Straw bale gardening is an old idea that, over the last several years, has witnessed a great deal of renewed attention. The Aztecs, ancient Egyptians, and American pioneers all did it, and today, many are revisiting the technique, because it’s so affordable and easy.
Introduce yourself to the method with flowers or herbs, and if you really enjoy it, move on to experimenting with a full-on vegetable garden. To begin, you only need some free time and a few inexpensive materials that are readily accessible at home improvement centers and garden supply stores.
- Straw bale (Use wheat or oat straw. Hay will sprout too many seeds, and pine needles don’t break down fast enough.)
- Potting mix or compost
- Plants or seeds
- Fertilizer (Use blood meal, fish emulsion, compost tea or another organic fertilizer high in nitrogen.)
1. Set and soak the bale
Choose a location for your straw bale. Your garden, driveway, or patio are all equally suitable—really, a straw bale planter can go almost anywhere. Once watered and planted, it will be heavy to lift and move, so take care in deciding on its placement.
The strings should be on the outside of the bale, and the rough ends of the straw should be on the top and bottom. Water the bale thoroughly and keep it wet for a period of about three days. Soon, the bale will begin to compost on the inside, heating up as a result.
2. Condition the bale
Sprinkle a high-nitrogen fertilizer over the bale, watering thoroughly to disperse the fertilizer grains. Continue adding fertilizer periodically, keeping the bale moist until it starts to cool (this takes anywhere from ten days to three weeks). Alternatively, let your bale overwinter for three to five months, and it will be ready to plant without this conditioning.
3. Top with soil or compost
Add a two- or three-inch layer of soil or compost to the top of the bale. Doing so helps to fill in gaps. Additionally, soil works to keep plants or seeds moist until they get established.
4. Add your transplant or plant seeds
Use a trowel to dig out a hole big enough to accommodate your transplant, then infill with topsoil or compost. Planting seeds? Following directions on their package, set the seeds directly into the soil you’ve added to the top of bale. Whether transplanting or starting from seed, you must continue to water and fertilize throughout the season, being sure to never let your plantings dry out completely.
There are many advantages to straw bale gardening. It’s a great method for those who have poor soil, and for anyone whose physical limitations make it difficult or impossible to bend down. Another advantage is that so little space is required, you can even do a straw bale planter on a city balcony.
It’s low cost and low maintenance—there’s very little weeding involved!—and the straw eventually breaks down to enrich the ground beneath. At that point, you can throw on another bale and start the process all over again. Now that’s sustainable gardening, for sure!