The Pros and Cons of Straw Bale Gardening

A man using a water can to water tomatoes

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Straw bale gardening gets a lot of press—and for a good reason. The technique allows you to put a substantial but temporary garden almost anywhere, even if your yard's sunniest spot happens to be the middle of your driveway. They're a raised container garden inside a biodegradable container. Sounds great, right? Could be. Check out the technique's pros and cons to help you decide if you want to set up a straw bale garden.

Straw Bale Gardening Pros

Straw bale gardening is just that, planting your seedlings into bales of straw. They function essentially as a raised bed (each bale is 14–16 inches high) and a container garden in one. As the straw breaks down over the course of the summer, it turns into compost that feeds your plants. Advantages to the method include:

  • Easy on Your Back: Straw bale gardening is one of the easiest and least physically taxing kinds of gardening. After you get your straw bales in place, you don’t even have to bend down to the ground pick your veggies or pull out any weeds.
  • Garden Anywhere: You can put a straw bale garden anywhere sunny. That said, it's not a good idea to put bales on any wood you care about, such as a deck, because their constant dampness could cause it to rot. But you can garden in a driveway, empty lot, or rooftop, provided the roof can handle the weight. The bales hold a lot of water and get heavy.
  • Economical: You can get straw bales at nurseries, feed stores, or even from some farms for less than $10 per bale, maybe even less than $5, depending on the size, whom you buy from, and the going price where you live. 
  • They Work: You can have huge success with growing vegetables in straw bales. Although you have to stay on top of watering, compared to other container gardens, the bales do retain water pretty well.

    Cons

    Because the straw bales decompose over the season, it's not a crisp and neat way to garden, even at the outset, so most of the cons are about the garden's look.

    • Weeds: Even if you use straw bales—not hay bales, unless you suffocate the weeds before you plant your garden—your bales will sprout and if left alone will start looking like giant Chia Pets. The good news is that the sprouts are easy to pull out or to trim with scissors. You may even have mushrooms and fungus growing in your bales. They are usually either easy to get rid of or you can ignore them, as most won't harm your plants.
    • End-of-Season Funk: By the end of the growing season, a straw bale garden can look ragged. As the bales compost, they get a little saggy and untidy.
    • Stability: If you have tall plants in them, such as large tomatoes, sometimes the bales can't hold up the plants' weight and start to tip over. You can add extra staking, grow shorter varieties of tomatoes, or just let them sprawl.
    • Bales are Heavy: Straw bales are heavy, especially when wet. If you’re not very strong or have an injury, you may need some help setting up your straw bale garden.
    • Potential to Contain Toxins: If the straw comes from a field that was sprayed in the last few years with a persistent herbicide (containing the chemicals aminopyralid, clopyralid, picloram, or aminocyclopyrachlor), it can actually harm your garden plants. Manure in the straw can also contain residue of herbicides that was sprayed on the hay that the animals ate (possibly present in feed from a feed store). The chemicals don't affect the animals but could take out your vegetables. If you put bales with these problems in your garden, it can be several years before you can plant in that location again. And you don't want toxic straw in your compost pile either, as the toxins will contaminate it, which defeats the purpose of using a biodegradable container for your container garden. (Decorative bales from craft stores may have been treated with a fire retardant chemical as well, so definitely don't reuse those for gardening.)