A Garden in a Bale
Of the many benefits of straw bale gardening, one of the most popular is the back-saving easier access.
Some folks love it, others diss it. We tried it this year for ourselves and our 81-year-old mother/mother-in-law who’s thrilled to have easier access to tending garden plants.
In this article, you’ll find the why’s, hows and wherefores. We’ll show you our process followed by the exact materials you’ll need, a list of benefits, and some short how-to videos to get your straw bale garden up and growing!
Let’s start with the benefits.
The Benefits of Straw Bale Gardening (SBG)
- It’s essentially raised beds and “deep mulch”
- A solution for problem soil
- Easy on the back and knees
- Can be wheel chair / walker accessible
- Facilitates growing more in less space
- Can be done on decks or patios
- Reduces growing time for short growing seasons
- Once set up, SGBs are easier to maintain
- Easier to tend – no need to till, hoe, or weed
- It’s fun to try new gardening experiments
Why We’re Trying Straw Bale Gardening
Living in the woods, in an area with limited sun (lower garden), or with rocky soil (upper garden), we needed to do something new to increase production. We also wanted to get an early start on the growing season. So Straw Bale Gardening (SBG) was chosen as the main alternative in our new garden adventure for numerous reasons.
On a spectacular weekend just weeks away from the first day of Spring, we set out and treated our bales.
Setting and Conditioning the Straw Bales
Once the bales are in place, the next phase of SBG is to “condition” the bales to get them composting inside. Regular 10-10-10 can be used or some other organic fertilizer. We really like Milorganite and have been using it for years.
Milorganite is a non-burning formulation that includes a bit of iron to boost plant’s ability to make chlorophyll. More than just a fertilizer, Milorganite also has a strong repellent effect on deer. Deer come through our woods all the time and for sure, they’ve enjoyed all the backyard buffets we and our neighbors set out for them every growing season, so it’s great to use a fertilizer that also tends to repel deer!1)https://gardensall.com/our-top-3-deer-repellents/
Your best place to buy it is from your local garden or hardware store. We like to shop local whenever we can to support local businesses plus often it’s cheaper than ordering online. Or, for convenience, especially if you don’t have a garden store nearby. Of course you’ll pay more for shipping heavy items, but we use to save time, (and you know the saying, “time is money”). If you don’t have a truck, it’s just nicer than hauling fertilizer in your trunk… saves your back too!
We created a couple of videos that demonstrate how we got our straw bales conditioned so that the nitrogen in the Milorganite will kick start the decomposition process turning the interior of the bales into compost.
Milorganite also has their own succinct outline of Straw Bale Gardening article and how-to video, which may be of interest. You can find that linked in the footnotes.2)http://www.milorganite.com/gardening/straw-bale-gardening
Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the instructional videos on how to set up a straw bale garden next.
How to Set us a Straw Bale Garden
Coleman Alderson of GardensAll talks about a much-needed renovation of his garden patch using the straw bale gardening method.
Part 1 - How to Set up Straw Bale Garden Beds
In Part 1, Coleman talks about how to set your straw bales, (which side is up is important), and conditioning the straw bale garden (SBG).
Part 2 - Treating the Straw Bale Garden Beds
Part 2, shows perforating the bales to allow the fertilizer to penetrate the bales.
We're very pleased with our SBG experiment! In freezing temps, with the aid of a hoop and cover, we used the Easy Tunnel Fleece, frost protection covers, and a laser gun thermometer to monitor temps, we were able to keep our plants warm enough to remain unaffected even below freezing and a bit of snow. We write about that more in another article.
Next up are some garden shots a couple months later, along with an effective support hack.
Straw Bale Gardening Update and a Trellis Hack
The straw bale method has proven to be a wonderful approach-especially given our locations. The "Lower Garden" is set under a huge tree and the soil of the "Upper Garden" is thin and rocky. Here are some updated photos that show how well things are growing.
As you can see from these updated photos, our first SBG is working out very well!
The Lower Garden bale growing has taken off so well we decided to extend with a block section devoted to tomatoes.
Our Wire Trellis Hack
In Joel's book, he recommends using 2 X 4's, or, for longer spans, 2 X 6's. The board is grooved with a saw and secured with wire at each end. We found the board had a tendency to bend and would likely last one season-unless you went with the more expensive pressure treated lumber which still bent and tended to be quite heavy.
I used 1" metal conduit pipe (a 10 foot section is comparable to the 2 X 6 wood and much easier to handle). On a visit to the plumbing section of our local hardware store we found a quick and easy way to mount the pipe atop the T-Posts. The 1 1/4" Schedule 40 PVC elbow fits snugly over the T-shaped top and a 1 1/4" bushing inserted in the open end accommodates the 1" conduit perfectly! We didn't glue anything since the wire tension holds it tight. So for 4 dollars more we have a really strong, lightweight, easy to install and disassemble—like Legos—system. See pics below.
Let us know if you have any questions on that. You can email us or post a comment or question on the Gardens All Facebook page.
Fruits of Labor from the Straw Bale Garden
And of course, the ultimate desired outcome ends up on the table. We're now consuming daily, the greens from the garden. No more buying greens from the grocery store! Yay!
