Straw Bale Garden Lessons

3.50 out of 5 [2 Votes]

This article is contributed by Loraine who lives in the Kansas City, Missouri metro area (we always like to know what bio-region a contributor is from).  Loraine tried using straw bales to grow in, and reports on her less than spectacular results.  Have you got any suggestions for Lorraine?

strawbale
I am intrigued by the idea of straw bale gardening. It sounds simple and easy. The idea is to plant into straw bales (not hay bales) and you have a weed free, instant planting bed. You can (theoretically) even tent the straw bale early in the season to make a little green house. Last spring I went to my local garden center and got 2 nice dry straw bales (about $8 each) and laid them out in the yard. I followed the limited available instructions for getting the bales to start decomposing. This is the key to making the bale into a medium that will feed the plants. I searched for any information I could find that was free via news interviews on the topic and facebook pages. I thought I had enough information to try this and my frugal soul just didn’t want to pay $20 for a book on the topic. I found most of the available information was just enough to get you to see that you needed to buy the book.

I added different things suggested to make the straw bales begin to decompose and heat up. I watered. It rained. I watered again. Nothing. I tried three different things, three different times-no go. After a few weeks, I had enough wheat growing out of the straw bale to actually harvest a small handful of wheat. I guess that is what you get when you buy your straw bale in Kansas. I finally cut out several holes, filled them with potting soil and transplanted some melons and pumpkins into the bale. I watered, they wilted. The straw bale did become a home to six baby rabbits. It’s funny I walked by that straw bale daily and noticed a few stray pieces of straw on the lawn. I thought a bird must be stealing pieces for a nest. Then one day I heard lots of squeaking coming from the vicinity of the straw bale. I looked over to see the geriatric dog with her nose in the top of the straw bale which was conveniently the right height to access.

She checks back on a regular basis after finding rabbits!
Multiple grey critters were pouring over the edge of the straw bale and making a run for it. My first thought was, MICE! I ran over to the geriatric dog and grabbed her collar, telling her, NO, as she attempted to swallow a second baby rabbit. I put the dog in the house while I tried to deal with the rabbits. Let’s just say that the rabbits eaten did not agree with her aging digestive system and I ended up cleaning several areas of the carpet. Lesson learned. Critters will try to make a home in your straw bales.

Later into the summer, I decided that I needed more bed space for my 38 sweet potato slips and that placement of the new bed should be where the straw bales were located. One pumpkin plant was starting to grow and tentatively vine out over the edge of the bale. I asked husband to move the bales so I could make a new bed for the sweet potatoes. He did. The vines immediately wilted severely. Lesson learned…do not move your straw bales after they have plants in them. The vine did eventually recover and actually was doing fantastic and blooming all over the place…..in October.

Now the straw is being put to good use spread over two new areas on the lawn that will become beds next year. When I pulled out the vine after the frost, I did see that the roots had grown all the way down into the soil underneath. That probably explains why they suddenly started doing so well.

Here is my take away from the straw bale garden experiment. I would get the straw bales in the fall or winter and let the rain, snow and nature have a little more time to work on the straw bales. I would not count on the heat produced from decomposition to allow you to plant earlier than normal. If it does work out, great. I think some kind of drip system would be almost necessary to keep the bales moist. Watering with the hose or sprinkler wasn’t very effective. Water ran off the top of the bale or right down through it. There might be information in the book that addresses the water issue, again, too cheap to buy the book.

The good news is that there is a lot more information on the internet now, than there was last year. I haven’t given up the idea completely. Hopefully, my mistakes and experience will help you. www.foodlifejoy.com

Niki-with-straw-bale

straw-bale-vine

straw-on-bedds

Straw Bale Garden Lessons

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41 Comments on Straw Bale Garden Lessons

  1. Marjory Wildcraft

    Hi Lorriane,

    Congrats for trying this out, and for being bold enough to show something when it isn’t working. I’ve wanted to do a bale planting for a long time too.

    Since it sound like you are on a budget, instead of using water, I would’ve added compost tea (for biological action) and urine (for nitrogen) to the bales to get it ‘going’. The straw is only carbon, and you need some nitrogen to get a composting effect.

    I am looking forward to those who have successfully done this to get their comments.

