Straw Bale Gardening: How Does It Work?

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Take on the challenges of gardening in a new way with a straw bale garden. Bales hold moisture and provide a rich medium for veggies.

straw bale gardenFirdausiah Mamat/Getty Images

Gardeners face all kinds of challenges: poor soil, weeds, space issues and short growing seasons, to name a few. You can eliminate some of them with a straw bale garden, because the bales hold moisture and, as they decompose, they provide a rich medium for vegetable plants.

“The biggest benefit of a straw bale garden is that the bales heat up as they begin the ‘conditioning’ process, and thus allow earlier planting,” says Joel Karsten, author of Straw Bale Gardens Complete: Breakthrough Vegetable Gardening Method. “The warm root zone means faster, early-season root production and earlier-maturing vegetables.”

Raised bales are easier to reach and work on for those with physical limitations. And they almost eliminate weeding, a benefit many straw-bale gardeners love most. Follow these steps to start a straw bale garden.

Pick a Prime Location for Your Straw Bale Garden

Choose heavy, highly compressed straw (not hay!) bales, directly from a farm if possible. Find a location that gets six to eight hours of sunlight per day. Lay landscape fabric to keep weeds from growing, and arrange the bales cut sides up, with the strings running along the sides.

Condition the Straw

Two weeks before planting, start “cooking” the bales. Treat them with high-nitrogen fertilizer every other day and water heavily for about two weeks to accelerate decomposition of the straw inside the bale.

Plant Seedlings or Seeds

Seedlings can be planted directly in the straw bale garden. Just make a hole with the trowel and add a little planting mix to cover the exposed roots. Seeds require a bed of potting soil to hold moisture on top of the bale until germination. If you wish, plant annual flowers or herbs into the sides of the bales to make them more attractive.

Protect and Support Vines

Position tall posts at the end of each row and run wire between them at 10-inch intervals from the top of the bale. When seeds sprout, drape a plastic tarp over the bottom wire to create a greenhouse for chilly nights. As the plants grow, the wires become a vertical trellis, supporting vining veggies.

Harvest and Compost

When the growing season is over, the straw bales turn into usable, healthy compost for next year’s gardens.

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Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten is the content director of Birds & Blooms. She's been with the brand in various roles since 2007. She has many favorite birds (it changes with the seasons), but top picks include the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak. Her bucket list bird is the painted bunting.