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Straw Bale Gardening

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Straw bale gardening continues to be extremely popular with backyard gardeners — and for a number of very good reasons.


Foremost, it is a quick, easy, and inexpensive alternative to building a raised bed. You save the cost of buying or building a frame and you won’t need to buy yards and yards of soil to fill it with.


Also, once framed raised beds are placed, they can’t be moved easily. By comparison, straw bales only last a season or two anyway, so the following year you can put your newly purchased bales in a different spot if need be.


Size is another advantage. Your garden can be a single bale or many bales and can be easily arranged into any configuration.


For those with mobility problems, raised beds are much easier to work than in-ground gardens — especially for those who have trouble kneeling or bending over.


Straw bales also have many other uses. After you’ve harvested your raised bed, you can use the remainder as garden mulch or compost, burned as fuel, or even make them into bricks.


Straw Bale Garden
Making a Straw Bale Garden

Straw Bales do have some drawbacks, though. Most likely they have been treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And once they’re wet, they become very heavy and will start to fall apart if you try to move them.


Unlike composts, bedding mixes, and other garden soils, straw bales can contain viable weed seeds that you will have to deal with. They're also not very pretty. To look out your window and see piles of straw strewn across your yard may be less than beautiful to some.


Use Straw, Not Hay

Many people confuse hay with straw. It's important to use only straw. Hay is a grass (usually alfalfa) that is grown as a food for livestock. Straw, which is much less expensive, is an inedible by-product of another crop (usually wheat or oats) that is gathered and compressed into bales. Straw is used for a variety of things from fall decorating to mulching your garden.


Marshall Grain sells standard sized rectangular straw bales that are approximately 3 feet by 2 feet by 1.5 feet and bound with wire.


Cat on Straw Bale
Callie on a Bale of Straw

Plan Ahead

Using straw bales requires some planning and preparation. First, their availability is limited and second, they need to be conditioned before you can plant.


Straw bales are only available in the fall following the year’s wheat harvest. Once dealers are sold out you won’t be able get more until the next harvest season. That means you need to buy your straw bales between September and November and then store them in a dry place until you are ready to start your garden.


You will also need to “season” or condition your bales for about 2 weeks before you can plant in them. Keep reading to learn more about how to do that.


Setting Up Your Garden

Before you begin, you need to decide where you going to put your bed.


Choose a sunny location. Most vegetables need a minimum of 6 hours of direct sunlight per day. The exceptions are cool season veggies like lettuce, cabbage, mustard, arugula, and cruciferous edibles such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Some warm season veggies also prefer a bit of afternoon shade. For example, peppers can suffer from sun scorch in the heat of summer if not protected by some shade.


Gardening with Straw Bales
Straw Bale Garden Set Up

Next you need to consider how are you going to water it. As a general rule, always try to water the soil, not the foliage of your plants. Lawn sprinklers are designed to spray in all directions and won’t put enough liquid in the right place. That means you’ll need to use a hose or a watering can or invest in a drip irrigation system.


Tip: Another option is to recycle some 2-liter plastic bottles or 1-gallon milk jugs that you can used to supply water to the bales passively. Here’s how:

· Cut a hole in the bottom of a clean container.

· Poke some small holes in the lid and replace it on the jug.

· Turn the jug upside down and fill it with water.

· Place it upside down into each bale approximately 1 inch away from plants.

· Water will release slowly over the course of a day or two depending on hole size and temperature.

· Refill the jug as necessary.


Stand your bales on edge so that the sheared ends of the plant stalks are facing upward and the bands of twine are along the sides. Feel free to arrange them in any configuration. Some people like to butt them up against each other to create an L or U shape or you can place them in a single line. Just make sure you can still reach to the center of each bale so that you can tend it.


Straw Bale Gardening
Straw Bale Garden


Choose Your Plants or Seeds

Almost anything can be grown in a straw bale, including tomatoes and peppers, vines such as cucumbers, squashes, and melons, beans, peas, and even carrots and radishes. Tall plants such as okra and corn would need to be staked to keep them from falling over.


You can start from seeds or transplants.


Tip: Check out the Marshall Grain Planting Calendar below for the recommended planting dates for North Texas. It also includes the recommended spacings and seed placement depth for the plants you’re growing.


Marshall Grain Vegetable Planting Guide
.pdf
Download PDF • 86KB

How to Condition Your Straw Bales

Once you’ve placed your bales, it's time to start conditioning them. Proper conditioning usually takes about 2 weeks but it's okay to condition them for a bit longer. Here's a recommended preparation schedule:


Days 1-3: Thoroughly water your bales daily. Try to keep each bale uniformly moist. Wet the bale until water runs out of the bottom.


Day 4: Fertilize. Decomposition requires a large amount of nitrogen. We recommend using Blood Meal (12-0-0) as your organic fertilizer. Continue to maintain moisture throughout the bale but avoid letting the water run out of the bottom as before. This will help retain nutrients.


Days 5-6: Fertilize and water each bale evenly.


Days 7-9: Reduce the amount of fertilizer per bale by half and continue to water daily.


Day 10: Start using a complete fertilizer such as Rabbit Hill Farm Buds & Blooms, Espoma Garden-tone, or Espoma Tomato-tone. Water it in thoroughly.


Day 11: Discontinue fertilizing and check the internal temperature of your bales. They should have bales have cooled down internally to 99°F or below. Use a compost thermometer to measure the temperature or place your hand on top of the bale to feel for the heat. Too much heat can harm your seeds and the roots of your transplants.


If your bales are too warm, continue to water until the internal temperature is low enough for planting.


Now you're ready to plant!


Dig In!

Apply 2 to 4 inches of garden soil, planting mix or other growing medium on top of the bales and moisten it. This method works well for direct planting of seeds or transplants.


Make a hole in the bale with a sharp-edged trowel or gardening knife and nestle your plant into the divot. Try to place it at the same depth as it was in its original pot. Place taller plants on the eastern or north eastern side so that they don't shade out your smaller plants.


If you are staking taller plants, make sure to use long stakes that can be driven all the way through the straw bale and into the ground.


Fill in any remaining space with more soil.


Be careful not to over plant. Space your plants based on the recommended distances. Too many plants in a bale will crowd each other out and reduce your total harvest. It's better to give your veggies too much room than not enough.


After planting keep the soil constantly moist until the seeds have sprouted and are well established.


Tip: Some types of edible plants can be grow in the sides of the bales. Strawberries and potatoes are two that can be planted this way.


Maintenance

Checking your garden's progress daily will help you spot potential problems before they get out of control.


Most edibles need consistent watering and moderately moist soil. Watering early in the morning is best. In hot weather you may need to water every day and perhaps even twice daily. However you should avoid watering in the middle of the day when the sun is hitting the plant and always try to keep the foliage dry.


Watch for weeds and carefully remove them without disturbing your plants.


Keep fertilizing with a high-quality organic vegetable food about once ever two weeks to replace lost nutrients.


Pests and diseases that may arise will vary depending on the what's being grown but you can rely on Marshall Grain to have the organic products and solutions you may need to keep things thriving right up until the day of harvest.



Keep Gardening!

No matter what the outcome, gardening is always fun and educational. Learn from your mistakes and keep gardening! We invite you to share your gardening stories with us on social media. We always love to hear them!


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