Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Guide To Straw Bale Gardening

Today we have a great article by a wonderful friend of mine, Melana MacLeod.
For anyone who has wanted to know how to or is curious about straw bale gardening then you will love this post!

Straw Bale Gardening by Melana MacLeod
Straw Bale Gardening...Part 1

I had been asked to blog about Straw Bale Gardening. Can you say "easier than dirt"? In fact, you do NOT plant in the plant in bales of Straw. It's easy, you can garden anywhere and in any climate. It's also great for those that are not physically able to "garden" in the traditional sense of the word. No bending, no hoeing, no weeding! And, if you grow in Straw Bales you can get your things in and growing several weeks sooner than planting in dirt which lengthens your growing season. Here are the basics with some pictures from last years Straw Bale garden.
1. The bales must be STRAW, not HAY. While it may not appear to be that much different it IS. Straw has almost all of the "grain" removed while hay is filled with seeds from weeds, grains and grasses. Think about it, if your watering a bale filled with seed what's gonna happen? Yup, you'll have a beautifully green, lush bale filled with weeds! Straw still contains a few pieces of grain here and there but you don't even need to pull them if you don't want to...they die off quickly.
2. There is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to set your bales down. Straw is banded with either nylon twine, coarse twine or wire. You do not want to lay your bales down with the twine on should be on the sides of the bale. And which end you set it on also matters! One end of the bale will have the straw that looks smooth and bent over the other end will STRAWS. It will be cut and you'll see down into the straw pieces. This allows more water to get down into the bale vs. running off.
3. Location, make sure your bales will receive at LEAST 6 hours of bright sunlight a day. This is especially important for tomatoes. So, choose wisely and know that once you start to condition your bales they will become super heavy because of the watering...and you do not want to try and move them then. Believe me, they weigh a ton!
4. Rows....straw bales should be set in rows running lengthwise north and south. This helps a great deal to make sure your bales are getting equal sunlight and not blocked light. It's important for all your crops to receive FULL and direct sunshine.
5. Keeping weeds down....I save cardboard from boxes etc and put the cardboard down on the ground and then place my bales on top of it. While it looks a bit "messy" at first once you start conditioning your bales the cardboard that is hanging out from under your bales will just pull up and you can either toss it in the compost pile or use it for something else. I try very hard not to use cardboard that has ink writing on it, especially colored ink. You can put your bales anywhere. There is no need to dig up grass or bring in dirt. Just plunk those bales down anywhere! You can put them on a driveway, patio or out in the middle of your yard! I do not, however, suggest you put them on a wood deck as it will stain/rot the wood eventually.
To are the basics:
~Choose your location
~Plants should have a minimum of 6 hours of sunlight daily
~Be sure you have STRAW NOT HAY
~Put down cardboard or newspaper to prevent weeds from growing through your bale
~Set your bale rows to run in a North to South direction, end to end.
~Make sure you have your bales facing up the right way with the cut straw end UP
You can find straw bales from farmers in your area, livestock feed stores and some hardware stores. Google it for your area if you don't know where to go or let me know and I can try and find a location for you to purchase your bales. Sometimes even the big box hardware stores carry straw bales for landscaping purposes.
You are now ready to start conditioning your Straw Bales! That will come in "Straw Bale Gardening...Conditioning your bales". Part 2
In the pictures below you can see the "end to end" North/South orientation of the bales. You can also take note of the cardboard under the bales. Notice the nylon twine as it goes AROUND the bales and the cut/straw end facing UP.

