We’re all familiar with container gardening and the many benefits it has to offer, but here’s an interesting option to growing plants in pots. Why not grow them in straw (or hay) bales?
Benefits of Gardening by the Bale – Much like those of container gardening, gardening by the bale allows all of us to grow something just about anywhere a straw bale will fit. Have terrible soil, need to let the garden sit fallow for a year, don’t like bending over, have limited space, etc? Then garden by the bale! It’s raised, making it easier on the back and great for handicapped gardeners (raised and easily accessible on all sides). They can be mobile, but once they’re wet, they are pretty tough to move. Once wet, they do hold moisture which can be a real plus to help reduce watering time (and they’re great at holding nutrients as well.) Worms love them. Straw bales protect your plants from soil borne diseases. They’re not very costly, they’re instant, and besides watering and feeding, somewhat foolproof. There’s no digging, and very little weeding. And when you’re finished using them, just till them into the soil, use them as mulch for the next series of bales, or use them in the compost pile. By purchasing organic straw (hay) bales, you can grow organically as well. And, hey, who else do you know that grows a garden using bales of straw (hay)?
Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
-Bales of straw (hay) Try to find wire or nylon tied bales, which will last longer, and find bales that are tightly baled. If string tied, feel free to add wire or nylon twine around them to help hold them together.
-Stakes to place at the ends of the bales to help hold them together, as well as staking plants that need staking.
-Soil-less potting mix, quality grade bagged Garden Soil mix, SweetPeet, Posey Power, compost, compost / topsoil/ rotted manure mix, etc.
-Fertilizers – Nitrate of Soda, Urea, and granular garden fertilizer (
-Plants and or seeds (Just about anything can be grown in straw bales, including some root crops.)
-Sunny location and access to water.
-Select a site that will receive at least 6 hours of sunlight each day (more is better), and has good surface drainage. (Greens can be grown in less sunlight.)
-Position your bales in rows, squares, different shapes and forms, side by side, create a maze, stacked on top of each other, etc, and try to position them end to end as they will help hold each other together. You may also place a stake or two in the ground at the ends of the bales to help hold them together, should the strings rot and break. You may lay the bales flat on the ground (with the strings touching the ground) or on their side so the strings runs around the bale and not in contact with the soil. Either way will work. Obviously if the strings touch the ground, they will rot faster. That’s why wire or nylon tied bales are preferred. Again, staking at the ends of the bales will help hold them together if the string should rot or break. If you intend to grow greens (spinach, lettuce, etc.) bales on their sides work best. You can actually grown greens on the cut sides early in season, then turn the bales flat and grow summer crops after harvesting the early greens. Make sure your bales are placed where you want them, as once they’re wet they are very hard to move!
Preparing Your ‘Fresh’ Bales: [Follow this process for preparing new, dry, fresh bales of straw (hay). Letting your bales weather for 2 months (put them in place before they weather!) will give you a jump start on this process, is the easiest and probably best way to go, and you can skip down to Day 10, just before you’re ready to start planting. During the process, wheat / grass seeds may begin to grow. Remove them as needed. Your straw (hay) bales should last about 2 years.
Days 1-4: Water your bales thoroughly and keep them wet. This starts the bale ‘cooking’.
Days 4-6: Apply approximately ½ cup of urea, bloodmeal, or choice of fertilizers to the top of each bale and water in well. Do this each day (3 applications total). This gets those microbes going in the bales and increases the ‘cooking’ process. You can even put a light layer of compost, SweetPeet, etc on top if you’d like. Keep the bales wet.
Days 7-9: Apply ¼ cup of urea, bloodmeal or above substitutes per bale and water in well (cooking process is slowing down). Keep the bales wet.
Day 10: Apply 1 cup of
After Day 12: From this point on your bales are ready for planting. As an optional addition to the bales, many straw bale gardeners will apply a 1-3 inch layer of composted material (bagged garden soil, soil-less mix, compost, topsoil compost mix, etc.) on top of the bales, especially if growing greens such as spinach and lettuce, or if planting flowers or veggies from seed. For planting rooted transplants, use a hand trowel to pull apart the bale just enough to insert the roots of the transplant (as you would planting in the ground). You may add a little of the compost (bagged garden soil, soil-less mix, topsoil compost mix, etc.) into that pocket planting as well. The bale should close back around the plants roots. Water in after planting. For tight bales, a saw may be needed to cut a hole for planting.
After planting: Water and fertilize your bales as needed, depending on the types of plants growing in the bales. Feel free to use water soluble fertilizers when you water, or granular garden fertilizers sprinkled on top of the bales. (Use Espoma’s organic fertilizers if growing organic or not!) To help reduce watering, feel free to cover the bales with landscape fabric just before planting. Soaker hoses underneath the fabric or on top without fabric are a great way to water.
What can you grow? Besides limited root crops and possibly taller growing crops like corn (which may fall over), gardening by the bale is pretty wide open. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cole crops, salad greens, peas, onions, cucumbers, squash, melons, herbs, beans should all do nicely growing in straw bales. Plant on the same basic spacing as you would in the ground – maximum of 2
Want to add some excitement to your bales? Try adding a few annuals or perennials, especially vining ones, to cover up some of the bale corners and add a little extra color to your straw bale garden. You may try total annual or perennial gardening by the bale as well! Talk about a great conversation piece! You’ll be the talk of the neighborhood.
Extend the planting season: Here’s a great way to bale garden in a small area as well as extend the season. Take 6 bales and place them in a rectangular shape, with two bales on the sides and one for each end. If you can find an old window or storm door to fit over the opening in the middle, you now have a cold frame for growing greens early. Grow greens early, harvest, and then look to grow potatoes in the middle as the spring season warms (no cover). As the weather warms more, plant the bales as you normally would with summer veggies. As the season winds down, harvest the potatoes, and plant greens in the middle, using your cover as the weather gets colder, extending your green season right into early winter, and maybe more depending on the weather.