Let’s Compare Typical Gardening to Straw Bale Gardening
The Standard Garden
The most practiced “standard gardening” techniques involve planting seeds and seedlings directly into the soil. But, before you can do that, there are countless steps to take just to prepare the ground for planting – much less the additional mundane and back breaking tasks to maintain it.
Preparing a soil sample – Collect samples of dirt from different spots throughout the garden plot, mix them together, smash up the clumps, remove rocks and twigs, then sift the remaining earth through a strainer to remove any oversized particles remaining to achieve a fine, consistent sample for testing. And don’t forget to thoroughly dry out the sample!
Get a soil test – Gotta have one! How else will you know the pH factor and the nutrient level in the dirt? You need to know what and how much fertilizer to add that will optimize growth of your garden veggies.
Add lime or sulfur – This is necessary to increase or decrease the pH level as needed. I can remember having to add as much as 200 pounds of lime to put the pH at the right level!
Add fertilizer – We have to make sure that the plants have food when they are growing. It can take as many as 10 large bags of the correct fertilizer to add enough plant food to some gardens. Last year, I waited for a sale because I needed to add 14 bags of fertilizer to my oversized growing plot.
Till the soil – The dirt needs to be soft, loose, and loamy for healthy, deep root growth. For root vegetables such as carrots, any small stone or twig still in the soil where they are developing can cause them to grow stunted or crooked.
Continuously pulling out weeds – Since weeds compete with veggies for the soil’s nutrients, they are not friends to our favored plants. Weed seeds lay dormant in the ground through the winter and upon the arrival of spring warmth, they wake up and start to germinate…just in time to be bothersome. And, yanking out weeds is a long term process that persists through spring and on into late summer and early fall.
Mulching – Another back breaking but necessary evil. Using newspaper, cardboard, wood chips, leaves, straw, and the like, is required to minimize (not eliminate) weed growth. It also helps keep the soil around our plants from drying out too quickly.
I could add a few more items…but, you get the picture.
The Straw Bale Garden
Let’s just make a simple statement that, except for adding a bit of fertilizer and water now and then, you can say goodbye to all the other chores listed above for a standard garden.
No soil test needed – So there is no need to collect dirt samples.
Tilling the soil? – No reason for it. The straw bale already offers a soft path for great root growth…and, you won’t find any hard obstacles in a bale to get in the plants’ way.
Adding amendments – As I said, a bit of fertilizer is occasionally needed but, not in the quantities used in a regular garden.
No weeding – This is because the straw bales do not have dormant seeds waiting to grow wildly. This is really a big incentive for me! I hate getting out the hula hoe or push-pull hoe every couple of days to combat these unwelcome and inconvenient moochers that seem to always grow faster, better, and healthier than my vegetables!
Mulching becomes a thing of the past – Since the straw, itself, is a mulching additive, it holds moisture and won’t dry out too quickly. And, since there are no weeds to speak of, additional mulching for this purpose is a moot point.
Now, after this comparison, who wouldn’t like to grow some great food without all the hassles involved with the typical, standard “dirt garden?”
Besides, the straw will decompose quickly and become compost for next year’s garden.
Straw Bale Gardening
The first step is to buy some straw bales, don’t you think?
Your best bet is wheat straw which is always available at the home improvement or feed stores. The cost is $6 to $7 a bale but, if you shop around, you can find smaller outlets that’ll sell them for $5 or less. I got mine at a mom and pop feed store that was off the beaten track – $5 a bale – and the bales were much, much bigger than the ones being sold at the big box home improvement stores. So, 6 wheat straw bales and $30 later, I was putting my bales in a very sunny location in my garden – next to the fence, in case I needed support for the growing plants!
- Place the straw bales with the cut side facing up. Keep the string ties on the side to help hold the bales together.
- Use a good quality nylon rope – wrapped around the bales to keep them from falling apart midway through the growing season. The string ties used to initially hold the straw bales together will deteriorate rapidly and it’s not good to see the bales collapsing while the plants are still producing.
- Lay a ground cover underneath the bales as a barrier between the bales and the soil. It will keep any soil diseases or pests from sneaking up into the bales and assaulting the veggies! I use Dewitt SBLT3300 Sunbelt Ground Cover Weed Barrier and it works amazingly well!
- Stay away from the much cheaper pine straw. These bales don’t hold the moisture and they don’t break down quickly enough – meaning you’ll have a mess to clean up at the end of the growing season since they are not “compost friendly.” Hay bales are not good either because more often than not they contain a lot of weed seeds.