Straw Bale Gardening - Conditioning Your Bales - Part 2

Conditioning your Straw Bales is easy. It takes about 12-14 days to do so but really only takes 15 minutes or so each day during that time. "Conditioning" the bales means you are composting internally to the point where the inside of those bales will support root growth. There are tiny microbes inside the bales and you are "feeding" them with fertilizer which steps up the conditioning process. You are instantly composting your bales to be simple about it.
If you want to plant by the middle of May you will need to start conditioning your bales about 2 weeks before that. Find the average "last frost" date for your area and go back 2 weeks...this is a great time to condition those bales!
What do I need to condition my bales? Water and fertilizer....that's it. Your fertilizer should have a nitrogen content 20% or more higher than the Phosphorous and Potassium. Look at a bag of'll see 3 numbers like 20-0-4. The first is always Nitrogen, second is Phosphorous and the third Potassium. In some areas, if you in or close to a farming community, you can get pure Nitrogen fertilizer that is 30-0-0 or higher! Your fertilizer must NOT be a "time released" fertilizer or contain a "pre-emergent". A pre-emergent is nothing more than a weed killer. So, if your using that to condition your bales it will kill off your transplants and seedlings! You can use just a plain lawn fertilizer.
The process of "conditioning":
Day 1 - Spread 1/2 cup (4 oz) of fertilizer over the entire top surface of each bale. Use a hose with a strong stream of water or a hose with sprayer end to push the fertilizer down into the bale. You'll know your done when you can no longer see the fertilizer. SOAK that bale, your doing it correctly when the water is exiting the bottom of the bale.
Day 2 - All you need to do today is water the bales. Make sure they are completely saturated.
Day 3 - Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of fertilizer on each bale top and water.
Day 4 - Today is a just water day once again!
Day 5 - Sprinkle another 1/2 cup of fertilizer and water completely.
Day 6 - You might be able to start smelling an "odor" of decomposition in your bales...that's GOOD, if not try using a bucket of warmish water over the bales to water today.
Day's 7, 8 and 9 . Apply only 1/4 cup of fertilizer to each bale and water till running through the bottom. Use warm water if you can, if you cannot that's fine too!
Day 10 - Apply one cup per bale of a "balanced" 10-10-10 general garden fertilizer. The job today is to get some Phosphorus and Potassium into the bales and get it into the root zone area of the bale. Again, no weed killer, pre-emergent, crab grass killer etc. should be in the fertilizer.
Day 11 - Water completely water is fine.
Days 12, 13, 14 - What you have created is a rich, nutrient packed area deep within your bales that is slightly composted organic material. You can even tell that it is MUCH warmer then the air or soil's "cooking", it's filled with worms and good bacteria and disease free! You have essentially created a mini "greenhouse" inside your bales. Seedlings and transplants will thrive in the warm bales early in the season and your seeds will germinate quickly! On these days you do nothing but stand back and appreciate all you have accomplished!
Your bales are ready to plant....but ONLY if the internal temperature of your bales have dropped to 85-90 degrees.....NOW you are ready to plant!
** Just a couple notes here. Your going to freak out when you see mushrooms sprouting and covering your bales. But, this is a GREAT thing! It means your bales have composted to the point that they are a perfect medium for growth. Congratulate yourself "you done good"!! You can make yourself crazy by pulling them out OR leave them, they will die off and just provide more compost material for your plants!
Watch for "Straw Bale Gardening....Getting Ready To Plant! ~ Part 3

Thank you Melana for this wonderful, informed article!
I don't know about the rest of you but I can't wait to try this form of gardening.
Look for the final segments of Straw Bale Gardening to be posted in a couple of days :)


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed it is just SO easy to do and really increases your anything, it's a learning experience. This type of growing can be adapted to ANY geographic area...they are very popular in Urban areas where traditional gardens are hard to come by. Some have formed groups, approached their City Leaders and have been given the use of empty parking lots, lots and in some cases parks to plant straw bale gardens. It would also be a great project for schools to teach children how easy it is to grow your own food!

    1. That is so wonderful Melana!
      This type of gardening would be awesome for our area as we have so much shale and no real soil. Our biggest problem for any type of gardening is the hail.
      I am going to try a bale or two inside of the greenhouse so that it is protected :)
      Thank you again for writing this wonderful article. <3

  2. Great information! Thank you so much for sharing your information. Looking forward to part 2. :)

  3. The final parts should be up in the next day or so Denise.
    I think this would be an awesome idea for you and Darla with those hot, dry summers you have there.
    Thanks for stopping by and for commenting.