How to Get Started With Straw Bale Gardening
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, we’ll discuss the essentials of straw bale gardening for beginners from its benefits to 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 straw bale gardening instructions on how to build a bale garden step-by-step.
What is Straw bale gardening?
Straw bale gardening is a plant growing technique that uses bales as natural containers for your plants. Think of it as a form of raised bed vegetable garden, but without the hassle of building the beds out of planks, logs, or concrete. Better yet, it’s an alternative to grow bags that’s not just cheaper, but also eco-friendly.
Straw bales are a great choice if your garden has poor soil, or if you have no soil at all. An entire bale can be used to grow a wide range of plants, from leafy vegetables such as lettuce to more exciting crops such as strawberries and tomatoes. And once you’re done with your bale, you can simply add it to the compost pile.
If this is your first foray into straw bale gardening, you may find it a bit daunting. But once you get started, you’ll come to see that it’s not only less labor-intensive than growing plants in soil, but also more rewarding. In fact, you may even decide to ditch soil as a growing medium and stick to straw exclusively.
The benefits of gardening in straw bales
Let’s start by taking a look at the many benefits of this gardening method.
No soil needed
As long as you have an empty spot that gets direct sunlight, you can use straw bales to create an entire vegetable garden even if you have no soil. No soil also means less work, so you don’t need to worry about tilling, hoeing, or breaking up hard compacted soil.
Ideal for poor soils
Straw bale gardening is a real lifesaver if your garden has heavy clay soils or sandy soils. The bale acts as a natural container that provides your plants with nutrients, drainage, and moisture. This means less work but also fewer costs, as you won’t need large quantities of compost, mulch, or manure to improve soil quality.
Longer growing period
On a yearly basis, using straw bales can provide you with up to a month of extra growing time, which is a significant bonus in cooler climates. You no longer have to wait for the soil to warm up before you start planting seeds, or rush to harvest your crops before the first frost. The heat generated as the bales decompose will provide warmth to the roots of your vegetable seedlings in spring, and it will also extend the growing season well into fall.
Naturally raised beds
If you find stooping difficult, or you’re just a fan of raised bed gardening, straw bales provide an excellent ready-made container for your fruit and vegetable crops. Unlike raised beds, with straw gardening the bale itself forms the frame, so no messing around with wood, nails, or putting your DIY skills to the test.
Suited for small spaces
Even if you only have access to a balcony or flat roof area, you can still find a spot that can fit a straw bale garden. Just make sure that the area you pick can handle the weight. Straw bales are able to retain a lot of water and will become very heavy over time.
Because they’re new to your garden, straw bales are far less likely to be packed with weed seeds than ordinary soil. As long as you avoid hay bales (we’ll explain why further down), you’ll find fewer weeds growing in your bales. Any that sneak in can be readily pulled out because the straw is much looser than garden soil, so no need for a string trimmer or weed eater.
Compared to soil-grown plants, vegetables grown in straw bales are less likely to suffer from pests such as nematodes. Admittedly, you’ll run into the odd slugs and snails every now and then, but overall you’ll be using fewer pesticides, which is always a plus in organic gardening.
Fewer soil-borne diseases
Soil-borne diseases are also far less of a risk in a straw bale garden. This is great news if you’re planning to grow root crops, as you won’t have to worry about crop rotation to avoid clubroot. Similarly, your vegetables will be safer in from problems such as root rot, Verticillium wilt, or damping-off diseases.
They need less water
Straw bales retain large amounts of water, which means you’ll spend less time watering your garden. They will need thorough watering in the beginning, during the conditioning process, and then you’ll have to water regularly throughout the growing season. But once your straw bale garden is established, you’ll actually want to use less water than you would for a soil garden, as too much standing water can lead to bale rot.
Easy to dispose of
On average, you can use a straw bale for up to two growing seasons. However, just because you’re done with it, doesn’t mean it’s no longer useful. Used straw bales contain plenty of beneficial fungi and bacteria, and will make a great addition to your compost pile. In fact, you can also use what’s left of the bale as mulch.
The disadvantages of straw bale gardening
Like any plant growing method, straw bale gardens have both pros and cons. Before you get started, here are a few things to consider, as well as some potential straw bale garden problems you may come across.
On its own, a straw bale contains very few nutrients. It does contain some nitrogen and potassium, but nowhere near enough to support healthy vegetable growth. This means that you’ll need to provide extra nutrients for your plants, using a bit of compost and fertilizer. We’ll discuss everything you need to know about conditioning your straw bales before you start planting and also explain how to fertilize them in Chapter 3.
Not suitable for all types of vegetables
You can grow a wide range of plants using straw bales, but not all vegetables are suited for this growing medium. For example, tall plants such as corn or climbing, upright plants such as pole beans can become top-heavy and will cause the bale to fall over. We’ll take a closer look at the best plants to grow in straw in Chapter 4.
It needs a lot of sun
In order to work and produce a high yield, your straw bale garden needs to be positioned in full sun. This can be a problem if you have tall trees in your yard, or if your garden gets less than six hours of sunlight per day. Without the heat from the sun, the bale composting process will slow down, and your plants will also grow slower. We’ll discuss how to find the best spot and layout for your bale garden in Chapter 2.