Bale sizes are 3 to 3 1/2 feet long and 1.5 to 2 feet wide. The number of bales you need will be dependent upon what you want to grow, the number of plants, and plant spacing. Now, it’s time to get out the calculator – or, just as efficient – the old reliable paper and pen. After all, this is not rocket science!
It Takes A Couple of Weeks to Condition The Bales
Wheat straw needs to stay wet for a while to get the decomposition process going. I thoroughly soaked them with water every day for 3 or 4 days. If you stick a finger into the bales, you should begin to feel warmth after a couple of days. The heat is a byproduct of the decaying straw.
On day 5, I started a 6 day regimen of giving my 6 bales a daily dose of either Miracle Gro or Osmocote plant food – 1 tablespoon per gallon of water – shake it well – and add a gallon of plant food water to each bale. I continued this for 5 more days – through day 11. The plant food contains nitrogen which helped to speed the breakdown of the bales.
On day 12, I went back to watering the bales for a couple more days – but only moderately – just enough to keep them moist – continuing the straw disintegration. If the bales are still warm inside, they are still in high decomposition mode.
Hot bales are not a good thing for your plants – so, keep watering the bales until they no longer feel toasty warm. The inside temperature of the bales should be close to the surrounding air temperature before planting. I use my REOTEMP Backyard Compost Thermometer to gauge the temperature of my bales to make sure their heat has dropped to within no more than 10 degrees higher than air temperature.
The Bales Have Cooled Down – Time to Plant
I have planted just about every kind of vegetable known to home gardeners into straw bales – at one time or another.
There are a few exceptions:
- I don’t put tall veggies in them like corn or indeterminate tomatoes that get very heavy and can break apart the bales. But, I have successfully grown determinate or bush tomatoes in them – and this year, I have 5 determinate tomato plants positioned across 3 bales.
- I have also discovered that it is very difficult to grow runner veggies like pole beans or vining cucumbers in the bales. Once they really get to growin’, they will take over every inch of space available – so, I keep them in the ground – on a chicken wire trellis. I did decide to grow some bush cucumbers in 2 of the bales this year – so, we’ll see how they respond to the straw bales.
The last bale is hosting 3 eggplants. This is my first year trying straw bale eggplants – and, I’m extremely curious to see how they compare to the eggplants I’ve placed directly into the ground.
I thought about straw bale planting some herbs or lettuce or spinach – but, even though I’ve had great success with herbs and leafy greens in the past – I wanted to do a little experimenting this year. We’ll see how my tests go – so stay tuned!
Planting –The Tricky Part
Even though I’m using straw bales, I still need to add soil as a medium to hold the young plants in place until they can extend deep into the bales with their roots and get a good anchor.
- Make holes in the bales – and, that’s not easy! The interwoven straw is almost impossible to dig out using a garden trowel to make that hole! A sharp pair of Gonic Pruning Shears will work – but, a better approach is to use a very sharp knife to cut out the straw. The Truly Garden Hori Hori Garden Knife comes in real handy for making my plant holes. It has a razor sharp, dual sided blade – one side is flat and the other side is serrated which makes cutting straw child’s play.
- Space the holes based on the veggies you are planting.
- Fill the holes with garden soil. I use Miracle Gro Garden Soil. It has enough plant food in it to get the little plants started.
Do not use any dirt from the garden. It will introduce plant diseases and pests that are lurking in the soil waiting for a chance to damage your plants.
- Plant the veggies into the garden soil, throw some of the straw, removed when making a hole, over the garden soil, and water well.
- Every week or two, add another gallon of plant food water per bale. Watering and periodic rains will wash nutrients out of the bales quickly since they drain so well.
Speaking of the bales draining so well – remember to water them enough to keep them from drying out. I use soaker hoses looped several times over the bales to take care of it.
And, that’s all there is to it! At the end of the growing season, the straw bales can be dispersed throughout the garden as a great compost additive!
While looking over my straw bale garden the other day, my neighbor, Jed, the retired farmer, asked me if I knew what a scarecrow’s favorite fruit was?
His question left me speechless – since I had never thought about a scarecrow’s desire for food – and then he told me the answer:
Straw – berries!
I went from speechless to dumbfounded!
Leave a comment below and tell me about your straw bale gardening experiences or shoot me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim, the Lifelong Gardener