    • doug

      Ck out back to Back to Eden garden with Paul Gautschi. He is a man who ask God on how to garden & God answered, Paul does little watering ,weeding ,NO pesticides & has so much food he can not give it away. You can go to YOU TUBE put in L2survive. This man has done interviews with Paul. I do believe this is the way to garden. It has proven its self over & over again & again. In 1 video Paul tells about a man who wanted to put sheep on Pauls 1.5 acres he said yes & the man brought the sheep around July in October the sheep were still there. They had not eaten down the grass in this little place. Most amazing is that the man brought over 52 sheep! Ck this out & I think it will you will be as amazed as we were. Pray this helps. Doug

  2. Robert

    You will still need to use an organic fertilizer to provide the necessary ingredients for proper growth. Try some Soft Rock Phosphate, compost as well as compost tea. Using the urine is a good idea. Many people use fresh, not pasteurized, organic milk as a necessary source of enzymes.

  3. DAVE

    These things always sound great. I tried that a few years ago with potatoes. no luck. After cleaning up my straw and hay from the barn floor and piling it by the garden for ground cover. (keeps ground from drying out) I had all kinds of seeds growing in those piles..pumpkins and other vines. those bales have to be soaking wet for the roots to live. You did the right thing by planting seeds that you started. Keep on trying. I have a garden about an acre. Use it and give it away. Wheat bales do grow wheat. (very well) good by from Ohio

  4. Debbie Gallagher

    My grandfather used to grow like that in his small garden close to the house, but only after the first straw had pretty much died down, then he would put compost on top then his soil, then he lined the row with one bail on each side leaving a small gap btw bails for air circulation. At e end of the season he would break the bails down so they would compost down over the winter. Next yr he would go again. I wish he was still here so I could pick his brain. There is so much from my childhood I couldn’t remember til I read this post. :)

  5. Raye

    Bravo for trying something new, and double bravo for documenting it!

    I would encourage you to try again. Marjory makes an important point. Straw is largely carbon, and you need a 25:1 (some say 30:1) carbon to nitrogen ratio.

    I also watered my straw bales quite a bit. The first day or two, I just watered. Then I used my garden knife and made a little depression down the center of the straw bale. Onto this I poured about a half a cup of powdered nitrogen fertilizer. Every other day for a few weeks I did the fertilizer, and every day I watered.

    This was early in the season, and after maybe a couple of weeks (I did not document my experience as well as you did), I stuck a compost thermometer (with a three foot stem) into the center of the bale. Outdoor temperature around 40F, inside temperature in the 80s.

    The tomato and cucumber plants I transplanted into the bales did very well. The tiny cabbage plants I put in did not so well – I think I let the roots dry out.

    Sources of nitrogen include blood meal, cottonseed meal, and urine.

  6. Steven Feil

    Straw would be one of the last choices I would make for a growing medium. If you think about it, it is the old, dried and NEARLY LIFELESS leavings of some grain that has sucked everything needed out of it to make the grain.

    That being said, if you were to BURY the bales you would probably have a more amenable spot to grow. The Earth would provide protection and add to the moisture and microorganism content of the bales.

  7. Caroline Sullivan

    I am also contemplating using the straw bale planting method this coming spring. Lorraine’s failure tells me that the bales need to decompose first. I think that I will start my bale process in January, letting mother nature, rain that we get a lot of, get those bales wet. Then I will use chicken litter to cover the bales the tops of the bales with about 4 inches of the stuff and keep adding it as needed. If those bales start steaming I will know the process is working. BTW, I am gardening in Spanaway, WA.

  8. Michael

    Hi Lorraine,

    For about 20 years, I have been growing hydroponically but natural and organic hydroponic fertilizers were either unavailable or very expensive. But still it was fun and very productive. This past year, I have incorporated a worm bin into my gardening regimen to recycle household wastes, but with a twist. I pour about 5 to 10 gallons of water daily across the worm bin which is a 36 gallon Rubbermaid Tote, and collect the worm tea via a spout at one end located near the bottom of the bin.

    This is all I have used for fertilizer for the past year for both my patio containers and my solar hydroponic garden. As best I can tell, this qualifies as both natural and organic and the results have been as good or better than with store bought fertilizers. This method keeps the worms fed, moist and happy while their castings are dissolved to provide copious amounts of worm tea with minimal effort…no weeds, no rabbits, just wonderful home grown veggies.

    Michael

    PS: As an added and unexpected bonus, it seems that many bugs don’t like worm tea as I have had almost no problem with bad bugs this year.