This year we're using the Easy Tunnel Cold Frame in Fleece, and we're really pleased with that, and we're also using standard row cover supported by a center bamboo pole, which is working just fine. You can read and see video on that here.3)https://gardensall.com/simple-inexpensive-cold-frame-covers/
Next, you'll find a short how-to video showing an actual Straw Bale Garden in action plus a cool idea of constructing a moveable straw bale garden!
Straw Bale Gardening: Start to Finish
First up in this video, you'll learn that it's straw bales, NOT hay bales, and why. Get the scoop here in under 5 minutes.
Editor's Note: However, if you have an allergy to wheat, such as a gluten intolerance, you will need to look for a non-wheat straw, such as oat or alfalfa straw. Our daughter, Devani is, highly wheat allergic, and within minutes of brushing up against the straw she developed painful itchy welts.
We've imbued our bales with the organic fertilizer, Milorganite.
This video shows you one guy who's just placed these bales on a strip of grass next to his driveway. That's a great example of another one of the benefits of straw bale gardening.
How to Straw Bale Garden
Planting for Retirement Group - Contributing Writer, Cindy Moine
Raised bed gardens are a great solution for growing plants if you can't bend easily, your dirt is poor, or you don't even have soil. For some, their are drawbacks to many raised bed gardens.
Disadvantages to other types of raised bed gardens include:
- Cost of construction supplies like wood and nails
- Skills and tools needed to construct
Many people like raised beds because it's easier on their body. But if you're not so handy with building things, don't have the right tools, or maybe aren't as agile as you used to be, constructing raised beds may not be the best solution for you.
Even if you can build, unless you have he right kind of wood already on hand, the materials cost won't leave as much room in your budget for important gardening supplies like seeds and plants. Lower cost is another reason to consider using a straw bale garden instead.
Straw bale gardening worked beautifully!
We did straw bale gardening for two seasons and it worked beautifully, and here are some of the benefit we found.
More Benefits of Straw Bale Gardens
- No need to rotate crops, since each season you start with new bales.
- Plants grow in an organic environment.
- Organic soil-free potting medium helps hold nutrients and water more efficiently for faster growth.
- Straw bales create an environment similar to gardening hills in soil.
- The plants will have good drainage.
- Weeding time is minimized.
"We found that rice bales work best."
Here are the 12 simple steps we found and followed.
12 Steps to Set up a Straw Bale Garden
- Select rectangular bales that are firm and tied tightly.
- Place the bales in a sunny location. Most plants need at least six hours of sunlight each day. Plants such as tomatoes that do not receive this much sun will not produce as much fruit. Once the garden is in place, you will not be able to move the bales.
- The surface where you put your garden should be a place that can accept runoff. If you are gardening on concrete or on a rooftop, you will need to provide a place for the runoff water to go. You can place the bales on a tarp. This will divert the water to other areas so that it is not concentrated directly in one spot.
- Place the bales so that the bindings are facing upward and the grain of the straw or hay is parallel to the ground. Do not cut the bindings.
- Completely soak the bales with water from a garden hose once or twice every day for three days. If you are gardening on a rooftop, be aware that a 50-pound bale will hold 125 pounds of water. Make sure the surface you are gardening on will hold this weight.
- On the fourth day, add two cups of dolomite lime and 1/2 cup ammonium sulfate to the bale. Mix this fertilizer into the top of the bale by scratching it into the grain of the hay or straw fibers with a gardening fork and water it in by once again saturating the bale.
- Add fertilizer to the bale for the next five days. If you are gardening organically, use a manure tea as your fertilizer. If not, use 1/2 cup ammonium sulfate. The ammonium sulfate or manure tea will activate microbes that decompose the bale in the center of the hay.
- On day 10, add 1/2 cup of a balanced 8-8-8 fertilizer or one cup of a 10-10-10 fertilizer. The numbers on the package represent the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the fertilizer.
- Add another 1/2 cup of this fertilizer once per month as your plants grow. Never fertilize the bales more than once per month after they have been planted.
- The bales should be ready to plant on day 11.
- Create a top cap of soil for the bale garden by mixing bagged potting soil and bagged, composted manure from your local garden center. Spread this over the top of the bales in a four-inch layer. Manure must be composted to eliminate weed seeds.
- Plant vegetable transplants by pushing aside the top cap and pulling the straw fibers open. Place the root ball of the plant directly into the straw fibers. Then push the fibers closed around the root ball and move the top cap back in place.
A bale of hay is large enough for two tomato plants or four pepper plants, but you may plant any type of vegetable in your straw bale garden. Spring gardens may be planted just after the last yearly frost date in your region. A fall garden may be planted by midsummer.
Plant spring gardens after the last frost.
Plant fall gardens in midsummer.
Check the bales daily once they are planted to see if they need watering. Even if the outside of the bales are moist, the inside must remain as damp as a rag that has been wrung out.
Awesome! Thanks for sharing this process and your journey, Cindy Moines!
