Straw bale gardening has been growing in popularity. It’s a unique way to garden that honestly, some people swear to… and other swear at. You’ll have to make up your own mind.
The concept of gardening in a straw bale wraps the world of raised bed gardensalong with container gardening all into one “growing unit.” In the system the straw bales act or serve as the growing container and soil medium at the same time.
Sometimes bales get stacked but not always. However, bales need “conditioning” prior to planting. Over time, the bales gradually break down due to moisture, roots and exposure to the elements.
Susan Carlson, a Master Gardener, provides a good “idea” of what straw bale gardening is.
“The idea is that a straw bale is compost waiting to happen. Before the growing season begins, over a couple weeks, you add water and a little fertilizer (organic or inorganic) and it will activate an army of bacteria. The bacteria break down the straw, turning it into just what plants need. Plants can be inserted into the bale or seeds can be started in a little potting soil placed on top.” Read more…
Why Consider Straw Bale Gardening?
1. Healthier Vegetables And Better Plants
Growing plants in the straw bales eliminate the need for soil as the only requirement is the straw bale, and perhaps some compost and potting mix. Since you’ve eliminated soil from the equation, you’ve also eliminated the soil borne pests and diseases that can damage the crops when they exceed the manageable level.
Also, keep in mind that, the less pest and diseases and the less pesticide use. This might attract beneficial insects that normally disappear when we use excessive pesticides. It also means that our plants will be healthier and safer to our bodies.
2. Simplifies Plant Growing
By eliminating the soil means there’s no tilling, digging, raking or hoeing. Now you don’t need to break your back doing all the digging and tilling, or using expensive machines to carry out the task either.
Nor do you have to worry about improving the soil, crop rotation cycles or conditioning the soil. You can simply plant in the bales themselves which you can place literary anywhere.
3. No More Weeds
Straw bale gardening eliminates the need for weeding. Weeds don’t thrive well in the straw, and any that do appear can easily be removed. From there on, you’ll spend less time on your bales monitoring the weeds as they barely grow.
Note: We have received comments of some who have had lots of weeds in there straw bales. This is most likely due to the type of straw and not proper conditioning.
4. Self-Composting Growing Containers
When growing in straw, the bales become your actual growing containers. They’re self-decomposing growing containers that slowly decompose on the inside throughout the growing period.
The decomposition process creates some heat that regulates the internal temperature. Thus creates good conditions for roots development.
Straw bale gardening also helps to lessen the impact of sudden cold snaps or any frosts and can extend your growing season.
Therefore, if you grow cold-loving plants in your bales over the winter season, they’ll get favorable growing environment, and there’s a likelihood of getting higher yields. Yeah! The bales enable you to grow crops over the winter.
5. They’re Cheap
Compared to soil gardening, straw bale gardening makes planting easier and lower in cost, even in the city. After it starts disintegrating, you can use it as mulch or dispose the straw in the compost bin or add to the garden soil as compost.
6. Easier And Comfortable Gardening
Straw bales measure approximately 18-24 inches high (2 or 3 stringer) and therefore, you won’t need to bend over much when gardening, similar to raised bed gardens.
It also means you’re going to harvest your crops while standing as you stroll in the garden. For those who don’t enjoy walking around, bending on their knees or with a bad back, this is great news.
7. Bumper Yield
All these benefits are great but the biggest benefit is: the increased yield you’ll get out from this type of gardening.
All farm inputs remaining constant, many straw bale gardeners experience close to a 25% increase in crop yield. The bumper yield is mainly because of the proper root development and good air circulation facilitated by the straw bales.
8. Save Cost Of Raised Beds And Buying Containers
You don’t have to invest in wooden planks or containers when constructing raised beds. Straw bales are a cheaper and a much better option. You’ll need to get new bales at the beginning of every growing season, but the bales can be put to better use at the end.
9. Suitable For Any Climate Or Zone
In straw bale gardening, you can grow any crop regardless of the zone and climate. It’s “works” in the Arctic Circle or in tropical regions. In areas with short growing spells, straw bale gardening extends the season by 1-2 weeks both at the beginning and before the winter period.
10. No Need to Transfer Soil And Compost to Your Beds
Transporting large quantities of compost and soil to your beds in order to grow veggies is both expensive and strenuous. Straw bales are light, and they’re neat, easier to shift, and you can arrange them in your desirable design. You require just a little amount of compost to start growing your plants in straw bales.
