3 Tips for Setting Up a Straw Bale Garden
Straw bale gardening has a number of benefits for some gardening situations. Here are a few tips for starting your own straw bale garden…
Have poor soil, poor drainage, or no soil at all? Try straw bale gardening! Straw bale gardening (which can also be done using hay bales, the way we do it) is growing vegetables in bales of straw or hay that are partially decomposed.
There are a number of benefits to straw bale gardening, including pH levels (the interior of your straw bale, depending on your water, will be around 7 on the pH scale – an ideal number for most veggie crops), drainage (you can’t flood a straw bale! No matter how much it rains, your bale will only hold about 3-5 gallons of water at a time), and reduced pest and disease pressure.
There are also a few drawbacks, including the fact that the bales can dry out very quickly in hot and dry weather, so this may not be a very efficient way to garden in hot, dry climates. You also have to be careful of the source of your bales, as some straw may contain persistent herbicides that can inhibit your garden’s growth. If you’re not sure whether your bales are safe or not, here is a simple test recommended by The Grow Network:
- Grow a flat of legumes (peas, beans, etc.).
- Mix a few handfuls of the straw or hay with water in a five-gallon bucket and stir frequently for a day or two.
- Then, use the water on the legumes.
- Keep an eye on the legumes to see how they respond. If the second and third set of leaves look normal, the straw, hay, or manure is probably safe to use.
Here are a few tips for starting a straw bale garden:
1. Prepping Your Bales
Depending on which kind of straw you’re using, you could be starting with as much as an 80:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. What you’re aiming for at the end of the conditioning process is a 20:1 ratio. So, you’ll need to add a significant amount of nitrogen. (This process is called “conditioning” the bale.)
You’ll spend several days conditioning the bale, although exactly how long it takes depends on what type of nitrogen you choose—traditional or organic.
Either way, you’ll want to start the conditioning process 20 days before your area’s average last frost date.
This will help ensure that the temperature outside isn’t so cold that it inhibits bacterial growth…
2. Conditioning with Organic Fertilizer
You’ll need 18 days to complete the conditioning process if you use organic fertilizers such as feather meal or bone meal, both of which have about 12 percent nitrogen. These fertilizers work because they are high in protein, and as it decomposes, protein becomes nitrogen.
(Some people even use urine, which has between 9 and 12 percent nitrogen, but keep in mind that you’ll need about 3-1/2 gallons of urine per bale per day!)
If you use an organic fertilizer, use 3 cups per bale on days 1, 3, and 5. Then, use 1 to 1-1/2 cups on days 7, 8, and 9.
On the 10th day, it’s time to add phosphorous and potassium. Do so by applying 1 cup of bone meal and 1 cup of wood ash to each bale.
You’ll be ready to plant in the bale by day 18.
3. Irrigating Your Bales
Whether you use organic or traditional fertilizers, you’ll need to water your bales every day—during both the conditioning process and the growing season.
Every day during the conditioning process, add one gallon of water to each bale. If you’re watering on a day when you also fertilize, add the fertilizer first, then top it with water to help push it into the bale.
It’s okay if the fertilizer doesn’t completely wash into the interior. The bacteria will actually come up to the surface of the bale to access the fertilizer when they need it.
Ideally, use water that has been warmed to air temperature so you’re not inhibiting the decomposers with frigid water straight from the spigot. Simply fill a bucket with water today, then use it tomorrow so the water has had a chance to warm up a bit.
Once the conditioning process is complete, you’ll still want to water your bales each day when it is hot and dry – or every other day at minimum.
There are two options that Joel recommends:
- The cheapest, easiest, and quickest method is to use a soaker hose. However, the UV light from the sun breaks them down fairly quickly, and you’ll end up having to replace the hoses eventually.
- Once you know straw bale gardening is for you, he recommends upgrading to a drip system. It’s a little more expensive up front, but due to its adjustable nature, a drip irrigation system allows you to save money on water long-term since you are able to water each bale only as much as the plant needs. For example, your tomatoes are going to need more water than your potatoes. With a soaker hose, you have to water to your least common denominator—meaning your potatoes are going to get overwatered so that your tomatoes can get enough water. Drip irrigation solves that problem.
What can you grow in your straw bales? Just about anything! However, there are a few plants that don’t do as well in bales, or that don’t make sense due to inefficient use of space. For example, corn is a space hog, and its height also makes it ill-suited for planting in hay or straw bales.
In our experience, most root vegetables (other than potatoes) don’t do great in bales. Nightshades (other than eggplants, for some reason) have done wonderfully for us in bales, and due to some soil issues, we’ve switched to growing peppers almost exclusively in hay bales. Melons and squash also love them, and it’s the only way we grow potatoes.
Need help with starting your own straw bale garden? Check out this helpful resource for a detailed, step-by-step guide!