I have been an avid gardener now for over 25 years, which makes me feel alarmingly OLD but it is what it is! I have had many gardening failures and successes under my gardening belt. After so many years of it I thought it would be fun to branch out into other territories and try some different methods. The last couple of years I have used some raised beds for some of my plants but this year I thought I would give straw bale gardening a try!
My family jokes that I am always cooking up some crazy scheme that I drag them into, so as my husband was stacking the 10th straw bale on the pickup truck I mentioned to him how fun this would be to put on the website and share with you all the outcome, while of course denying that I am not the instigator of any of the aforementioned “crazy schemes.” Variety is the spice of life right?
I am happy to say that the straw bale garden was a wonderful success, not a lot of trouble once the bales were situated (thank you hubby) and yielded very good results! Read on to see the simple steps to get the best results!
Gather your bales
These can usually be found at home and garden stores. It is much cheaper if you can buy them right directly off of the farm if possible. Be sure that you are purchasing straw bales and not hay bales or you will contend with a lot of weeds growing. If you want to go with a strictly organic garden this may be a little bit harder to find depending on your area but not impossible. I was told that many times it could have been as much as a year since anything was sprayed on the bale if it was sprayed at all. But if this is a concern for you do some looking around for organic bales. They are out there! I placed mine on top of some broken down cardboard boxes for weed control. Plastic is not recommended here but cardboard or several layers of newspaper works well.
Condition your bales
Straw bale gardens are able to be planted a bit earlier then a traditional garden so taking that in to account you will need to begin conditioning your bales approximately 3 weeks before you are ready to plant. By conditioning your bales you are essentially starting the process of the bales breaking down into compost so that the material is more viable for plants to grow in. You will need a high Nitrogen fertilizer. Actually it needs to be mostly all nitrogen. When looking at the numbers on the bag of fertilizer you want the first number to be way higher than the other two numbers. Make sure wherever you place your bales that you have easy access to a water source. You will need it! You may use just refined lawn fertilizer or if you are going the organic route you can use chicken compost, blood meal, feather meal or any other nitrogen rich organic fertilizer. Make sure to not purchase anything with an herbicide in it such as a weed and feed type product. You are ready to begin the conditioning schedule now that the bales are down and the fertilizer is purchased. Day one: Apply 1/2 cup of regular fertilizer or three cups of organic fertilizer to the top of each bale. Water with a strong sprayer into the bale, be sure to saturate the bale well and drive the fertilizer into the bale. Day two: Only water the bale again. Day three: Repeat the fertilizer application and watering as you did on Day 1. Day four: Water only, saturate well. I should say that the warmer the water you have available the better as the bales will begin to “heat up” and you could interrupt that process with cold water. I wasn’t able to do that and mine still worked but your time schedule may be a bit off. Day five: Fertilizer application and water. Day six: It should really be beginning to heat up and you may be able to feel some warmth if you stick your finger down in the bale. Try to start doing warm water if you are able at all and water only today. Day seven, eight and nine: You can cut your fertilizer back to 1/4 cup regular and 1 1/2 cups organic each day with warm watering. You will begin to smell an aroma coming from the bales that smells somewhat sweet. It’s working! Day ten: Here there will be a difference. You want to switch to a 10-10-10 fertilizer here so you are adding the potassium and phosphate now. For organic gardeners you may add some bone meal or fish meal with 50 percent wood ash. Mushrooms may begin to sprout at this point but no worries! This is a good sign. See one of my videos below for what this looks like. Day eleven through eighteen just allow the bales to continue cooking on their own before planting. They will begin to compost on the inside. Go pick out your plants!
One of the best ways to water your garden is by using a simple inexpensive soaker hose. You will just need to run the soaker hose along the top of your bale and secure it with a small piece of wire. See video for demo.
Time to plant!
If you are buying plants you will gently spread the straw apart with a small hand shovel and place the plant in the hole. Then you will need to put some dirt over the hole around the plant to protect it where the straw may be pulled away. If you are planting seeds, make a small seed bed on the top of the bale by putting a small layer of dirt across the top of the bale and then planting your seeds in the thin layer of soil.
To trellis or not?
If you are going to have many large plants it is wise to put a trellis up by placing two green metal fence posts, one on each end of the row of bales and attach a board across the top to keep the trellis from sagging. Then you can wrap wire across to each pole to allow the plants to grow up the trellis. I have to admit I did not do this but rather I allowed my vines to grow onto the ground and simply staked my tomato plants. It worked well for me. When we had to mow it took me a couple of minutes to lay the vines on top of the bales, mow and then place them back on the ground.
Be sure to water it!
We had a lot of rain this year so I didn’t have to water my garden as much as I might have ordinarily done but you can simply stick your finger down into the bale and see if it feels moist and if not turn your soaker hose on for an hour or so. If you are getting a lot of rain this may not need to be done. You will be able to gauge this by how well your plants seem to be flourishing.
That is basically what I did to grow my garden. What I like about it is that no matter how small or large an area you have you can adapt your straw bales to fit your space. I’ve even seen someone take one bale and place it on an apartment balcony! There’s no better satisfaction than eating a wonderful healthy vegetable that you planted and tended with your own hands. Give it a try!
Here are a few videos you might want to check out demonstrating the different stages of my garden: