Recently I gave a gardening workshop in Chetek. The subject was a very old gardening method... straw bale gardening.
What the actual garden is, is a bale of straw that is prepared, planted, and used as a non-permanent raised bed. It is considered a hydroponic (water) source of gardening in a “mostly sterile” medium (the straw). The bale is considered a well-aerated, disease free growing form.
Straw is the stem of a grain plant. It is used for fodder and bedding. Hay is the entire plant including stems, leaves and seed heads. Everyone, as of late, seems to think they “invented” this technique. Actually, gardening with the bales has been around since ancient times.
Egyptians had extensive gardens. They grew and traded in wheat. Straw bale gardening was a byproduct of their ingenuity. The Aztecs used straw bale plantings because of the difficulty in growing things in wet conditions. Straw bale gardens have been found in Aztec writings, history and art. Pioneers all along the westward trek used straw or grass bales to plant and mulch.
In the late 1990s, organic and “back to the land” gardeners used straw bale gardening to expand their gardens while composting at the same time. They’ve been blogging and discussing their experiences for over 10 years. In fact, if you Google the subject, over 200,000 websites and articles are displayed.
Choosing your bales
While doing research, I found that some gardeners insist that bales come in the 24 inch size. Anyone who’s driven around the county knows that’s not true. Straw bales can be found and/or purchased from feed lots, feed stores, local farmers, store seasonal displays, or corn mazes.
Use straw. Combines remove the grain and leave the dried out stems. Do not use hay, although this is often called hay bale gardening. Wheat, rye, or oat straw is the best. Do NOT use pine straw. It’s too acidic. Save pine straw to mulch your blueberries.
Grass straw may be used, but be prepared to fight the “weeds.” Whatever kind you choose, keep the bailer’s twine off the ground (on the sides). It will deteriorate, otherwise.
When purchasing straw bales consider these six things:
n Compare prices for same bale size.
n Determine whether or not price includes delivery. Who will lift the bales?
n If picking the hay up yourself, make sure the area is accessible by truck.
n It is OK to look at a sample bale when purchasing.
n Reject any moldy or unusually smelly bales already decomposing.
n Make sure herbicides/pesticides were not used in bales.
Benefits and location
So, why garden in a straw bale? It’s inexpensive, convenient, and you can put one anywhere, even on compacted soil or concrete. This means you can garden where soil amendment is desperately needed.
The method improves and amends the soil area beneath the bale. The area beneath the bales will attract worms. There is substantially lower garden maintenance, very few pests, and less weeding. Bales absorb the heat and keep the plants at a warmer temperature.
Bale gardens have great drainage that makes root rot and other soil-borne illnesses a non-issue. The bales hold water better than regular soil and stayed hydrated longer. Growing in bales gives greater yield/square foot. The entire thing is compostable. It makes gardening possible on uneven, rocky, and/or poor soil.
One needs to remember that bales are very heavy when they are wet, so place them where you want them. They are hard to move once you are started. Remember to water from the top not the bottom (which was one of the Aztec problems).
They are ideal for patios, balconies, small courtyards, and limited space areas. Bale gardens are great for those “awkward” gardening areas. Some gardeners even place them in wagons and move them around. Wherever they are placed, make sure the bales can get at least six hours of sunlight each day.
First, make a layout or plan of your intended garden, whether you have one bale or a hundred.
If you are positioning on concrete, put down a stain barrier. Bales will cause discoloration.
Choose a site where you can see your bales often, that is close to a water source, and that allow you to access any part of the bale.
Conditioning of the bales is an essential part of the process. The internal temperature of a rotting bale of hay is around 150 degrees. Conditioning speeds up the fermentation process and allows you to plant the bale earlier. Conditioning should be started by the first week in May for this area. I’d suggest getting a handle on your pre-plans now. The earlier you can get the bales out and placed, the better.
You will need straw bales, a place to put the bales, a water source, 11 days (or overwintering) to prepare the bales, fertilizer, plants, a pair of scissors and a garden trowel.
There are more than a dozen ways to condition your straw bale for planting. Either let the bale age over the winter (3-5 months) and then plant, or choose a different method. The one I have used most is as follows. It takes 11 days, and uses ammonium sulphate — available from your local garden center.
The first three days soak the bale with water until the water comes out the bottom (soaker or sprinkler can be used). Each of those days, sprinkle 1/2 cup ammonium sulphate onto the top of the bale before you water it. Do not use the measuring cup for anything afterwards, or touch the ammonuim sulphate with your hands. Wear disposable gloves.
The second three days use 1/4 cup of the suopnitrate and water until the sulphate disappears. The third three days reduce nitrate to 1/8 cup and water until the sulphate edisappears. On the 10th day use a regular 10:10:10 fertilizer and water. The eleventh day you’re ready to plant.
What and how to plant
Decide what and where you are going to plant. Open up a small hole and increase with your trowel. Put the plant in, and you’re done. Do not over plant your bale. Otherwise, the plants will crowd each other.
If you plant vining plants or things that need staking, go ahead (like tomatoes and cages). Planting seeds will work, but is not as successful as transplants. Plus, one needs to realize that gardening “rows” in a bale are not going to grow in a straight line.
If planting seeds, add a layer of “top soil” or potting soil. If leftover seed in the straw sprouts, use your scissors to just trim them off. Bales can last two years, but the entire thing makes great compost. There is a fine line between a good straw bale that’s “working” and one that’s composting.
Bales will use more water than a “normal” garden. Hay bales act like a sponge. Do not let them dry out or you will lose your crop. The orientation of the straw stems (they are hollow) means that much of the water will just run out the bottom. In very hot weather, you may have to water daily.
Almost any gardening method can be used: French/bio intensive, square foot gardening, or companion planting. For fun, try a lasagna garden between bales or next to a bale. Some gardeners even make and plant a “bale wall” in their regular gardens.
Suggested plantings include: strawberries, any vegetables grown as annuals, herbs, mushrooms, root crops like potatoes, onions and garlic (Note: Make sure potatoes are covered completely in the straw.), squashes, cold crop veggies, legumes, ANY kind of greens, and any annual flowers.
With flowers, go ahead and plant the entire bale — top and sides.
What not to plant includes obviously tall plants like corn, sunflowers, amaranth, caned berries, and plants that don’t like their roots disturbed (like artichokes).
Because of the nonpermanent nature of the medium, perennials are not suitable, unless you are using the bale as a temporary planting spot. If you are concerned about the “look” of the bales, plant marigolds, pansies, or nasturtiums along the base about 4 inches up.
If you choose to try this unique (and not so new) gardening method, have fun. I’d love to see the photos of your success.
Master Gardener Sydney J. Tanner nurtures her 10 children as well as plants, in Colfax. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.