Straw bale gardening

Do you want to your own vegetables, but have minimal garden space, poor or heavy clay soil, or limited financial resources? Do you manage or want to begin a school or community garden, but need to start small or stretch limited funding? Do you want to give your children a fun adventure in growing their own food or flowers? Straw bale gardening could be the perfect solution for you.

Using straw bales as a planting medium is an effective and easy method of soil-less gardening. It allows anyone to grow a variety of plants — vegetables, strawberries, annual flowers, and bulbs — without the need to build and fill raised beds or purchase expensive pots and potting soil. It’s essentially container gardening without a container!

If you prefer a meticulously tidy yard with a showcase appearance, straw bale gardens might not be for you. They certainly have a rustic, less-kempt appearance than gardens with tiers of decorative pots or wooden raised beds. On the other hand, even a well-manicured garden can accommodate a bale or two concealed behind a low hedge or thigh-high shrubs. Half the joy is in the experiment

When starting a bale garden, be sure to buy straw bales, not hay bales. Hay is usually grown as animal feed and contains entire green plants (timothy, alfalfa, wheat, etc.), including the seedheads; straw is the dry, hollow, leftover stalks of those same plants, a harvest byproduct without seeds. Look for dense, dry, heavy bales. Consider buying your bales from an organic farmer to ensure that the straw isn’t contaminated by pesticides or other chemicals.

The key to success with straw bale gardening is pre-conditioning of the bale before planting, using only water and fertilizer. Seedlings planted in a dry, unconditioned bale are likely to die.

Before beginning the conditioning process, place your bale(s) in a carefully chosen and sunny location. Straw bales are large and unwieldy, and they’re virtually impossible to move once they’re saturated with water. Sunlight is critical for a vegetable garden; the site should receive at least 6 to 8 hours of full, direct sun every day.

If using more than one bale, place them end-to-end in a north-south orientation for best efficiency and sun exposure. Space rows four to six feet apart. (For a garden on a slope, align the bales so they point downhill, not across the slope, to prevent them from tipping over.)

When positioning the straw bales, turn them on edge so the baling strings are on the sides, not on the top and bottom. Also, orient the bales so that the cut ends of the straw (not the folded parts) are pointed up, to allow for maximum penetration of water and fertilizer.

Locate your straw bale garden near an easily accessible water source. Perforated soaker hoses laid on top of the bales are the best form of season-long irrigation. Avoid sprinklers, because wet leaves encourage plant diseases.

Straw bale demonstration garden by Marin County UC Master Gardeners (Courtesy UCANR)











Straw bale gardens are safe to establish atop paved surfaces and septic system drainage fields. “Wasted space” can become productive and healthy. About the only places these gardens shouldn’t be placed are on wooden decks or contaminated soil.

You will need about a pound of standard lawn fertilizer with at least 20% nitrogen to condition each straw bale. DON’T use fertilizers that contain herbicides. For organic gardening, use about three pounds of organic fertilizer (e.g. blood meal or fish emulsion) per bale, along with a source of phosphorus (bone or fish meal) and potassium (wood ash or kelp meal); mix thoroughly before application.

The conditioning process is simple. Use lukewarm (not cold) water and follow these steps:

Day 1— Saturate each bale with water until it starts to come out of the bottom. Evenly sprinkle each bale with ½ cup lawn fertilizer or 3 cups organic fertilizer, and water thoroughly.

Day 2— Water thoroughly

Day 3— Fertilize and water as on Day 1, skipping the initial saturation

Day 4— Water thoroughly

Day 5— Fertilize and water as on Day 3

Day 6 — Water thoroughly

Days 7, 8, and 9 — Apply ¼ cup lawn fertilizer or 1½ cup organic fertilizer, then water

Day 10— Apply 1 cup of balanced 10-10-10 garden fertilizer (10% each of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) to each bale. Water around the cracks in the bales to keep from washing out the fertilizer.

Days 12 to 18— It might not look like it, but the internal conditioning process has progressed enough to allow planting. Use a clean hand trowel to make holes in the bale. Carefully plant your seedlings, gently filling in around each of them with a handful of sterile planting mix (NOT regular, unsterile garden soil).

Over time, the combined action of water, fertilizer, and naturalmicrobes converts the interior of the bale into a moist, loose, nutrient rich, and nicely warm growing medium suitable for tender young plant seedlings. The twine-bound exterior stays relatively dry and acts as a “container.” Water plants regularly and fertilize monthly.

Worms and mushrooms in or on a bale are not a problem; in fact, they’re a sign that decomposition is progressing well.

In the San Joaquin and Sacramento County area, the month of March is a good time to begin conditioning hay bales for a summer vegetable crop. April is a prime month to plant seedlings of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and early season lettuce, so if you start conditioning your bales in mid- to late-March they’ll be ready for planting at just the right time.

Straw bale gardens have many advantages. They’re very productive because they provide an ideal growing environment. They’re great for root crops such as carrots, radishes, onions, and potatoes that need loose soil; when mature, break open the bale to harvest. Because they’re 20 to 24 inches above ground level, straw bale gardens are ideal for people who have trouble stooping or bending over. They also need no weeding, and they eliminate problems caused by soil borne diseases.

Another benefit of straw bale gardening is that there’s virtually no waste. When the bales start to fall apart, the leftover stalks make good mulch, and the rich, decomposed center material is a wonderful soil amendment. Reuse both in your garden, and all you need to dispose of is the binding twine.

Straw bale vegetable garden at the Fair Oaks Horticulture Center, the demonstration garden of the Sacramento County UC Master Gardeners. (Courtesy UCANR)














The authority on straw bale gardening is Joel Karsten. He has authored two books on the topic  — “Straw Bale Gardens” and “Straw Bale Solutions” — and his website ( is an excellent resource. You can also find him on YouTube; search for the videos entitled “Straw Bale Garden Basics with Joel Karsten” and “Let’s end world hunger with the straw bale gardens method.” And, be sure to read UCANR Publication 8559, “Gardening with Straw Bales.”

Even one straw bale and a few vegetable plants can provide plenty of nutritious, tasty, home grown produce for your diet. Mr. Karsten recommends using five straw bales per person to supply all of a family’s produce needs during the growing season. However many bales you use, enjoy the experiment!

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our website.





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