Straw Bales: The Secret to Gardening Without Soil

You dream of having your own garden, but what if you don’t have a viable garden patch – or really any garden space at all? Straw bale gardening is a great way to plant an organic garden in very little space, without any digging, weeding, or even any soil!

Whether you live in an apartment with only a little outside space, or even just a concrete patio, or you have soil that is not amenable to gardening, you can use straw bales to plant a little organic garden of your very own – with much less work than traditional gardening.

Fall is a great time to set up your straw bale garden, so they will be nice and conditioned and ready to plant come spring. This will help you avoid any delays or worries that the bales will not be ready in time. It’s also a great time to find straw bales – some supermarkets or farm stands will give away their straw bales that were used for fall displays. Keep an eye out for free or steeply discounted bales after Halloween. (Note that, unless you get them directly from a farmer, they may not be organically sourced.)

You will need a few amendments, and access to plenty of water, but with just a bit of preparation, you’ll be growing your own beautiful vegetables next year.

We actually grew part of our garden this year in hay bales, and will post an end-of-season update soon, but here are the basics of building your own straw bale garden.

You can put together a straw bale garden right on your lawn, your driveway…or anywhere that gets at least six to eight hours of sun. It’s especially good for growers who live in northern climes with shorter growing seasons — the bales heat up much quicker than soil, stimulating early-season root growth.

1. Source your straw

You can toss the dice…and purchase straw bales from your local garden center, but it’s best to source them direct from the farm. If you want to garden organically, the person at the garden center won’t likely know how the straw was grown….

2. Position your bales

Before you set up your bales, lay down landscape fabric to prevent weeds from growing up through the bales. Arrange the bales side by side in rows, with their cut sides up…. The strings will help keep the shape of the bales as they start to soften and decompose.

3. Condition the bales

Two weeks before you plant, you have to get the bales cooking. This means wetting and fertilizing the bales for roughly 10 days to start composting the inner straw….


4. Build a trellis and greenhouse in one

One of the coolest things about straw bale gardening is that it combines the best of container gardening with vertical gardening….

5. Time to plant

If you’re planting seedlings, use your trowel to separate the straw in the shape of a hole and add some sterile planting mix to help cover the exposed roots. If you’re planting seeds, then cover the bales with a one to two-inch layer of planting mix and sew into this seedbed. As the seeds germinate, they’ll grow roots down into the bale itself….

6. Look, ma — no weeding

If you lay a soaker hose over your bales, you’ve pretty much eliminated all your work until harvest. That’s because your “soil” doesn’t contain weed seeds. There’s one caveat, though — if you didn’t get your straw from a farmer, there’s a chance your straw…contains its own seed….

7. The harvest after the harvest

When the harvest season ends, the bales will be soft, saggy and gray — but that’s exactly what you want. Because when you pile the straw together and leave it to compost over winter, you’ll have a mound of beautiful compost to fill all your pots and planters in the spring.

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Rose S.

An avid gardener since childhood, I love sharing my passion for gardening with others! I have gardened in a number of different climates and settings, from large fenced garden plots, to tiny patio and container gardens, and I firmly believe that everyone can learn to grow at least some of their own food - no matter where you live. Growing your own food can help you take control of your own health and food supply, and there has never been a better time to get started!

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