It’s not foolproof
Most straw bale gardens rarely encounter issues with pests, weeds, and diseases, yet they are not problem-free. Some of the most common straw bale gardening problems include lack of nitrogen, straw getting either too hot or too dry, bale rot, mice, and even mushrooms growing in your bales. With the right preparation, growing vegetables in straw bales shouldn’t give you too much of a headache. In case you do come across annoying problems, we’ll take a closer look at how to fix them in Chapter 6.
What kind of straw can you use in your garden beds?
When choosing your straw, we recommend going for wheat, oats, rye, or barley. During the harvesting process, the grain-rich tops of these cereals will be chopped up and removed via threshing, leaving only the bare stalks behind. It’s these bare, grain-free stalks that you’ll want for your straw bale garden beds.
If you can get your hands on it, you can also use straw containing vetch or alfalfa. Both these plants are legumes, which means they naturally contain higher amounts of nitrogen, and will give your crops a nutrient boost.
Not all types of straw are suitable for bale gardening. Here are the main ones to avoid, and why:
- Corn straw: The stalks are very coarse and large, and will take a long time to decompose.
- Linseed or flax straw: While these are very slow to break down, the stalks also contain oils which further slow down the decomposition process.
- Pine straw: The resinous coating makes this type of straw waterproof, which is the last thing you’ll want for your bale garden.
Straw bale gardening vs. hay bale gardening
One question you may ask is whether you can use hay instead of straw. The short answer is no.
Although straw bale gardening is sometimes called hay bale gardening, hay bales are best avoided. Their main use is to feed livestock, and the cereal stalks will have their seeds attached. To make hay more nutritious, farmers will also bulk up hay with legumes such as alfalfa or clover, and other types of grasses and field weeds. This works wonderfully if you need hay to feed horses or cattle, but for bale gardening, it will only create more work. As the seeds in the hay sprout, they will create a tangled, weedy mess.
Unlike hay, straw is made up of dried stalks of cereal plants and is free of any seeds that could sprout or germinate.
Where to buy your straw bales?
You can find straw bales for sale in a wide range of places, from garden centers and plant nurseries to home improvement stores, and even online. If it’s an option, a local farmer is a great choice for sourcing straw bales, and you may even get them at a lower cost.
Ideally, you’ll want to see the bales before you buy them, to make sure they’re in good condition. Look for dry bales with a light color, no smell, and a compact, rectangular shape.
Whenever possible, we recommend that you purchase straw bales from an organic farm. This way, you’ll know that the straw doesn’t contain herbicides, pesticides, and other toxic substances which can affect your crops.
How much do straw bales cost?
The cost per bale depends on where you live. It could be as low as $1.5 going up to $12, so it’s worth shopping around.
Depending on the time of the year, you may also find free straw bales left over from rural festivals in autumn, or even Halloween decorations. Although they’re free, avoid picking up bales that don’t look or smell right. Straw that looks a bit dark and smells musty has most likely been sitting around for a long time and may have been exposed to moisture, which can result in mold.
Also, keep in mind that decorative straw or bales used in constructions are often treated with fire retardants, which is not ideal for planting vegetables.
How many bales should you buy?
The number of straw bales you’ll need depends on the amount of space you have, how many vegetable plants you wish to grow, and how much time you can dedicate to growing, tending, and harvesting your bale garden. If you have a patio or balcony, one or two bales should suffice. Meanwhile, a large garden can easily accommodate up to a dozen bales.
Before you start shopping for straw, take a moment to check out our guide to how many plants you can grow per bale, listed in Chapter 4.
Other things you need
Now that you know where and how to buy your straw, let’s take a look at the other items you’ll need to start planting vegetables in straw bales.
- Fertilizer: As we already mentioned, straw is poor in nutrients, so you’ll need to use fertilizers before and after planting your crops. An organic fertilizer is ideal, but in a pinch, you can also use conventional lawn fertilizer.
- Compost: Although you don’t need soil for a garden with straw bales, you’ll still need a nutrient-rich medium for your vegetable seedlings. On average, one bucketful per bale should be enough. In time, the decomposing bales will help bulk up the amount of compost available.
- Potting soil: You should never plant vegetables in 100% compost, so you’ll need a bit of soil to prevent a nutrient imbalance or fertilizer burn. One or two bags of store-bought soil for indoor plants will work perfectly.
- A trowel: You’ll need it when you begin planting seedlings. We’ll take a closer look at how to grow your vegetables in Chapter 5.
- Pruning shears: This is a handy tool to have around if you’re growing green beans, squash, cucumbers, melons, and other vine crops that tend to spread everywhere.
- Stakes, trellises, and other supports: These are must-haves for climbing vegetables as well as taller plants, such as eggplants, bell peppers, and tomato plants.
- Hoses: If you can’t place your bale garden near a water source, a hose will be of immense help. If you have several bales, you can also use a soaker hose or install a drip feed system to make your job easier. And if you’re up for a bit of DIY, we’ll even show you how to make your own drip feed system in Chapter 2.
- Metal baling twine: Straw bales are held together by metal baling twine by default, which is how they maintain their rectangular shape. But it’s good to have some spare ready, in case the twine snaps. or, if you’re feeling creative and want to give vertical straw bale gardening a go, you can even use it to hold the stacked bales together.
- Wire mesh fencing: Although it’s not mandatory, having a roll of mesh fencing is always a good call. This will protect your entire garden bed from wild animals such as possums or deer, as well as overly curious pets.
When you have the right materials and tools for your straw bale garden, it’s time to build and design your plants’ new home with the right layout, location, and irrigation system. With that in mind, let’s dig into chapter 2.