The Bale is the Garden
Straw bale, or hay bale gardening is not to be confused with using loose straw in your garden for mulch or compost. What we're talking about here is the whole bale, as it stands, tied with twine and used for planting plants on the top.
Especially good for those with wonky backs, straw bale gardening needs only someone to lug the jolly bales into place and with a minimum of effort you'll have a marvel of bounty and beauty indeed.
We can learn from others here. There are timely tips on straw bale gardening that will save you angst.
What we Like About Straw Bale Gardening
Here's our season 2 hoe-down on why SBG:
- The bale is the garden. Put it on your balcony or patio if you want to.
- Use one or umpteen bales as you need and in any pattern. Because straw bale gardening is raised, it's easy to work with, so make sure you allow for handy access.4)http://www.no-dig-vegetablegarden.com/straw-bale-gardening.html#sthash.Pd6xmlsX.dpuf
- There’s more than one way to set up a straw-bale garden, so it might be useful to do some research to see which method you prefer.5)http://www.cleveland.com/insideout/index.ssf/2012/04/straw-bale_gardening_lets_you.html
Types of Bales (and which to avoid)
- Hay bales
- Wheat straw bales
- Rice bales
Straw bales have had the seeds mostly removed, leaving the deseeded straw bales used for livestock bedding, landscape mulching and gardening.
Hay bales are bundled with the seed still intact and are used for livestock feed. Hay bales are not recommended for straw bale gardening because they typically contain all kinds of weed seeds.
Many people say you should never use hay bales because of the weeds that will come up from the seeds still in the bales. Others say that the weeds just make for extra composting organic matter. We've only tried the wheat bales so can't offer personal experience, but we're inclined to go with the straw bales to avoid the possibility of more grass weeds making their way into our garden and around our property.
Avoid hay bales because they typically contain all kinds of weed seeds.
We'd love to use rice bales because our daughter is severely allergic to the wheat and immediately breaks out in itchy hives from the least amount of contact. So if you're gluten free or wheat intolerant like Devani is, chances are that you may also react to the wheat straw, so test contact with bales before deciding to use them for gardening, otherwise you'll need to wear long sleeves, pants and gloves.
If you're allergic to them externally, but don't think you're wheat intolerant, this might be something to look at. If you have any undiagnosed or unresolved health issues and find that you have a severe reaction to wheat bales, chances are you have an allergy to the wheat you're ingesting as well.
Where to Buy Straw Bales
Cindy Moine uses rice bales, which is great if you live in an area where rice is cultivated.
States where you might find rice straw bales for sale:
Rice is grown in the US in Arkansa, California, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas, so if you live in any of these states, check with your local home, hardware, garden centers and nurseries to see if they stock rice straw bales.
We get ours from our local Ace Hardware store just 5 minutes away. You can also buy straw bales from:
- Home Depot
- Tractor Supply
- Ace Hardware
- Local Farms (start with organic farms and call around)
- Feed & seed mill stores
More recently, we found a local organic farm that sells organic wheat bales, so check around in your area and you may find some too.
Where to Buy Straw Bales — Online:
StrawBaleMarket.com - this lists places in the US where you can buy straw bales near you. This is a good idea, but call first as we're not certain how up to date this is. (Notice they're using Cindy Moine's straw bale garden photo!)6)http://strawbalemarket.com/
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading these:
- How we're incorporating straw bales with a cattle panel tunnel
- Lasagna or layered garden bed
- Hugelkultur - great for poor soil in or near woods
- Ruth Stout's, no-till, deep mulch gardening
Top Resources for More Info on Straw Bale Gardening
Our go to source for learning and planning the garden has been Joel Karsten's book, "Straw Bale Gardens Complete". Joel's manual and the Garden Planner have been essential guides in how this new venture would take shape as we waded in deep and started renovating the entire garden after cutting down and pruning a few trees so we could get more light to our wooded yard.
- For a PDF from Milwaukee County UW-Extension on Straw bale Gardening - 7)https://pddc.wisc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/39/2016/03/Straw-Bale-Gardening.pdf
- You can find an easy plan for constructing a portable straw bale garden on wheels in just 1-2 hours at BonniePlants.com. This would be perfect for deck and patio gardens.8)https://bonnieplants.com/library/how-to-build-a-straw-bale-frame/
- And, from the author of Straw Bale Gardening himself, Joel Karsten:
"Straw Bale Gardening is simply a different type of container gardening. The main difference is that the container is the straw bale itself and is held together with two or three strings." Joel Karsten.
- Joel Karsten's beautiful site!9)http://strawbalegardens.com/
Let us know what you're doing in your garden, and if you have any questions. We love to hear from folks via email or on the Gardens All Facebook page. Meanwhile, as our garden experiments progress, we'll report back with updates.
G. Coleman Alderson is an entrepreneur, land manager, investor, gardener, and author of the novel, Mountain Whispers: Days Without Sun. Coleman holds an MS from Penn State where his thesis centered on horticulture, park planning, design, and maintenance. He’s a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and a licensed building contractor for 27 years. “But nothing surpasses my 40 years of lessons from the field and garden. And in the garden, as in life, it’s always interesting because those lessons never end!” Coleman Alderson
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