Straw Bale Gardening Questions

Many of my readers have specific questions and many others had specific answers (isn't it great how this happens) :-)

These notes were collected from my old site before I moved it (they were unfortunately part of a comment system that didn't move)

I hope you find them useful.

Straw bales in raised garden? Please advise.

by T. (Central Florida)

* I want to create a raised garden with sides made of wood, but the prospect of hauling dirt to fill it is daunting. I wonder would happen if I filled the cavity with straw bales instead of dirt, then after the required amount of "aging" covered the hay with top soil (as you say, "Ice the cake") and then plant my garden.

In theory, it would save water, but allow air-flow and drainage so as not to become "hay soup" as would the plastic suggestion above. But I have not tried this. Has anyone tried something similar and could give advice?

Strawbales in raised garden OK

by: JoAnn

Yes, what you are asking has been done before. In fact, build the boxes large enough to put the whole bales of straw in them. No need to separate. The boxes help to keep the bales from drying out too quickly.

straw bale gardening

Straw bale image courtesy

raised garden contents

by: Chick, PA

We live on a ridge In PA with nothing but clay and stone beneath us..gardening is a challenge. Both my wife's and I backs are not what they used to be...bending over...for a few minutes, does both of us in. So I made 3 raised beds...4' x 8' by 2' 3 boxes of this size takes a serious amount of top this is what I did...fill up the lower 1 foot with heavy branches, 1-4 " in diameter..I've got 11 wooded acres, I have plenty...added another couple of inches of soft cuttings, grass clippings, leaves...ect...then I put a very thick layer of newspaper on top of that 8-10 sheets...then I put about 6-8 inches of topsoil/mushroom compost mixture on top of will settle some each year...but adding an inch here and inch there is a lot easier than 24 inches at one time

when should i apply my first feeding?

by Amy (Minnesota)

This is my first time trying straw bale gardening. I watered my bales today and will wait 5-7 days before planting. Is there a way to tell when it is ready for planting? I would love to start in 5 days but also don't want to hurt my plants. Also, when should I apply my first feeding after planting?


Doug says that you can start planting when the bales have finished heating and are cool enough you can comfortably put your wrist onto the middle of the bale where your plant roots will be. If it's too hot for your wrist - it's too hot for tender plant roots.

First feeding? Hmm, fairly simple, you do it when you want your plants to start growing. :-) Then follow the schedule as per the article. But not until after the bales have cooled down. Feeding only keeps them hotter longer

plants look dead after planting

by Jennifer
(Albuquerque, NM)

I planted in by bales yesterday after doing the conditioning for 11 days and then giving them 3 days of rest, and this afternoon all my plants are dead and look burned. What can I do? I'm considering running water through them, and rinsing them out in cast they are still to hot w/ fertilizer.

Doug says that if the problem was excess nitrogen then yes indeed flooding the bales will drive the nitrogen down and out of the bales. Nitrogen is water-soluble and that's the only way you can clean it out.

I don't know how you "conditioned" the bales - or whether they were still hot inside (cooking your plants) or whether there's been transplant shock or any number of issues that can create the conditions you're describing on plants.

But yes, flooding will drive nitrogen out of the bales.

Second year straw bale garden

by James Barrett (Wallburg, NC)

This is my second year for straw bale gardening. Last year we prepared our garden as follows:

Someone sabotaged any future conventional gardening in my back yard by planting Bermuda grass ( Word insisted upon the capitalization, not I).

So now I have to resort to drastic black plastic.

Black plastic, about 30 inches wide and as long as 5 straw bales, was laid down over the grass.

Next, to hold the plastic in place, we placed 12-inch x 12-inch x 2-inch concrete blocks on the edge of the plastic sheet, around the entire perimeter.

Next, we set the bales on edge, on the plastic. Now there are five pairs of bales, end-to-end, touching each other as closely as possible.

After the bales were in place, we kept them moist for about two weeks prior to the first planting.

This year, we wanted to plant some early onion sets, but wanted to reserve space for the peppers, tomatoes, and squash. In order to check if the black plastic from last year was still in good condition, we removed the old straw and put it into some wire enclosures out of the way. Now it came in handy: We took the old straw and stuffed it into the length-wise crack between the bales. That gave us a planting surface about 15 feet long (the length of 5 bales lying end-to-end). The idea was to keep the soil we added from falling through.

