We decided to include a page on straw bale gardening because it is another practical and useful option.
It provides abundant growing possibilities with minimal maintenance and can save you a fortune on buying compost and raised-bed construction materials. Straw bale gardening is excellent if you have a water-logged area of your garden that you couldn’t otherwise use. It is also especially useful to anyone who might have trouble managing to crouch or bend down.
On the downside, straw bales are only good for a year, or two at a push, and cleaning them up at the end of a growing season can be a bit messy. They can have a tendency to turn into a kind of compost, especially if you use feed. It’s OK if you are placing them on a muddy growing patch, but not so much fun if they are going to be placed on the lawn, especially after year 2. They will also need a lot of watering during hot summers.
The principal is simple: you take a straw bale, place it on the ground, and use it to grow things in the same way you would in any soil. Think of it as a big rectangular block of soil. There are however certain ways to go about doing it correctly, and we will cover some of the basics below…
Straw, not Hay!
One of the most basic fundamentals is to use straw bales, not hay bales. Straw contains only the stem of the harvested crop such as wheat or barley, but hay includes the heads of the crop (usually grass) that will contain an abundance of seeds. The moment you start watering a hay bale, all the seeds will sprout and you will have a big bale of grass in no time! With the straw, you may get the occasional head with a few grains starting to sprout, but there will be few enough to be manageable.
You need to decide on a final permanent position for your straw bales before you water them. Once they have been wetted, they will become too heavy to lift and reposition. They may also come apart if you try. It is important to make sure the bales are tied with twine that will not rot. Plastic or wire twine is best. Degradable twine could break and cause the whole bale to disintegrate during the growing season.
It’s also important to place the bale so that the stems of the straw run in the vertical plane, so they are reaching for the sky as it were.
Soaking & Cooling
When you are happy with the position of your straw bales, you need to water them copiously, then leave them alone for about a week. During this time, the bales will heat up in a kind of composting effect. After a week or so they will cool enough to allow you to plant into.
You have two choices here, you can either transplant seedlings and young plants directly into the straw, or you can cover the surface of the straw with a few inches of compost and plant seeds as you would normally.
To add seedlings or young plants, simply prise apart some of the straw with a trowel and insert them. When you pull out the trowel, the straw should close back up again, gripping the transplanted plant. Make sure you are careful not to cut through the twine holding the bale together as you do this. Water in the new plants just as you would in a normal garden.
Watering and feeding
Straw bale gardening does involve a lot of watering, especially in hot weather. A lot of this is due to the straws running vertically, they can act as conduits for much of the water to run straight into the ground.
Feeding can be a bit of a balancing act. Too little and your plants may not do that well, too much and your straw bale turns into a heap of compost before the first season is over.
With the right combination, your straw bales can last for two years, however, if you are only intending on using them for one season, then feed away, and enjoy some big healthy plants.