Straw bale gardening

Straw bale gardening- Is it really so great?

One of the newest fads in gardening is the straw bale garden.  In this unusual style of gardening people plant their garden directly into bales of straw after they have been conditioned for a few weeks.  Aficionados of straw bale gardening claim it’s the best thing to happen in gardening since garden gloves.  They describe bountiful harvests, great environmental benefit, and the incredible ease of this type of gardening.  Like most fads and things that seem too good to be true straw bale gardening is not the great innovation in gardening it is often claimed to be.

Now there can be times when a straw bale garden might be a solution for allowing someone to garden when they couldn’t otherwise do so.  A straw bale garden might be a good idea when the soil is contaminated or very poor and the gardener can’t afford raised beds or large containers and the good soil to fill them.  Straw bale gardens might be a solution for a more accessible garden, at least until more permanent and better solutions can be found.  And straw bale gardens might be an option when a person is not allowed to garden in the ground because they are renting property, face laws against in ground gardening, or are in a temporary living situation.  However the rather messy look of straw bale gardens might also be a turn off for a landlord or homeowners association.

Straw bale gardens are not better than in ground gardens or raised beds, or even in most cases containers, for gardening.  If any of these options are available to you they are a far better way to garden, unless you are just interested in experimenting with novel methods.  Even if your soil is poor, you can generally improve it and have a better garden than using straw bales.  If you don’t have the funds for raised beds and soil to fill them you might want a small straw bale garden just until you can build raised beds.  There is absolutely no verifiable environmental benefit to straw bale gardening.

Straw bale basics

In case you are still thinking- yes, straw bale gardening is something I want to do- here are the basics of how it is done. 

First you must find and purchase straw bales and then transport them home, or pay to have them delivered.  And it should be straw, not hay.  Straw is the leaves and stems of a crop plant that are left after a grain harvest and few seeds are left behind to sprout in your straw bale garden.  Hay, on the other hand, runs the whole gamut from weedy, grassy fields cut and dried, to stands of pure alfalfa and other managed hay crops that are harvested before they go to seed.  You want straw because there will be less weeds sprouting up in it, although there still may be some weeds. Straw is generally cheaper than hay.  A tip- straw usually looks gold or brown, hay looks green, although colors can vary.  Straw never looks green though.

Small bales of straw are getting harder to find and are more expensive than they used to be.  Modern farmers often mulch the stems of crop plants back into the field now instead of bailing them.  And when they are bailed it is often in the huge round bales now instead of the small square bales.  Those large round bales do not make a good straw bale garden and are very hard to maneuver around or transport without special equipment.  Get your straw as early in the spring as you can, sellers often run out of stock by late spring.

When you do locate straw it doesn’t have to be good straw- it can be old, even moldy.  It should, however, still be tightly bound or you will have a mess.  Most bales have 2 strings around them.  Both should be intact and the bale compact and firm.  Buying older straw could save you money but you will generally need to spend something.  And if you can’t transport it to your house, you’ll probably pay for that too.  Using straw bales may not be cheaper or easier than buying lumber to build a raised bed or buying containers.

How much straw will you need?  That’s hard to say.  Most people use a single layer of straw to garden in. But if you are looking for a garden that’s accessible to someone seated, a 2 bale stack may be better. Bales come in different sizes but average around 3 feet long by 18 inches wide and 12-18 inches high. They weigh anywhere from 30 pounds to 70 pounds each, depending on many factors.

Most people place the widest dimension down (you’ll see both strings facing you) making a bed about 12-18 inches high and 18 inches wide by 3 feet long.  Decide what you want to plant, and look up the spacing for the variety, using the same spacing as in the soil. Then figure out how many bales you’ll need for what you want to plant, making sure they’ll fit in your allocated space of course.

Here’s an important thing to remember.  Keep your straw dry until you get it where you want to garden!  It is very hard to move heavy, wet bales of straw and they will often fall apart.  You’ll want to have the bales set up where you want to garden at least a month before you intend to plant for conditioning them.  For most crops the bales should be in a full sun location.  You can place bales on the ground, or on cement or asphalt.  Using a tarp under the bales makes fall clean-up easier. 

Next you’ll condition your bales.  This means soaking them with a solution of fertilizer and water every few days for 3-4 weeks.  It’s your choice of organic or conventional water soluble fertilizer but it should be high in nitrogen, to counteract the use of nitrogen by the decaying straw. Read label directions for the amount of fertilizer to use per gallon of water, following the directions for container plants. You’ll need about a 2-3 gallon bucket of water- fertilizer mix per bale per treatment.  Soak bales every 3-4 days.

After a month of conditioning the bales should be ready to plant.  Put plants and seeds in them just like you would plant them in soil.  Keep the bales watered as your plants grow, just as you would water plants in soil.  A mid-season fertilizer treatment is generally needed, and fertilizing more often might be required for some crops.  If you are lucky you will have a harvest comparable to that of a crop grown in decent soil.  At the end of the season move the straw to a compost area.

Here are some other things to consider with straw bale gardening.  The wet bales can mold and they do have a smell as they decompose.  If you have mold allergies this method may not be for you.  In wet weather the bales can stay too wet and crop roots may rot. The bales can dry out too often in hot, dry weather and actually take more water than conventional gardens, although that’s less likely than the too wet scenario. 

Photo from Flickr
Some crops grow poorly in a straw bale, such as carrots, beets and other root crops.  Straw bale gardening does not prevent tomato blights or most other garden diseases and pest infestations, despite some far- fetched claims.  And straw bale gardening can’t be used for perennial crops like asparagus and rhubarb.

The strings on wet bales can rot and break, causing the bale to fall apart and potentially damaging your plants.  The look of straw bale gardens is often not as pleasing as other forms of gardening, if looks are important.  Mice, snakes, bees, and other critters sometimes take up residence in straw bales.  Weeds do grow in straw bale gardens, either from the straw or by seeds blowing onto the bales, although there may be fewer weeds than conventional gardens. 

At the end of garden season you will have a lot of old, wet, rotting straw to haul to a compost pile or find some way to dispose of.  You could use it to mulch plants for winter but it’s more likely to matt down than fresh straw.  The disposal problem looms large for those with limited space for a compost pile or rules not permitting one and the disposal of the bales should be planned before you start such a garden.

In short, straw bale gardening is not ideal gardening.  It’s not miracle gardening, rather its make-do gardening for those who can’t garden in the ground or a raised bed or container.  It should be viewed as a temporary solution or a fun experiment.

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