We placed the onion sets on the soil just added and then covered them with two or three inches of good soil.

Chicken wire

by Pen (Blackpool UK)

I have bound my bales with 50mm Chicken wire to help mould then as they sag - 50mm also alows you to gain easy access for side planting...see how it grows...Good luck all with your bale gardens!

straw bale gardening to improve soil

by Annie (Albuquerque, NM)

I live in Albuquerque, NM in the high dessert. The soil is clay, sand, and granite. Last year I bought a home with a backyard full of rock hard soil and weeds. We also have a severe water shortage.

In one year the weeds were pulled, a cover crop of barley and clover grew, a few cosmos and coreopsis added. In the fall 60 bags of leaves protected the fragile soil.

This year I have 30 bales of straw which I will plant and fertilize weekly. Then the composted straw will become mulch for the yard. After several years of this I hope to have a meadow of native wildflowers surrounded by strawbales with crops covering them. I'd love any other ideas.

My yard is all dust and sand.

by: Anonymous

I also live in Albuquerque, but on the west side. My home is 3 houses away from the treeless desert and our backyard is nothing but dust, since there is nothing to block the dust storms. The straw bale method seems to be a feasible alternative to trucking out all the sand and dust and then trucking in loads of topsoil. I'm hoping that after they decompose, I'll be able to mix it into the sand and slowly but surely, I'll have a nice backyard (given that I keep my 3 huge dogs in one area!).

Straw Bail Planting

by Larry (N.C.)

Let the bails sit on the ground over fall and winter. Come Spring, flip the bails over so the side that was on the ground is now the top. This way there is soil mixed in with the straw for a couple inches. Also it's decayed more and rich in ground nutrients. It makes putting the plants in the straw easier BTW

Flipping the bale

by: AGardenParty

Hmm... Flikping the Bale "Sounds" okay in theory but wouldn't it grab all the weeds seeds I am covering, for those of us who are planting on soil. Seems like the same reason (or one of) I am not tilling.

Do not put soil on bales

by: Davilyn The whole theory behind strawbale gardening is that you are not introducing pathogens,etc that are in soil, into the bale. You do not want to put soil onto a bale - ever. Compost is fine - or sterilized potting mix/soil.

It is defeating the whole purpose of straw bale gardening by using soil.

plastic under the straw bales

by Jan (St. Cloud MN)
I am new at this, but here's my thought/plan. I'll be placing my bales off of my mowed grass and onto my natural/weed area. I am going to mow the weeds and then lay down layers of newspaper, cover with plastic and then set my bales in a rectangular shape using 4 bales. I plan to fill the center with soil and put tomatoes in there...or maybe squash that can run between the other plants.

Straw bales not composting...

by Sarah W. (Nampa, ID)

Hi, I have had my bales for over a week, and haven't noticed any heat coming from them after soaking them. We have had a lot of rain which is not normal for our area, and unseasonably cool weather, so I wonder if I am able to go ahead and plant in them anyway, or if I should soak them again (though I can't imagine they didn't get wet enough) or if I should wait til they have started to dry completely before I plant? Thanks!

Doug says - good question. I've never had a bale that was properly watered, or even marginally well-watered, not begin to cook. So without knowing how much water you put on (try reaching into the middle of the bale as far as you can with the strings tied to feel) and getting a sense of the bale, no way I can answer.

try adding nitrogen

by: Anonymous

I added a nitrogen rich fertilizer to my straw as I watered them the first time and that helped them to get cooking. I used Milorganite that i bought at Rona.

sod on the hay bales

by Lesle (rural Miami County Kansas)

My sister's neighbor Karla had to remove sod from an area of the yard and placed the sod chunks grass side down on her hay bales over layers of newspaper. I thought that was an interesting and ingenious trick.

Straw bale planter question?

by Daniel (Ripley ,Maine)

What if i were to build a planter box so the straw bale was to fit snugly inside, place these attractively around my stone patio. Then plant my tomatoes 18" apart with a ground cover flower (such as creeping phlox) between each tomato plant.Will the straw bale still heat and perform as well, or rot quicker?

Doug says see above re enclosing hay bales

using corn stalk bales for hay bale gardening

can you use corn stalks that are baled to do this type of gardening?

