What is straw bale gardening?

Several of my friends (and commentors on my blog) have asked questions about straw bale gardening – so here it is: straw bale gardening the Ranting About Rectangles way!

To start with, straw bale gardening is just a different kind of container gardening. It appeals to people who can not – or do not want to – have a traditional garden involving tilling up the soil. It is simply putting straw bales on the ground, and putting plants in the straw bales! There is a little more to it than that, but not much.

tomato in straw bale

A tomato growing in a bale of straw

There are two main reasons I can’t do the traditional garden method where I live. One is the water – there is simply too much of it. My soil does not drain well, and after most rains there are actual puddles in my yard for hours. They would drown any sensitive garden vegetable before they dried out. The other is the number of blackberry vines in my yard. They’re *everywhere* and I don’t have control of them yet. Tilling the soil here only gives them an easier place to grow, and it is difficult to garden when you are concerned with getting stuck with thorns you can’t even see yet. So, container gardening for me.

Next, I chose straw bale gardening because I have good access to the things that are needed for it. Regular container gardening requires containers, and large amounts of potting soil, neither of which I have convenient access to. But slightly differently – straw bale gardening is great for people who have access to large amounts of compost. I’ve been building my compost pile for more than a year now, and much of it is ready to use. Coffee grounds are *great* for straw bale gardening, and I have access to pounds and pounds of them each week. So, the straw bale version of container gardening for me.

I also enjoy the benefit of not having to weed my garden. The straw bales have no seeds in them, and only get the ones I put there, or the occasional grass seed or dandelion seed that’s easy to pluck out. (Unlike soil that has tons of seeds in it all the time just waiting for the right conditions to sprout.)

And straw bales are environmentally friendly; the straw bales last between one and three years before disintegrating. Perfect for someone who expects to live here just two more years, and who doesn’t want to pack up regular containers and put them in a moving truck! Used straw bales can be cut apart, and used as attractive mulch around existing trees and bushes. No waste, and nothing to transport.

And lastly, I like to garden without having to bend and stoop to reach my plants. Using straw bales as containers brings the plants up to a much easier height for me to reach.

Starting a straw bale garden is easy, too. I’ve reduced it down to four steps:

1 – Get straw bales. At my local feed store, straw bales are $5.99 each. I got 20 delivered for an additional $20.
2 – Put the bales where you want them. Make sure the strings that hold each bale together are on the sides of each bale as you put it down, not over the top and bottom. Leave the strings intact.
3 – Condition the straw bales. At a minimum, this means get them wet. You want the insides of the bales to start to compost themselves. This creates nutrients right inside each straw bale. If you have fertilizer or compost or coffee grounds, put some on top of each bale and water it in. This adds additional nutrients and gives a kickstart to the composting inside the bale.
4 – Plant your garden in the straw bales. This is literally as simple as removing some of the straw from each bale, and putting soil or compost in the resulting hole. Then place your plant start on the soil, and fill in around it with more soil.

After that, water it and treat it as a normal garden. A straw bale garden IS a garden, it’s just planted in straw bales.

compost on straw bales

Conditioning the straw bales for the garden

It’s important to keep the straw bales wet. Damp is enough as long as the water is throughout the bale. The water you put on each day carries the nutrients from the soil and compost and composting straw through the bale and to the developing roots of the plants.

There is no (or very, very little) weeding to do. If you happen to get a weed sprout or two, they’re easy to pull out. This means your plants are easy to pull out, too, so be careful about that!

You will need the same support system for tall plants that you would use in a traditional garden. So stakes for vining beans, cages for tomatoes, things like that. And if you are planting something where the edibles are a large part of the root system, you will want to snip the twine holding the bales together so the edibles have room to grow to their full size. This applies to things like potatoes, sweet potatoes, large onions, beets, or other roots of similar size. Not to carrots, radishes, or other thin or small roots.

And now you know pretty much all I know about growing a straw bale garden. Stay tuned to this blog – I’m getting my garden planted and will soon be able to post pictures of more plants than just tomatoes growing in my straw bale garden!

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