      • Michael

        Sure, glad you asked about how I set up my worm bed. Well, I discovered that there are several wrong ways to do it and only a couple of methods which really make sense to me and have proven to work well.

        The larger the worm bin, the better. I now use a 36 gallon Rubbermaid tote, and I believe that is about the largest you can put in a typical steel patio chair. This is important as it raises the bin off of the ground so you can put a bucket under the “drain valve” to collect your worm tea, liquid gold fertilizer. I just installed a 3/4″ PVC ball valve in the lower end of the bin and let it drain or drip continuously into a plastic bucket. On the inside of the bin the other side of this valve, I put some gravel in a bag made from nylon mesh (like a bath puff is made of) which serves as a strainer to keep worms and their castings from flowing out with the tea. Also, you should drill some 1/4″ holes in the sides of the worm bin, but not in the bottom, for aeration.

        To then start it up, just mix in equal parts of garden soil, shredded cardboard and newspaper and water it down. Then add your kitchen waste (non-animal except for eggshells) and cover with a few inches of the mixture. Then add a pound or two of “red wiggler” composting worms. You can find many sources for these on the Net. As previously stated, I slowly pour in 5-10 gallons of water daily to the top of the worm bin and use the runoff to water and fertilize my garden. It is as close as you can get to creating your own organic and natural fertilizer, and it works great with minimal effort. Good Luck,
        Michael

  9. Tressa

    I live in Missouri – I use 1 bale to make the outline of a garden bed and then fill with organic dirt. I break the bale into 6 inch squares (the layers will peel off the side of the bale) Then I lay the 6 inch tall squares around the perimeter of the bed I want to make. Plant inside the soil interior of the bed and then mulch heavy with the remaining straw. One bale of hay makes a bed approximately 10 feet long and 4 feet wide with a soil interior. It makes fast and easy raised beds and chokes out lawn and weeds – faster and easier than building boxed raised beds.

  10. Hi Lorriane,

    You are correct. You need to get your bales set up in the fall. Apply a generous hand full of commercial fertilizer to each bale and add some dirt. Let the bale break down over winter. You can add compost and better yet, chicken poop. The straw takes a lot of nitrogen to be able to break down and it will heat up as the bale composts. Any plants placed in the bale before it is ready, will either starve or be cooked to death. The bale should look brown and rather rotted when it is ready to receive plants. Hope this works for you. It has worked for me.

  11. Beverly

    I haven’t tried this yet either, but it just seems logical that the water would go through. Maybe this works better in wet climates. One thing I’m sure I’d try is digging out some holes in it and adding compost and soil. I know strawberries are supposed to grow in straw, but we usually put the straw on the ground. I’ll be interested to hear if you get the bales to work.
    Thanks for sharing! Good luck!

  12. Loretta

    I did not have success with bale gardening a couple of summers ago, either. But I did have great success with a no-till technique this past summer. You could take those bales, break them apart and use them for mulch, although green mulch is best for growing fruits and vegetables. If you try a no-till, all you really have to do is plant your seeds or seedlings right on top of ground cover like white clover in your garden without tilling. The clover acts as a live green mulch, preventing weeds (for the most part) and actually collects nitrogen and puts it into the ground. Another side benefit is the clover attracts pollinators. We had success planting tomato and pepper seedlings right in the clover which had grown very plush since prepping that side of the garden with Organic Bountea, which you should continually use after planting, as well. But I can’t recommend Organic Bountea enough. It healed and replenished the soil in my garden after so many years of mineral depletion from the softened water. The summer before this, we had started using water from the run-off creek down the hill from our house until it dried up from the drought. This summer we finally used the water straight from the well, totally surpassing the water softener. So we finally used the right water, but what really made the difference was that Organic Bountea. The starter kit will run you around $120. Believe me, I understand the need for being thrifty but this was the best investment we ever made! Here’s the youtube video from John Evans, creator of Organic Bountea:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gh0LJncE9k
    You should also try some rock dust and green glacier rock dust along with wood chips to rebuild the soil……maybe some worm compost as well. My husband also suggests maximizing the amount of night crawlers in your garden because they aerate the soil, mimicking the oxygen rich environment in the straw bales.

  13. JC

    I did purchase the book. I got a couple of bales this fall and started with the fertilizer/watering routine that is explained in the book and the bales warmed up nicely. I ran out of warm weather for planting, so I will use them elsewhere in my garden/yard this spring.