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Best Plants to Grow in Straw Bales
The great thing about straw bale gardening is that you can grow just about anything in a bale that you can in the ground; however, some plants grow better in bales than others. In this chapter, you’ll learn which vegetables and fruiting plants thrive best in straw bale “soil” and how many of each you can grow per bale.
Plants that don’t do well in straw
The list of straw-wary plants is pretty slim, so let’s start with the few that should be avoided.
Top-heavy plants like standard corn are too tall and heavy—a straw bale may break apart under their weight, or it may topple over. If you do want to grow corn, choose a dwarf variety instead. As the bales naturally raise the plants off the ground by a foot or two, top-heavy plants are at risk of being blown over by the wind (although good supports should help to avoid this).
Running plants, or plants that spread by growing “offshoots” with their own roots, can be hard to manage in a straw bale your first time around. Save these for your second season.
How to grow tomatoes in straw bales
As a relatively costly fruit to buy, warmth-loving tomatoes are a popular choice with home gardeners everywhere. Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family and are easy to grow in straw bales. Growing them in straw is relatively similar to growing them in earth.
Tomatoes are fantastic straw bale candidates and come in nearly endless varieties.
Tomatoes need full sun and will need support unless you are growing a bushy or tumbling variety with small fruits.
Planting them directly into the bales
Providing it’s warm enough, you should have no problem getting your tomato seeds to germinate and grow if you prefer to plant them directly into the bales. Plant the seeds at the depth specified on the pack, or around a quarter of an inch. However, tomato seeds do need a temperature range of 70° to 80°F (21° to 27°C) to germinate so you may prefer to start them off in pots in the house.
Planting from pots
If you are planting young plants from pots, ensure you make a hole deep enough to get all of the roots and an inch or two of the stem into the bale. This is because tomatoes have tiny hairs on their stems, called adventitious roots, which can develop into roots if they come into contact with a growing medium. The result for you is tomato plants with a stronger root system, which can only be good.
Best tomato varieties for straw bale gardening
Start small with the cherry tomato varieties (they weigh less) and, if all goes well, install stronger supports for some beefsteak or brandywine tomatoes for your second season.
Some straw-friendly varieties include:
-Sungolds (they’re easy to grow and taste extra-sweet, too!)
Black cherries (for real tomato flavor in a small package)
Carmellos and stupices: they’re great mid-sized varieties that won’t overwhelm your bales.
Root vegetables and tubers
Root vegetables and tubers are two great, low-maintenance options for straw bale gardening. They strive in straw bales because their roots can spread more easily than in dirt and their stems have a much easier time making it to the surface to grow into a plant. Root vegetables of all kinds grow best in loose soil that retains moisture but drains easily—that’s the very definition of straw.
Reinforce your root veggie bales
Make sure you use reinforcements around the bales (like containers or fencing) as the root vegetables’ growth may weaken the bales over time. Wire fencing, wooden frames, and large containers work perfectly.
How to grow potatoes in straw bales
Potatoes, the world’s most well-known tubers, are perfectly suited to straw bale gardening. The huge advantage of growing potatoes in a straw bale has to do with depth. Because the baby potatoes form on the stem, you would normally need to build soil up around them in order to keep them underground. If you plant the potatoes too deep in soil to begin with, the stem may struggle to reach the surface and grow into a plant.
Skip the scrubbing by growing your potatoes in straw.
Keep them covered
With straw bale gardening, you can avoid this problem because the stems can grow more easily up through the straw. Plant your seed potatoes 4-6 inches deep and make sure they are well covered with straw to avoid any light reaching the tubers, as this can turn them green. Keep covering the stems as they emerge, ensuring that only 1 inch is showing at any time.
If that sounds too much like hard work, you can also plant the potatoes at a depth of 16-18 inches and leave them to it.
Early-maturing varieties such as Yukon Gold or Red Pontiac grow well in straw. Your crop will need a lot less cleaning than potatoes grown in soil – just wipe off the damp straw and you are ready.
Carrots, like potatoes, are easy to grow in straw. They come in many colorful varieties, from classic orange to red, yellow, and purple. Plant them mid-spring and give them 2-3 months of growing time before harvesting. Because carrots are easily bruised, it’s better to pick them with your hands and skip any metal tools. To make this easier, wet the bale shortly before harvest and the carrots will slip free much quicker.
Turnips and radishes
The hardy turnip and radish grow well in full sun and can take as little as 30 days to be ready for harvest. Turnips can be grown well into October in most areas, so they’re a perfect crop to keep fresh food on the table as fall’s chill sets in. Radishes in particular need full-sun areas because, if a nearby plant blocks even some of its sun, the plant will use all its energy to produce leaves.