Doug says no - the corn stalks won't absorb enough water. Stick to straw

combustion of straw bale gardening

Can the bales catch on fire?? I have built compost piles that have gotten too hot and began to burn ~ should I worry about this and is there any way to prevent this. I live in the city now and do not want to do anything too risky.

Doug says When they're only one deep - in a row - there's no issue after a few days. If you make a pile of them - wide and high - then they can develop combustion temperatures but for a garden situation - the answer is no, you won't have an issue if you wait as in the article directions.

cut out a hole in straw bale for tomatoes

by Corrine (Auburn, WA)

What worked for me was to cut a hole out of the straw bale & have a bucket of compost handy for back-filling along with an empty bucket. In the empty bucket I mixed up a a shovelful of compost along with a handful each of bonemeal, calcium carbonate, & organic fertilizer. I put a few trowels of the mixture in the bottom of the hole & used the rest of it to backfill after planting the tomato. If I needed more I used compost from the other bucket & didn't mix anything with that portion.

I grew tomatoes in the bales for 2 years replenishing the compost for the 2nd year. After that when I pulled back the bales the soil underneath was nice & fluffy. Amazing worm action!

I also put the bales up against a length of welded 2x4 inch openings fence that I had in the garden & planted cucumbers, peas, and beans to climb. I also put nasturtium seeds in the bales & onion sets, but they didn't do as much concealing as the other plants in front.


Doug says - *thanks* for sharing this technique. I really appreciate it!

Box It

by Jacqui (Southland, NZ)

Place straw bale in a large cardboard box to hold it in place and prevent moisture loss & you can just pick it up and move it without any mess. The side flaps also act as a windbreak for small plants.

Doug says - interesting idea, my concern is this cardboard box is going to deteriorate rather quickly and trying to pick up a very heavy wet straw bale isn't going to happen. Between the weight and the deteriorating cardboard, I rather doubt you'll be moving them too far any time soon.

Having said that - the cardboard may indeed stop some evaporation (there's another post in this series about containing straw) and the flaps idea is a good one for northern areas in particular on windy days.

Folks may be able to adapt this idea to "wrap" the bale with cardboard (with no bottom) to provide wind protection and slow down evaporation.

Thanks - interesting idea

Water holding crystals

by Larry (Missouri)

I was wandering if anyone had used any water crystals at the time of planting. My one concern is that it may reduce the root growth because of the evaporation from the bales leaving only the areas with crystals wet.

Doug says water crystals are 1) not organic in most cases and 2) totally ineffective and unnecessary when it comes to the way water moves and is retained in straw-bale culture.

water conservation of straw bale gardens

by Sunshine (Tx)

I have not done this as of yet, but from reading about the amount of water used by this method of gardenin'...couldn't you use the straw bales in large tree size containers to hold them together and conserve water at the same time

Doug says that's like planting in a container and you'd have to have one huge pot. But try it and let us know

Tree Size Containers

by: AGardenParty

If I could afford Tree size containers I wouldn't be using $7 a bale wheat straw. Plus the medium to fill them. I would just buy Redwood and make 2-3ft high raised beds. Many of them. And for the gophers..... the hardware cloth on the bottom. Or containers. The whole point for me at least is the low cost of the ability to raise the planting medium for next to nothing. Otherwise I see no benefit of using straw in a $60 -$200= container.

use strawbales in a water garden...

by: Zara

I was thinking that to cut down on the water required, that straw bales could be used to landscape a water garden (you know, when a drainage field is made at the bottom of downspouts to help naturally filter runoff water). It would add a little landscaping interest to have raised areas, and would make good use of an area that tends towards more water.

water conservation

by: Anonymous just set each bail in a big black plastic construction garbage bag. tie around the top of the bail with a piece of twine and fold the extra down. that should do the trick and be on the cheap too.

try wrapping the bales

by: Anonymous

I'd try wrapping the bales with shrink wrap. It's plastic, non-permeable, and cheep from home improvement stores. Only put holes where you want plants to grow

How much water for straw bale garden?

by Jonatha (Sonoma County, CA, USA)

Water is an issue for me as I don't have a whole lot. How practical is straw bale gardening for me and which plants (edible) would be best with less water? I have very heavy soil and a gopher/mole problem that won't quit so you can see the appeal of straw bales for me. I also love the idea that the bales will decompose where they sit! Is there any hope for me?

