Starting a straw bale garden is a great way to create pop-up vegetable gardens during the summer months. Straw bales are such a versatile medium to grow plants in. They don’t require very much to set up, and they can be used almost anywhere.
Benefits of using straw bales
They are temporary
One of the best things about using straw bales is that you don’t need soil to start a garden. You can convert an entire parking lot into a vegetable garden over the summer months. All you need are some straw bales, and an open space with sun exposure.
If your yard is covered in tree roots, its also a viable option rather than digging up all those roots. If your soil is contaminated from pesticide use, lay down a garden fabric barrier, and place your bales on top.
Once you have harvested your vegetables, you can move the broken down straw into a compost heap, or yard waste. Your space will be free again during the down season.
Great for urban gardening
Straw bales are a fantastic option for crowded urban areas. Because they don’t require soil, you can place them just about anywhere that has sun exposure. You can use them on balconies, in parking lots, and even make raised beds with them.
Urban gardening can be difficult without access to places to plant. Instead of lugging a bunch of soil onto your balcony, straw bales are lighter alternative. Just be mindful that they will retain a lot of moisture. So make sure you know what kind of weight limit your balcony has first.
Great for Community Building
Growing in bales in the front yard is definitely a way to generate conversation. People are curious by nature, and being able to provide a new idea to your neighbours can help start conversations, and build community. You may learn something unexpected from people walking by.
Consider having a row of bales near the sidewalk for people to help themselves to produce. Its a fun way to include everyone on your street in the process.
Think about different ways you can incorporate straw bale gardening into more areas of your community. Imagine an old parking lot converted into a straw bale vegetable garden for the community during the summer, and a public skating rink during the winter.
Can be used in place of soil
Straw bales don’t need soil to grow your plants. Instead of using soil, the straw bales act as the growing medium. You will need to condition them with nutrients before planting, but that’s an easy step. It doesn’t require too much effort, and will set your straw bale garden up for success throughout the growing season.
Great for hot, dry climates
Straw bales retain a lot of moisture, which makes them great for drier climates. Before you plant in the bales, you will need to get them nice and soaked with water to help them start decomposing. This step also helps set the bales up to retain a lot of water during the growing season. Even though the top layer of straw may appear dry, reach your hand inside, and you should feel moisture.
Watering everyday might not be necessary depending on where you live. In fact, you can easily over water the plants, so its best to look for signs of overwatering on their leaves to make sure they don’t rot out.
Straw is not Hay
Why does this matter? This is key, because hay is used primarily as a food source for animals, it is full of nutrients that will break down if watered. Hay is usually made up of wheat or oat grass that has been cut down while green, and made into bales. Using hay will result in mouldy, lumps rather than a clean medium that can absorb the nutrients you give it.
Straw bales are what you need to use to make straw bale gardening work. The bales are usually made from oat or wheat shafts that have been dried out in the field, and collected into bales. Straw is often used for bedding, or to soak up moisture, and keep weeds down in gardens. It is very commonly used in Strawberry patches in North America to absorb mud and moisture in pick-your-own rows.
How to Start a Straw Bale Garden
- Straw Bales
- High Nitrogen fertilizer (Ex. 30-0-3)
- A water source
- Hose, or watering can
- Seeds, or seed starter plants
- Determine where you would like your garden to go. It should be relatively even ground, and have 6-8 hours of direct sunlight
- Obtain straw bales from a local farm. Ask to make sure they are untreated bales (Bales meant for halloween displays often use a fire-reducing coating which is harmful to plants and humans)
- Lay out the bales where you want them. You can configure them any way you wish. Some people claim to have more sucess turning the bales on their sides, to grow along the cut edge. Either configuration will work.
- Spend 2-3 days in a row soaking the bales through with water. run a hose over each bale until you can see water coming out the bottom.
- To begin conditioning the bales, you will need to fertilize them with a high nirtogen fertilizer. Lawn fertilizer can be used, but it cannot be coated with any additives. It is best if you can dissolve the fertilizer into water to mix, rather than using pellets.
- If using pellents, sprinkle them directly on top of the bales, and soak the bales with water, working the fertilizer into the bale.
- If using a fertilizer-water mix, evenly distribute the fertilizer among the bales, making sure to water them.
- Repeat the ferilizer every other day for 2 weeks.
- Let your bales rest a week, but still keeping them moist with water.
- Depending on your climate, and when you begin conditioning, you may notice that your bales heat up quite a lot. This is the bales beginning the decomposition process. You will need to wait for this heat to subside for several days before planting. If you want while the bales are too hot, they will not survive.
- Once your bales have cooled (usually 3 weeks after the start of conditioning) you may begin to sow seeds, or place in starter plants.
- If using seeds, you may have to push them into the straw to get them to germinate, or you can use a thin layer of potting soil over the top of the bale to get them to seed.
- For transplants, separate the straw enough to fit the plant you are placing, and then make sure to rearange the straw surrounding the plant, so the tension doesn't hurt the young stems.
- Water your plants, and wait for them to grow.
It is normal to see grass growing out of the bales - this is usually from straw wheat or oat seeds left inside the bales. You can pull out where necessary.
If mushrooms sprout from your bales, it means they are decomposing well. Play it safe, and don't eat the mushrooms.
Once you have harvested your vegetables, and are finished gardening for the season, you can load your bales into the compost heap.
You may be able to get an additional growing season from them, but you likely will not have to condition them as aggressively, as they will already be decomposing.
Food security is a growing problem in our societies. Pop-up gardens in neighbourhoods that would otherwise not have a garden is another way to increase knowledge sharing.
Food security depends on so many factors outside of actually having food. It requires an equitable access to employment, wages, food sources, and more. While food security is by no means a simple problem to tackle, I am mentioning it because if we share the skills for gardening we can help increase the number of gardens in our neighbourhoods.
It doesn’t mean that food deserts won’t still exist, but it does mean that access to fresh food and vegetables does increase. It’s also a great way to teach young people how to grow for themselves.
Bringing gardening skills right into neighbourhoods we are a part of can transform the way we view where we live.
Gardens are hubs for people, and inter generational connections.
Now that you are growing your skills, how will you share them with others? Let me know in the comments, and tag me on Instagram @veggie_homestead to share your gardens.