  14. Catherine Sutton

    I made a raised bed with three straw bales I bought for reduced at a feed store because they were starting to rot, then created a border that was 9 inches higher than the bales with found wood. The bales were placed two lengthwise next to each other and one across the end. I filled it the bed gardening soil and planted in it right away, treating it as a regular bed, but happy that it was rather warmer than the surrounding soil because of the action going on below. (A friend of mine had had success doing this to get seedlings started earlier in the spring than usual).
    Every year the soil level went down a bit as the straw beneath composted itself, so I had to add a little, though nowadays I would simply leave the dead plant matter in the bed and let it decompose.
    As for critters, I was able to offer a daytime playpen to a baby wild turkey that my neighbor had rescued and that had become human-fixated (it was driving me crazy with its cries!). That bird certainly helped the fertility and ate down the remains of my kale to boot. After a hawk tried to make a landing in there I put some netting on top. Come to think of it it would make a great daytime play area for chickens too, if you put compost in and had them root around and mix it up for you.

  15. Ruth

    Marjory’s response is spot-on…of course! :) I also tried straw bale gardening a couple years ago. All the neighbors kept coming over and asking what the heck I was doing! After having searched diligently on the internet for how to do it, I was so bloody confident that I could hardly contain myself. Bales in place. A quick soak with the hose. Best organic potting soil placed medium-thick over tops of bales. Green bean seeds planted exactly as directed from internet instructions. Careful watering every day. Plants grew, blossomed, looked amazing! Then they promptly all died! Shriveled-up within a couple of days which caused me a great deal of embarrassment and humiliation with the neighbors. :( Since then, I found and purchased Joel Karsten’s amazing book, “Straw Bale Gardens” for about $10. It is worth every blessed penny!!!! You will NOT be disappointed trying this method once you get all the tried and true instructions! It will save you time and money in the long run. And you will be very happy with your results! Promise! :)

  16. Bailey Suzanne

    Did you test the bale for herbicide? The way it wilts everything, I suspect it might have broadleaf herbicide in it. Just a guess.

    • Marjory Wildcraft

      Very good point Bailey. Especially ‘horse quality’ anything will have pesticides.

      You’ll are reminding me that I need to do that thing on home made pesticide test.

  17. mustang75

    Did you find any hard shelled black beetles in the straw. Here in AZ, we had a really bad time time them this summer. They are “Blister Beetles” that travel in packs, eat everything, including the stomach lining of livestock.

    Next Spring check through the bales and the surrounding areas to include any bushes, flowering plants, veggies, etc…they are not picky eaters.

    Do not pick them up, they will bite and cause a blister…yes, ouch…

    Do the “Blister Beetle” stomp. It’s sweet revenge. Several cows and horses went down here in the AZ Central Highlands last Summer from these 1/2 (max) creatures, and all seem to have come in straw bales.

  18. mustang75

    Lorraine;

    Instead of commercial fertilizer, purchase a package of Red Wriggler Worms (Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm has them on sale for Christmas). They make incredible fertilizer, both in castings and in worm tea (urine).

    A good standard recipe for worm tea is:

    5 gallons of De-chlorinated water. If using tap water let stand for 24 hours or highly aerate with an aquarium pump and air stone to reduce the time to eliminate the chlorine.

    1/3 cup of Molasses. This is a food source for growing and multiplying the essential micro organisms.

    1/3 cup of Vegetable Oil. This aids when used as a foliage spray to help stick to the leaves and to smother insect eggs and larva.

    1 cup of Worm Castings.

    Optional additives:
    1 tablespoons of kelp meal
    1 tablespoon of humic acid

    Instructions for Brewing:
    1. Dissolve all the ingredients into the water except the worm castings.
    2. If you have a cheese cloth bag place the castings in it and lower into your water and attach to the bucket or whatever you’re using (it will be dipped or steeped much like a tea bag into the water). If you don’t have a bag the castings can be mixed into the water freely but will need to filtered out or care taken not to pour into your sprayer as the castings could clog the sprayer.
    3. Add heavy aeration air stones or whatever source used to aerate the water. Depending on the temperature you’ll need to aerate the water for about 24 hours. Times may be shorter if temps are above 80 but longer if below 80.

    Make sure you use the finished tea within 24 hours or the microbes will start dieing and be reduced. The sooner you use the tea the better!

