Straw Bale Gardening

  • 01 of 05

    Straw Bale Gardens

    container gardening picture of straw bale garden
    Straw Bale Garden. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Straw bale gardening is also called bale gardening or mistakenly, hay bale gardening. Whatever you call it, it's a great way to grow herbs and vegetables. It's economical, easier on your back and is great for people with mobility issues. I love it and it works incredibly well for me because it allows me, very inexpensively to put a temporary garden in my driveway, where I get the best sun.

    To find out if straw bale gardening makes sense for you, read about the pros and cons.

    Before we get to the instructions, I want to share a few tips:

    • Don't make a hay bale garden use straw. Make sure you get straw bales, not hay bales. This is key because hay bales will have even more weeds than straw bales.
    • If you can, put your straw bale garden near a water source. Any garden takes a fair amount of water, and though I’ve found that the bales do a pretty good job of retaining water, it’s still great to be right near a hose.
    • Try solarizing your bales. I haven’t tried it myself, but have been told that if you solarize your bales by wrapping them in black plastic for several weeks before you plant them, you can get rid of most weed and sprouting problems. Take off the plastic before you prep your bales
    • Be careful of tall plants. While I have grown giant tomato plants in a straw bale garden successfully, by the end of the season, the bales had started to decompose and the tomato plants started to tilt. You can either grow smaller varieties of tomatoes or keep them pruned and have them grow on wider, rather than taller trellises.
    • Make sure you actually have full-sun. Don’t just guess because almost everyone over-estimates sun exposure.
    • Don’t place your bale where water pools. You don’t want your bales sitting in water or your plants will drown.
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  • 02 of 05

    Setting Up Straw Bale Garden

    container gardening picture of straw bale garden
    Set Up Your Your Bale Garden. Photograph © Kerry Michaels
    • Place your bales where you want them. Once they are wet they are extremely heavy, and you won’t want to move them.
    • Set up the bales so that the twine holding the bales is horizontal to the ground.
    • Sheared side up. Your bale will have one side that looks like each piece of straw has been folded over and the other side will look like it has been sheared off. You want the sheared side facing up.
    • Configure your bales. You can put your bales in rows or create a raised bed by putting them together. Be aware that as the bales decompose they shrink so the spaces between the bales will get larger. I have also set them up in a box so that they create a bed in the middle, which I filled with soil. Note that it is pretty hard to reach the middle bed, so plant things that will climb on trellises.
    Continue to 3 of 5 below.
  • 03 of 05

    Prepping Straw Bale Garden

    container gardening picture of straw bale garden
    Watering Fertilizer Into Straw Bale Garden. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Prepping your straw bales is key and takes about a week to ten days to do it properly. The aim is to have your straw bales start decomposing before you plant them - you want them to start composting which will provide some of the nutrition your plants will need.

    I prepare my straw bales organically. Most of the other instructions I've found will tell you to use a high powered chemical fertilizer. I use a low number organic which works really well.

    • After your bales are set up, generously spread all-purpose fertilizer on top of your bales. I use an organic fertilizer called Garden Tone.​
    • Water in the fertilizer, making sure to saturate every bale, every day for several days.​
    • Add more fertilizer every couple of days, spreading it generously, then soak your bales.​
    • I then put a mix of potting soil and compost on top of the bales so I can plant seeds as well as seedlings on the bales. This layer is about two to three inches thick.
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  • 04 of 05

    Planting a Straw Bale Garden

    planted straw bale garden
    Newly Planted Straw Bale Garden with Grow Boxes in Front. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    To plant seedlings in your straw bale, simply take a sharp trowel (I am particularly fond of Soil Scoops, and stick it down into your straw bale, wiggling it back and forth to make room for your seedling. As usual, make sure to plant seedlings no deeper than they sit in their nursery pot. Also, try to place taller plants in the back of your garden, so that when they grow, they won’t shade the smaller plants.

    You can also stick plants in the sides of the bales.

    If you are planting seeds in your straw bales, just do it like you normally would, following the directions on the seed packet.

    To get a head start on the season, you can start your seeds indoors. Here are some links for seed starting information.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Caring For Straw Bale Gardens

    container gardening picture of straw bale garden with fencing
    Straw Bale Gardens Looking a Little Tired at the End of the Season. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    While the height of straw bale gardens makes them inhospitable to some garden pests, there are several critters that will not hesitate to scale your bales and eat your entire harvest. In my area, a fence is mandatory or groundhogs will decimate my harvest. I use an inexpensive wire fence that looks ok and discourages them from feasting on my produce. I have tried plastic snakes to keep the squirrels and chipmunks away, but don't really think they worked, though they did scare some humans!

    Water regularly to keep your straw bales moist. In the heat of the summer, this may mean every day. It’s best for plants to water in the morning making sure to water the bale, not the leaves.

    The good news is that excess water will drain out the bottom of your bales so your plants won’t be sitting in water and there is less chance of drowning them.

    Even though plants will get nutrition from the internal composting of the bales, you still need to fertilize your plants. I use a diluted liquid fish emulsion and seaweed combination every couple of weeks for fertilizer.

    At the end of the season, I let my bales decompose, using the remnants the following season as mulch.