A bale of straw may seem like little more than Halloween décor to civilian homeowners. But did you know straw bales can be used to grow various kinds of herbs, ornamental plants, and vegetables? Cool, right? Straw bales gardens are soil-free, raised container beds are kinder on your back, plus the best perk is weed-free gardening.
Not everyone’s born with a green thumb, but if you’re longing to nurture your ability to reap what you sew, straw bale gardening is a great way to start. As long as the bales receive six to eight hours of sunlight per day, you can place them virtually anywhere: along the driveway, the back patio, or down near the dock.
Joel Karsten is the pioneer of this gardening method. He opines that growing this way is simple and highly predictable if you’re looking for a healthy, productive crop. According to Straw Bale Garden Club, there are 59 countries that have adopted straw bale gardening. There are also lots of tips from Karsten himself on the site, as well as news and success stories from gardeners around the world.
If you don’t mind the rustic look of straw bales, here are a few tips to get started on your own garden:
Begin a bale
Pick your bale at any local garden centre or farm; you can choose wheat, oats, barley, alfalfa, or rye. There’s some benefit to solarizing your bales first. By wrapping them in plastic for a few weeks before planting, the sun does all the work of heating the bales up and killing any weeds lurking inside. When you place the bales onto the ground for planting, remember to have the cut side facing up—and leave the twine on.
Get your bales prepped by giving them a good conditioning—this essentially starts the decomposition process before you’ll do your planting. This step takes a week to up to 12 days.
Place the bales where you want them (they get pretty heavy once they’re wet). Water the bales for about three days, keeping them moist. Then for the next six days use a high nitrogen liquid fertilizer. Water for two more days and then do a temperature check: if the bale feels warm it’s ready to receive those seeds (or seedlings)!
Plan and plant
The Farmers’ Almanac suggests you plant from seed or seedlings. If you choose to plant seeds, put a three-inches layer of potting soil on the top of the bale (this helps germination and holds the seeds in place so they don’t fall deeper).
For seedlings, use a trowel to make an area big enough for the seedling and its soil to fit in. How many seedlings can fit per bale? The Almanac says there’s enough room for two to three tomato, four pepper, about two squash, two or three zucchini, four to six cucumber, and three to four strawberry plants. Apparently, this method is Martha Stewart’s go-to for strawberries.
Tip: there are a few less than ideal crops including corn, (too tall and top-heavy), plus potatoes, carrots, turnip and other root crops don’t grow well this way.
Tending to the bales
Once you’ve rooted your routine and your garden is growing, keeping it maintained is easy. Water regularly to keep the bales moist (once a day in summer). When you’re watering, make sure the water goes directly to the bale itself, not the leaves of the plants. Fertilizing once a week or every two weeks when your plants are growing is also ideal.
The straw bale may be the type of garden that finally fosters your love for gardening. Next season, try experimenting with new items, and even ornamental plants. We bet you’ll have more than a few passers-by (or guests) throughout the season who’ll want to learn how to start their own.