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10 Straw Bale Gardening Tips

April 20th, 2018

Spring is in full-swing this year, and it’s time to break out the garden plans and get to work! The good news? Growing a bountiful harvest doesn’t have to break your back or your bank. Try straw-bale gardening this year to get the best of both worlds!

Straw-bales are essentially biodegradeable containers. The hollow structure of the straw is ideal for absorbing water so your plant can wick up moisture as needed. Bales are also the perfect height for a raised bed, and they’re cheap and easy to acquire (sometimes free). So really, what’s not to love?

Here are 10 awesome tips to help get you started:

01. Make Sure You Have Straw-bales

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Nicole Cotroneo Jolly Source: Nicole Cotroneo Jolly

This is important! Straw is easily identified by its hollow structure. It is the spent stalk of grain and is different from hay which is comprised of dead grasses. Choosing the correct product will ensure an easier breakdown of the bale, which is needed to create primo growing conditions for transplants.

According to Joel Karsten, a pioneer in bale-gardens, there are a couple of drawbacks to using hay, like the awful sewage smell from decomposing nitrogen and a stronger likelihood of weeds. On his website strawbalegardens.com, he states:

Hay is a term used to describe baled grass or alfalfa that is fed to livestock as fodder or food…If the grass is cut late in the season it is quite possible that the seed heads will be mature enough to sprout. Imagine what happens to a bale filled with viable seeds that you now water and fertilize. You end up with a chia pet for a bale, with sprouts all over….Hay also tends to stink a bit more as it decomposes. Like the high nitrogen grass clippings you forget in your mower’s collection bag for a couple of weeks…peeeeyeeeew!

02. Prepare Your Site

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Kent Rogers Source: Kent Rogers

Once full of life and thriving, your bales will become heavy, so make sure you position them where they will get proper sunlight.

A nice feature of straw-bales is they can fit virtually anywhere. Just remember, wood and water are frenemies; attracted to each other, but with a damaging influence. After your site is picked out, lay down a barrier to prevent any weeds from growing up through your bale. You can usually find something lying around the house such as cardboard/newspaper, an unused tarp, or landscaping fabric if available.

3. Keep Your Eye On The Twine

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Ruth Temple Source: Ruth Temple

When Laying out your bales for planting, make sure that the twine is running horizontally along the side of the “bed”. Doing it this way will help keep the bales intact throughout the growing season as the straw begins to break down.

4. Condition The Straw

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Straw Bale Garden Club Source: Straw Bale Garden Club

Conditioning is the most important step to ensuring an abundance in your straw-bale garden.

This process takes roughly 2 weeks, so plan to do this ahead of your intended planting day. Don’t worry though, our friend Nicole at moderndayfarmer broke it down into fool-proof directions:

1.) Water thoroughly/soak beds every day for at least 10 days
2.) Sprinkle 3 Cups of fertilizer on days 1, 3, & 5
3.) Sprinkle 1.5 Cups of fertilizer on days 7 &9
4.) Sprinkle 1.5 Cups fertilizer mixed with 1.5 Cups phosphorous on day 10

Continue watering for the remaining 4 days and you should start to see they straw beginning to decompose. The hay will turn black in some spots, and become hot to the touch throughout the conditioning. Once the bales are cool to the touch, they are ready to be planted.

5. Plant Party

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Bonnie Plants Source: Bonnie Plants

This is the best part! Once you’ve got your bale conditioned, it’s time to start planting. if you are working with transplants, simply create a space wide enough for the root ball by wedging the straw aside with your garden trowel. On the other hand, if you’re sowing from seed, start by covering the planting area with peat-based moss about 2″ deep, then plant as instructed.

6. What Not To Plant

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Sheri Lyn Marie/Flickr Source: Sheri Lyn Marie/Flickr

As a general rule of thumb, you only want to plant annuals in your bales. This is because the bale breaks down over the season and becomes compost, and your perennials won’t like being transplanted all the time. In addition tall plants, like corn and sunflowers, require soil stability to support themselves and should be planted in-ground or in permanent beds.

7. Water Often

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Kitty Baker Source: Kitty Baker

Straw loses moisture relatively quickly, so you want to make sure they never go thirsty. You can always do this the old-fashioned way, and pull out the garden hose. Alternatively, you can set up an automatic watering system. These can range from very expensive to almost nothing, depending on your preference and willingness to tinker. An effective system can be achieved on the cheap with soaker hoses and switch valves like Kitty Baker did here.

8. Fungus Among Us

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Noticing SW Portland Source: Noticing SW Portland

If mushrooms start popping up in your bale in abundance, rejoice! Mushrooms are a sign of health where straw-bale gardening is concerned. The small root-like structure of the mushrooms, known as mycelium, help to break down organic matter and turn it into rich compost your plants will love.

9. Feed Your Plants

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Mr. Homegrown Source: Mr. Homegrown

Straw-bales are not nutrient rich resources for plants, and as the compost and fertilizer added in the conditioning phase get used up, it is important to add more so your plants have enough “food” to produce well. Adding fertilizer every other week should do the trick. As always water it well to help push the nutrients into the straw and soil. If you are a 2-in-1 type of person, try this recipe from Professor Rot and you’ll be happy you did!

10. Black Gold (AKA Compost)

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Eliottlia Source: Eliottlia

It’s usually a sad affair when your growing season reaches its end, but straw-bale gardens yield you a heap of treasure at season’s end. It comes in the form of compost! By this point, it’s ready to use as additional fertilizer for the plants that are still thriving. You can also let it continue to break down over winter and your rough-looking heap will become a pile of beautiful, loamy soil ready to plant.

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H/T: DIY Everywhere