Fruiting plants are excellent candidates for a straw bale garden. Just remember that, if it hangs or climbs, it needs a support. For your first year, avoid extremely tall varieties to avoid the challenge of a weakening bale. Try out the plants below for a great start to your first straw bale season.
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Yellow squash, zucchini, and other small summer squash varieties are solid (and colorful) options. Make sure you stake them if you don’t want them growing into your walkways. Squash plants need a lot of nourishment to thrive, so condition these bales thoroughly with compost or other nutrient sources before planting.
Put their bale in a sunny spot and plant them in the spring, and you’ll have a sweet hay-bale treat waiting for you in a few weeks. Keep in mind that they need eight hours of full sun every day to flourish. For best results in a straw bale, choose a variety that doesn’t produce runners; or, if your plant does, clip back the runners so the original plant can produce more fruit.
Other good options:
Eggplants, peppers, and other nightshades are great choices with a variety of culinary uses. Just be sure to give them stakes or allow them ample room to grow. Eggplants in particular are happiest when they have about three and a half months to fully fruit, so plan accordingly.
Greens, like root veggies, are easy to grow and perfectly suited to straw bale gardens. Try the classic and versatile greens below to make the most of your growing season.
Lettuce is the classic salad green and can be grown in both the spring and fall, but stagger your plantings—it grows quickly. For uninterrupted harvests, plant new lettuce seeds every two weeks. Keep in mind that, if you reuse the bales, the straw may become too loose after 3-4 plantings and you’ll need to replace them. Lettuce grows best with a constant supply of compost and nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, so add some to the bale 2-3 weeks after each planting.
Spinach, kale, and chard
They’re easy to grow and require minimal maintenance. All three can grow well into the chilly months for year-round nourishment. They’re perfect for salad, sautees, and more, and really help you make the most of your straw bale space. Plant spinach and kale in the early spring and then again in the fall; they tend to lose their delicious flavor when summer heat sets in. Chard is the most versatile of the three: a spring planting will keep you busy harvesting until first fros
Growing your own flavoring and garnish makes the gardening experience all the more fulfilling, and herbs are just as simple to plant and harvest as leafy greens.
Basil can be used to season a variety of dishes—particularly of the Italian variety—but it shouldn’t be planted until after the last frost of the season. It grows best in full sunlight, and is ready to harvest once the plant starts growing buds.
Cilantro grows fairly quickly and can usually be harvested four weeks after sowing its seeds. Like most herbs, it will grow into a healthier plant in full sunlight.
Parsley is grown as a spring and summer crop in most regions. The more sun it has, the happier (and more flavorful) it’ll be.
Like herbs, cruciferous vegetables are easy growers with a wide array of applications. They usually produce well into the fall and winter to help you extend your growing season.
Cauliflower and broccoli
Cauliflower and broccoli are great in-between-season crops because they can be harvested until at least the start of winter. Plant them as early as late-spring, give them access to full sun, and keep their bales moist, and you’ll have both delicious and versatile veggies into the winter. These plants grow best when their bales are treated with plenty of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Cabbage is best harvested in late fall, and looks stunning when its leaves burst from a straw bale. Be sure to plant cabbage where it can get at least six hours of full sun each day. Like cauliflower and broccoli, it does best in bales treated with nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
How many plants should you plant per bale?
The plants you choose will determine how many you can grow in each bale. The seed packet should give you a guide to spacing but, if in doubt, always allow more space than you’d expect when you look at the baby plants, and you can’t go wrong.
You can also grow a mixture of plants within each bale, perhaps a salad mix of tomato, cucumber and lettuce.
Below is a rough guide but do check the seed packet for more details.
|Two plants||Three plants||Four plants||Five plants +|
Companion planting – Attracting bees and pest-eaters
In addition to the favorite fruits and veggies that fill your bales, it’s also a good idea to plant some annual seeds into the sides of the bale. Marigolds, nasturtiums, dwarf cornflowers, and borage are all great choices. Not only will they look lovely, but they will also attract pollinators and pest-devouring insects such as lacewings.
Alternatively, you could plant perennial herbs such as chives (also a favorite of bees) or even strawberries which are, of course, grown above a scattering of straw to avoid rotting on the damp earth. Remember to remove perennial plants towards the end of the bale’s life, to avoid them turning into compost too.
Ready to start planting
Now that you’ve picked your plants, it’s time to start planting. In the final chapter, you’ll learn how to plant in a straw bale garden, how to keep your plants healthy as they grow, and what to do when the fruits of your labor are ready for harvest.