains potassium and phosphorus. Adding a touch of lime or even eggshells will give your plants a calcium boost. Also, remember to regularly fertilize your bales throughout the growing season.

Check out Chapter 3 in our series for more details on how to condition and fertilize straw bales.

Fertilizer Burn and Fertilizer Salt Buildups

Using fertilizers is an essential part of the bale conditioning process. However, too much fertilizer can be just as bad as too little. It can result in brown or curled leaves, make plants drop leaves and flower buds, weaken plants and make them more susceptible to pests and diseases, and can actually stunt plant growth. Also, if you’re using synthetic fertilizers, this can cause salinity problems in the straw bale, as fertilizer salts can burn plant roots and even lead to root rot.

How to Fix It
Always use an organic fertilizer for your straw bales, such as blood meal or compost tea. Synthetic fertilizers contain salts that seep into the bale until they accumulate in harmful concentrations. If you do want to use them, try adding them in smaller doses, and regularly flush out the salts from the bale by giving it a long, thorough soak. Also, if you’re using granular fertilizers, always dissolve them in water before adding them to the straw bale, to prevent burning the roots of young plants.

Straw Bale Losing Its Shape

To an extent, it’s normal for the straw bale to lose its shape. This is the result of the straw composting process, and it will become more noticeable towards the end of your growing season. It’s also normal for straw bales to lose their shape when growing root vegetables such as potatoes, or plants that produce heavy fruit, such as pumpkins.

The problem is that once the straw bale starts breaking apart, it provides less stability for your vegetables. Tall plants, in particular, are at risk of falling over, especially if they don’t have enough support.

How to Fix It
You can prevent your straw bale from breaking apart by surrounding it with wire mesh at the sides. Alternatively, you can build wooden frames around it, like the ones used for raised beds. For tall plants, you can also try adding extra stability by sticking tall metal supports around the exterior of the bale, or even adding poles and canes in a teepee shape.

Weeds

Finding weeds growing in straw bales is rare but not uncommon. Sometimes, wheat and other grains left in the straw after the threshing process will germinate when you start conditioning your bales. And, of course, you may find a few odd weeds pop up in the bale throughout the season.

How to Fix It
To keep weeds in check, manually remove them as soon as you notice they start growing in straw bales. Make sure that you pull out their roots as well. You can also put your bale on top of a plastic tarp or landscape fabric, or better yet, on top of gravel or concrete.

A few gardeners mention having serious problems with weeds in straw bales, to the extent where the entire bale is covered in weeds. If this happens, there’s a good chance that hay bales are being used rather than straw. Hay is made out of dried grasses and other plants, and it naturally contains more seeds that could grow into weeds. So if you want to avoid weeds, make sure you give hay bale gardening a miss and use straw instead.

Mice and Other Rodents

Your straw bale garden is likely to attract small animals such as rats, mice, voles, gophers, and other rodents. Best case scenario, they will steal some straw to use for bedding. Worst case scenario, they can build an actual nest inside the bale. Either way, they can damage the structure of the straw bale, and harm the roots of your plants.

How to Fix It
The best way to keep rodents out of your straw bales is to keep the bales moist. Nobody likes sleeping in a soggy bed, mice and rats included. You can also prevent them from digging their way inside the straw by surrounding it in wire mesh at the sides and putting the bale on top of a thick plastic tarp.

Mushrooms and Mold

From mushrooms to mold, a straw bale can become hosts to several types of fungi. Mushrooms are common at the start of the bale conditioning process. Meanwhile, mold can appear in straw a few weeks later.

How to Fix It
Although they don’t look pretty, mushrooms growing in straw bales aren’t actually a problem. In fact, they’re a sign that you’re using healthy, organic straw. They will disappear on their own once the composting process increases the nitrogen levels in the straw.

Getting rid of mold, on the other hand, is a bit more tricky. All methods that effectively work against it, such as using baking soda, dish soap, bleach, or vinegar, can also damage your plants. One way to deal with mold is to remove the infected areas and add more straw from fresh bales. Alternatively, you can try sprinkling some cinnamon on your bales, which has antifungal properties. However, moldy straw will rarely damage your plants. Along with beneficial microbes, it actually plays an important part in helping your plants grow.

Straw Bale Straw

How to Control Diseases

Straw bale gardens are less likely to suffer from soil borne diseases compared to gardens using traditional soil. However, you may encounter problems with diseases such as powdery mildew, blight, leaf rust, botrytis mold, or cankers.

How to Fix It
Prevention is always the best cure, especially for diseases that have no cure, such as the mosaic virus, rust, or bacterial leaf spot. To keep them under control, check your vegetables daily, and remove any damaged or sick leaves immediately. Sick plants, as well as leaves, stems, and fruit, should never be added to your compost pile. This might spread diseases to your future crops. Instead, it’s better to just burn them.

Also, try growing fruit and vegetable varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases. It will make your gardening work infinitely easier.

As a parting thought, we recommend checking out “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” and other books by Joel Karsten. Back in 2013, Joel introduced the concept of growing plants in straw as an alternative to gardening in poor soil. And today, almost a decade later, his work continues to provide valuable insight and inspiration for organic gardeners.

Straw bale gardening may be a novel concept, yet it’s becoming increasingly popular with both novice and expert gardeners. It’s cheaper, less labor-intensive, suitable for small spaces, and more eco-friendly compared to soil gardening. And, with the help of our in-depth guide, your straw bale garden is guaranteed to reward you with an abundant fruit and vegetables harvest.

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