    Apply the tea as often and as much as you’d like for better results. You can’t overuse it.

    Then, jump back quick so you don’t get poked in the eye with the sproutings!

  19. Simone Shaffer

    My Mother in law grows watermellons in straw bales…she said the only importiant thing is to make sure they “weather” for a year before planting in them. New straw gets to hot as it decomposes and cooks the plants.

  20. maryruth

    WSU Benton County extension office has a nice pdf file on strawbale gardening. At the end of the article are some more references. It gives enough detail you are not questioning anything. I just downloaded it online the other day.

    hth

    • Marjory Wildcraft

      Hi Mary,

      that was a useful document. Like almost all Extension office info it does talk about commercial fertilizers and such – but you can use urine or watered down livestock manures.

      I would also be careful of getting hay or straw that was grown with herbicides.

      • Leslie Parsons

        Yes, Marjory, any straw bale that is not from an organic farm, is likely to have HERBICIDE applied to it. A straw bale is not magic. It is just organic material. We all look toward the day when these damaging chemicals are no longer in use. The European Union has taken the first big step, by outlawing the “neonics”. But, until then we need to make an heroic effort to keep them out of our gardens and out of our family’s mouths!

        In urban or suburban areas, there is often a readily available supply of wood chips. When homeowners apply herbicide, it is not on trees and woody shrubs, because it would quickly kill these plants. So, wood chip are generally safe. In most residential areas, they can be had for free.

        I am all for a quick start, and if you are gardening where there is no soil, you have no other choice. If one of the benefits of straw bale gardening is weed and grass suppression, then cardboard – another readily available, free material – is the best I have ever tried. Here in Central Texas, we compete with an outrageously invasive weed: It is Bermuda grass. If you are going over a weed patch, which includes one of the top ten invasive weeds, then cardboard first is essential. Next, add a super thick, mattress like layer of wood chips, or whatever organic material you have. Just like straw bale, this setup improves with time and rainfall – if you can get it!!! Ha, ha!

        I have access to extraordinary quality, manufactured topsoil. Most people do not have this luxury. However, adding a planting well of the best homemade or bagged, organic potting soil you can, will give you a start, on a par with the straw bales. Just as in the straw bale system, the addition of goodies, such as compost, worm castings or their respective teas, glacial or volcanic rock dust, green sand, etc., are all pluses.

        If you are not on rock or beach sand, it is worth the time, effort and expense to prepare your soil. You will never have to do it again and the benefits you reap will last as long as there is a garden on that wonderful ground.

        Keep growin’ folks!

  21. Great Grey

    Yes, straw is water resistant as it used to thatch roofs.
    And remember some plants may not like one kind of straw or do better with a different kind. Yes, let it rot down unless you’re just using it as mulch. You might try oat straw too.

  22. Victoria Griffin

    I don’t know a darn thing, but I suggest you contact your local Master Gardeners in your area. They are highly trained, love to garden and are very helpful. Your Ag Extension folks can tell you how to locate them.

  23. I would think there is not enough composted material and not enough minerals. The Ca/Mg ratio should be 68%/12-20%. I have pure sand to work with- few minerls and low orgnic matter- we have raised beds with composted bunny and goat poo, with the straw on top to hold moisture- band then we test the soil and balance for Ca/Mg, then also add microminerals like Azomite. Minerals make a huge difference.And live microbes from the composted material.

    • Marjory Wildcraft

      You know, I’ve come to the conclusion that I should not think of my sand as a soil.. After years of pouring more and more compost on it and having that ‘disappear’ – like amazingly fast… I am going to raided beds with a layer of clay underneath.

      With a straw bale system, I believe you do put a little area with soil for the plant to start in. but yes, there mus be some minerals lacking overall. I wonder if you loaded it with minerals and compost tea for biology, and nitrogen, could this be a good little system to use for when you need plant separation – like with squash? Not too much bothers squash (deer, chickens, rabbits, etc. don’t really like squash) so it could be put out further away than you would normally have veggies.

      Just a thought.

  24. Alan Bowen

    Forget the straw and go with Hay bales.
    There is a lot more there to feed your plants.
    It rots down very nice.
    I bought 12 bales and just left them three years.
    I have a very worn out sandy loam and three years later you should have seen the soil under those broke down bales. What was left of the hay was a wonderful mulch that fed other growing plants. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXWz6AmzH_c