Doug says - "is there any hope for me?" - hmm, I don't know but there may indeed be hope for your garden. :-) Straw bale gardening will take up the same amount of water as any other form of gardening. Plant needs don't change - they draw up the same amount of water from a bale as from the ground. Given the bales are exposed to drying winds, my guess is they'll actually use more water (but I haven't run trials on them)

So while they have some appeal, they aren't a problem-free solution. Here's the article I wrote on them some time ago

You can try them and see but my guess is you'll be better served using the straw as a mulch to reduce water loss and working hard to control the pests you do have.

I do sympathize with your problems - good luck.

Strawbales are thirsty

by: JoAnn

From my personal experience after strawbale gardening for 3 years, is that they do require more water. It does help to place your bales on the ground so that the straw lies horizontally vs. vertically. In other words, place the bale so that the baling wire/cord touches the ground. Once my bales are in place, I run a soaker hose under the wires to help keep it in place. Then I plant my vegetable plants. Too bad we can't add pictures here.

Strawbale Gardening

by: JoAnn

The latest I've read on another gardening site is that it helps a great deal if you build wooden boxes around your bales (or put the bales in boxes :-).

This helps tremendously in keeping the bales from drying out too quickly. Hope this helps.

Water for straw bales, ctnd.

by: Carolyn

The bales also harbor slugs.

Water for straw bales

by: Carolyn

They do require more water. Until the internal decomposition is well advanced, a lot of water runs right through the bales. It's hard to get plants started in them, but if they "take" and you keep them hydrated, they can grow very well. My best tomato plant ever grew in a haybale, but that was a one-time fluke.

I experimented with bales for three years and finally gave up because I found them too much work, and the results too inconsistent.

Watering the hay bale garden

by Linda (Cleveland, Ga USA)

I saw this tip on a gardening show about 5 or 6 years ago and up until the last couple years I had a hay bale garden. I wrapped the bottom and sides with a thick mil plastic. I added drainage holes about six inches up and about every 18 inches around the outside. You have to be sure that your bed is level. I built a frame to hold the plastic up. I didn't have to water hardly at all. I am now in the process of building another hay bale garden. You just can't beat them for easy gardening.

Hold the water?

by Susan (Egremont MA)

This is a Question/ idea, I haven't tried it myself. Couldn't you put down thick mil plastic under the bales and fold it up the sides and ether pin in place with "U" shaped heavy wire or bind in place with PVC rope? Would the trapped water wick up the straws? Just trying to save water.

Doug says this is how you create a swamp. The excess water is going to make those bales really hard to deal with - rot them very fast and make a smelly, ugly mess with rotting straw.

So - the deal with straw bales is that they need a certain amount of water - and no trick like this is likely going to give you a great result.

Mushrooms all over

by Mary Bears (Benton City Washington)

My bales have developed mushrooms growing all over them, am I keeping them too wet while I conditioned them?

Doug says the spores are obviously there - probably not too wet (it's really hard to make them too wet). Just keep raking them off as you see them.

Mushrooms on bales

by: OKC

This is my first year trying straw bale gardening and I have mushrooms growing down the side of two of my twelve bales. I am glad to see that my garden is not the only one growing mushrooms.


(Athens, Alabama) I started my hay garden and after about two weeks started getting black mushroom with white stems growing all over the bales. I know these are not edible but will the vegtables I planted (tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, cucumber) be harmed by them or will they be ok to eat?


by: JoAnn
Mushrooms are a good sign that your bales are decomposing. They're not harmful, but you can knock them down if they bother you.

by Dawn Field

(East Hampton NY) I seem to have a lot of mushrooms growing in the straw bales. When I pull them out they almost like they have black ink on the ends. It is very messy but more importantly will they harm my vegetables?

Book cover Vegetable Gardening


by: Anonymous

Thank you for talking about the mushrooms. I have quite a crop every day as I don't have sun in my yard till 11 a.m. I pick them out the best I can. Maybe this is a dumb question, but are those mushrooms edible or poisonous?

Don't Eat Mushrooms

If you don't know anything about mushrooms, DON'T eat them! Thank You
by: Vermonter


by: JoAnn
The mushrooms will not harm your vegetables. It is a good sign that your strawbales are breaking down. Simply knock down the mushrooms when they appear.

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