How To Succeed With Straw Bale Gardening
Straw bale gardening is an interesting option for those who have either limited soil, limited space or have difficulty bending over.
I've used straw bale gardening and found it productive although I note that commercial grower recommendations tend to use fertilizer more than I currently enjoy doing. More on that below.
What kind of straw should you use?
Any straw is good. Most will come with leftover grain seed in the straw so you'll have a bloom of grain plants as soon as you start watering. The number of seeds is determined by the efficiency of the combine doing the grain harvest.
Generally, I'd use what I could find. Oat straw was the most common in our area so oat straw was used.
Straw bale image courtesy
Don't Use Hay
Do not use hay bales.
Hay comes with grass seed and this is a major problem. You can pull out the grain seed relatively easily from straw bales but grass is much more tenacious and much tougher to pull out.
What's the difference between straw and hay bales?
Straw is the stem of the grain plant.
Combines remove the grain and leave behind the dried out stem. This is baled up and mostly used as animal bedding.
Hay is the entire grass plant including stems, leaves and some seed heads. It is cut down and baled up for use as animal feed. Hay usually contains more weed seed along with the grass seed than straw.
Set the straw bales where you want to use them as once they are wet, they do not easily move.
Put the bales so the string runs around the bale and not in contact with the ground. This will also orient the bale so the stems run vertically as well. This is important if you intend to get two years (possible) out of each bale in your straw bale gardening efforts.
Any twine that is on the ground will deteriorate and the bale will disintegrate after several months. If plastic or wire twine is used then this is not as much of a problem.
Remember several things about placing your bales in your straw bale gardening layout.
Can You Reach?
You have to be able to reach the tops of the bale to weed. You can create any shape of garden you want - arranging the bales in artistic or fanciful combinations.
Straw bale gardening layouts can be placed end-to-end to create long gardens or grouped into traditional bed shapes or even set up as maze types of gardens. Note that having the bales support one another is good planning as they will be more likely to go two years if supported and less likely if they are standing alone.
Steps For Success
1) Wet the bales thoroughly. You'll find the bales will heat up as they begin to compost. This "cooking" will last somewhere around five to seven days and the bales should start to cool down enough to plant.
2) Pull any weed sprouts that emerge from the bale.
3) Do not fertilize at this point or your bales will continue to cook.
After They Have Cooled
After the bales cool down, lay a two to three inch layer of compost and weed-free soil on top of the bales in your straw bale gardening designs, sort of like icing a cake.
Potting soil works well as does an artificial peat-based soilless mix.
You need this layer if you’re going to sow seeds.
If you are only going to use transplants, then you can put the transplants directly into the straw.
To transplant, use a sharp trowel and drive it into the straw bale (watch that you do NOT cut the strings) and lever the trowel to force the bale slightly apart.
Insert the started plant and let the bale spring back together again. Water the transplant in as you would in the garden.
Alternately, you can use the top dressing on your straw bale and transplant into this topdressing as you would in the soil.
To grow from seed, sow seed as you would in the ground (remember you have to use the compost/top soil/ soilless mix"icing" on this straw bale cake if you are using seeds)
Remember that you can't crowd a tomato plant or any other plant any more in this system of growing than you can in the ground.
If you have to plant a tomato 36-inches apart in the ground, you have to plant it 36-inches apart in straw bales.
Using this system, you can grow any annual garden vegetable, herb or flower that you'd like to see in your garden. There is no limit here.
Just remember though that we're talking annuals.
The straw bales might last two years with plastic twine but I wouldn't count on it if you water and feed heavily or if sisal twine is used.
Some taller vegetables or flowers such as corn might present problems with lodging (they fall over because the straw does not give them enough support).
Tomatoes will be fine if they are allowed to lay down over the edge of the straw bale but if staked, they will require an extensive and strong staking system so they don't fall over.
Similarly sunflowers or anything really tall are not suited to this style of culture.
Summer watering is interesting as these bales use much more water than you would think possible. The orientation of the straw stems (vertical remember?) means that much of the water simply runs out the bottom of the bale.
You'll have to water almost daily in hot weather. The straw does not hold moisture as much as garden soil does or even soilless mix in containers.
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Feeding is something that commercial growers do regularly when they use straw bale gardening systems and they do it by injecting the fertilizer into the water lines.
Let me suggest a weekly or every second week feeding with compost tea or a liquid fish emulsion.
There is a fine line between not feeding and not getting too much of a harvest and overfeeding and knowing your bales won't last two years because they'll turn into compost half way through the second season.
If you only want to use the bales for one year, then feed weekly to really promote plant growth.
You can use these straw bales anywhere you have a bit of space and sunlight. I used them in a greenhouse one year for the heck of it (messy to clean up) and they produced a good crop of tomatoes. They would be excellent if you're surrounded by pavement with no soil in sight.
So your straw bale gardening is only limited by your imagination
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