Straw Bale Gardening
Straw bale gardening is the perfect alternative for gardeners facing poor soil conditions, those who are looking for a way to garden with less heavy lifting, or for growing in paved/groundless locations. Straw bale gardens are appropriate for growing almost anything (with the exception of very tall plants such as corn), and can be successfully grown in any zone. The straw bales themselves can be stacked or arranged to create a unique sculptured affect, or to make gardens more accessible to those with trouble bending over.
Choosing the Bales
Straw is the best choice for bale gardening. Hay will contain seeds that may sprout into unwanted weeds later on. In a straw bale, occasional weeds can be easily pulled out, but in a hay bale (which is less coarse), these weeds may be more frequent, and become very difficult to remove.
There are multiple types of straw to choose from: Corn and flax bales are not the best choices because they are extremely coarse and may take too long to decompose enough to provide a good growing medium. The best straw bale choices are barley, wheat, oat or rye.
Most bales will cost somewhere from $2 to $5 per bale, and can be purchased at most nurseries or from a local farmer.
Starting the Garden
Plan where your bales will be placed, and if growing on open ground, lay down a layer of wire mesh beneath the bales (to deter moles or other pests from digging). Place your bales carefully because they will be difficult to move once they have become saturated. Also, be careful about placing bales against objects that will rot easily (such as wooden fences).
If the twine is degradable (such as sisal twine), lay the bales with the straw facing vertical (cut ends up), and the strings facing outward (not against the ground). If using bales with plastic or wire twine, lay the bales string-side down (they will hold more water when placed this way). Try arranging the bales to create a raised border along the entire edge of the garden (this is a popular arrangement).
Baking the Bales – Preparation
If using new bales that have not been wet before, you will need to get them through the baking / cooling stage. This will start the interior decomposition needed to properly grow on the bales. To start the baking process, thoroughly soak the bales with water, and continue to water (not allowing them to dry out) for 5 days. During this period, the bales will begin ‘baking’ with exposure to the heat, sun and moisture. Allow the bales to cool for 1 to 2 weeks before doing any planting (planting too early will scald and kill your plants, but some warmth can actually promote faster root growth).
If planting seeds, spread a 2″ deep layer of compost soil on top of the bales and plant the seeds directly into the compost. If growing from starter plants, pull the straw apart, pour in a small amount of compost soil, and place the plant into the opening (allowing the straw to fold back into place around the roots). You should follow the normal growing instructions for the plant being placed (for example, you should be able to fit about half a dozen cucumbers – trailing down, on a single bale).
The bales should last 1 to 2 years before needing replaced.
Straw bale gardens will require more frequent watering that ground gardens because much of the water will drain through the bales. Depending on the weather conditions, you may need to water daily (or in very dry conditions, twice a day). You should have a hose that will easily reach the garden, or some other means of providing water.
There are a variety of ways to provide water to a straw bale garden without daily tending. A popular method is creating a home drip system. This can be easily achieved with a large plastic bottle (such as a soft-drink bottle or milk jug with the plastic cap and inner seal). Remove the cap and create a tiny hole in the center, then take the inner seal and push multiple pin-sized holes through it.
Fill the bottle with water (and if desired some liquid fertilizer) push the inner seal into the cap, and screw on tightly. Turn the bottle upside down into a hole in the bale close to the plant (you might want to place some stones in the bottom of the hole to keep the lid from becoming clogged). This drip system should feed the plants for up to six days depending on the size of the holes.
You can also try placing small pieces of wet cloth below the roots, before planting (these will eventually degrade, but will help hold more moisture at the base of the roots).
Happy straw bale gardening!