straw bales used as growing medium for plants

Straw Bale Gardening 101: How to Start This at Home

If you’re someone who has some experience with gardening already, then you’ve probably heard of straw bale gardening before. This type of gardening combines the benefits of both raised bed gardening and container gardening. That’s because the straw bales are the growing medium, as well as the container where you’re going to grow your plants. Straw bale gardening is extremely easy and convenient, and you should definitely try it when you get the chance. Because we want you to be prepared for when that happens, we’ve devised a guide to straw bale gardening that includes everything you should know.

Straw Bale Gardening Instructions: The Complete Guide

1. Gather the Materials

The first thing that should concern you when it comes to straw bale gardening is gathering all the necessary materials. Naturally, you’re going to need straw bales. It doesn’t really matter what kind of straw you go for, be it oats, wheat, rye, and so on. The important thing to remember is not to use hay instead of straw. That’s because hay contains seeds, and this might encourage weeds to develop and damage your plants. Also, make sure that the bales are tightly held together, preferably by twine.

The next material you’re going to need is compost. It has to be well-rotted and enough for you to be able to fill the holes in the bales where you’ve already placed your plants. Fertilization is also important in straw bale gardening. Even if the plants already get some nutrients from the decomposing straw bales, if you’re going to grow a lot of plants, you’re also going to have to add some extra fertilizer. Finally, make sure that you have a regular water supply if you want your garden to flourish. Fortunately, you’re not going to have to water your plants as much, since the straw bales preserve quite a lot of water.

2. Choose the Location

One of the best things about straw bale gardening is the fact that the location shouldn’t concern you as much. If you don’t have a perfectly flat terrain, that’s not a problem. If the soil in your garden isn’t suitable for growing plants, you don’t need it anyway. Thus, the only things that are left for you to do are to ensure your future plants will get plenty of sun exposure, and that they’ll grow next to place where it’s easy for you to provide them with water.

3. Care for the Straw Bales

Straw bales are not an optimal environment for growing plants. Which is why you have to care for them before you use them for this purpose. One of the main reasons behind this step is that straw bales release a lot of heat when they decompose. Excessive heat could damage the seeds or seedlings you’ve planted. Since decomposition is partly due to microbes that take nutrients from organic material such as compost, you should only add compost after they’re done decomposing the straw, if you want to avoid them stealing precious nutrients from your plants.

Bales decompose with the help of water as well. Which is why you should water them constantly, and then wait for about 3 weeks until they decompose. If you want to accelerate the process, you can also add a nitrogen fertilizer on top of the bales, and then pour water over it. Before planting anything in the bales, check their temperature. If it’s not too hot, you’re good to go. If it is, you’re going to have to wait a bit more.

4. Plant the Seeds/Seedlings

When it comes to planting, the first thing you should know is that you can plant both seeds and seedlings. The most popular option is planting seeds because they have a chance to develop an extensive root system that will infiltrate the straw bales. Straw bales gardening is a great option for people who don’t want to start their garden earlier by planting seeds indoors and then transplanting the seedlings. The reason why that’s not necessary is because straw bales are great at keeping the seeds warm, even if you sow them earlier, when the weather is still quite cold.

There are two planting methods in straw bale gardening: the flat bed method and the pocket method. The flat bed method involves you adding about 3 inches of compost on top of the straw bales. The pocket method, which is also the most popular one, involves removing part of the straw to create tiny holes for your plants. Don’t make the pockets deeper than 4 inches.

When it comes to the thickness of the bales, the choice is up to you. You can choose the same thickness you would have if you were to grow the plants in a typical raised bed. Or you can make them thicker, since the roots of the plants will receive more air like this.

5. Water the Straw Bales

As we’ve already mentioned a couple of times, watering is extremely important when it comes to straw bale gardening. Keeping that in mind, the best way to make sure your plants develop properly is to install drip irrigation, or at least use a soaker hose. That’s because if you pour water over the bales as such, it will pass through them rather quickly, allowing you no way to know for sure that enough water has reached the plants’ roots, which is the whole purpose of watering the plants anyway.

Another cheaper alternative to these irrigation systems is to make small holes in some soda bottles and place them next to your plants. As long as you remember to fill them with water about 3 times a week, they’ll take care of watering your plants gradually.

6. Fertilize the Plants

Fertilization is not always necessary in straw bale gardening. However, you can always do it if you want to provide your plants with some extra help. In some cases, you might notice signs of a lack of nutrients, in which case fertilization becomes mandatory. For instance, if the leaves of your plants yellow before they should, it means the straws have a nitrogen deficiency. If the leaves present signs of necrosis on the edges, there’s not enough potassium in the straws. Finally, if the leaves turn purple, lack of phosphorus is what you should look out for.

Sometimes, when you’ve already noticed these symptoms, it might be too late for you to act, since the health of your plants might have already been compromised. In order to avoid this, we advise you to fertilize the plants even though they show no signs of diseases.

7. Remove Weeds

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t allow weeds to grow with your plants. The great news is that with straw bale gardening, you don’t have to fear weeds as much as you would have if you were to grow plants in the soil. Weeds are not that common, and they’re also easy to get rid of by simply pulling on them. As an extra tip, once you pull them out, you can tuck them back into the straw bales. That way, they’ll serve as additional fertilizer.

8. Control Pests and Diseases

As in the case of weeds, pests and diseases are also not a common occurrence in straw bale gardening. While pathogens from the soil are not an issue anymore, and neither are fungal or bacterial spores, there’s something that you should pay attention to. These are the organisms that you can find in manure and compost. In terms of insects, you should only fear winged ones, since the rest have no way of reaching your plants. Spotting both diseases and pests is not at all difficult. Once you do, research the most appropriate remedies and keep your plants safe.

What Should You Grow in Straw Bales?

Before we go, we thought it might be useful to also mention a couple of the best plants for straw bale gardening, just in case our guide has convinced you to try this technique. Basically, any annual plants are perfect for straw bale gardening, but large ones such as pumpkins or corn might be too much for a relatively small space.

Other than that, in terms of vegetables, peppers, bush beans, and tomatoes are some of the best choices. If you’re looking for climbing plants, zucchinis, cucumbers, strawberries, and even watermelons are appropriate. Leafy greens are also a great choice, particularly kale, lettuce, chard, and spinach.  Also, cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower are great. You can also grow herbs like cilantro, parsley, and basil, or root vegetables like potatoes, radishes, and carrots.

Summing Everything Up

Straw bale gardening is one of the easiest and most convenient types of gardening and hopefully, today’s guide has managed to convince you of that. If you’ve never tried it before, we suggest you do it as soon as possible. In fact, why not start with some of the plants we’ve mentioned above?

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Bonnie Enos

I spend my time in my garden trying to create the greatest outdoor space possible. My garden is my happy place and where you will always find me on a nice day. I take my experience and share it here for you to read!

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