In recent years gardening, in particular the practice of growing fruit and vegetables, has increased dramatically in popularity. Part of this has come from our growing awareness of where our food has come from and how it has travelled to our plate.
This has also led to a growth in not only the organic sector but also an increase in popularity of meat less or meat free diets such as vegan-ism. Here is a great article explaining the benefits of a vegan diet if you want to learn more about it. Additionally gardening is also great for your mental well being. All of this means that it is an increasingly popular pastime.
Maybe you’ve already tried and failed to grow your own fabulous fruit and veg. Perhaps you’ve given up before you’ve even started, thinking that you don’t have enough room or that the soil you do have is far too poor in quality to produce anything remotely edible.
Perhaps the complete opposite is true. You may have spent many satisfying years tending your crops and enjoying the fruits of your labour. But now, with the advancing of the years, you are starting to find the physical effort involved in maintaining a weed free, bountiful garden too much.
Whatever your situation today we are going to examine a method that may be the answer to all your gardening woes.
Not only will we explain exactly what a straw bale garden is we will also tell you how to start your own, with minimum effort and stress, in just 30 days. As well as discussing how to get the most out of your garden we will look at the most common problems associated with this method and tell you how to avoid them.
In short whatever your gardening level, ability or situation a straw bale garden is a stress free method which is suitable for almost all situations.
- 1 What Is A Straw Bale Garden?
- 2 Why Should I Start A Straw Bale Garden?
- 3 The Supposed Downsides To Straw Bale Gardens.
- 4 (And How To Counteract Them.)
- 5 Selecting The Right Straw Bales
- 6 Where To Get Your Straw Bales
- 7 A Brief Guide To Fertiliser and Compost
- 8 Where To Locate Your Straw Bale Garden
- 9 Designing Your Garden
- 10 Preparing The Ground
- 11 Placing Your Straw Bales
- 12 Do You Need A Path?
- 13 Installing An Irrigation System
- 14 Supporting Your Plants As They Grow
- 15 Conditioning Your Straw Bales
- 16 What to Grow
- 17 How Much Can I Plant In Each Straw Bale?
- 18 How To Plant Your Straw Bale Garden
- 19 Enjoying Your Garden Throughout The Summer
- 20 Harvesting Your Crops
- 21 What To Do Once The Growing Season Has Concluded
- 22 Finally
What Is A Straw Bale Garden?
While not a new phenomenon, they have been around since the 1960s, the convenience and comparatively small end waste product means that they gardens are becoming increasingly common. But what exactly is a straw bale garden?
In simple terms it is the practice of growing flowers, fruit or vegetables in a straw bale. Similar to gardening in raised beds, they are considered to be less expensive and more effective than other methods.
Before we start to look at how to construct and maintain a straw bale garden we shall first discuss in detail some of the benefits of this method. We shall also look at some of the downsides commonly associated with this method of gardening before explaining how these problems are easily solved.
Why Should I Start A Straw Bale Garden?
1. They are incredibly adaptable.
This means that if you have poor soil, or even no soil at all, you can still enjoy the benefits of a garden. Similar to grow bags and raised beds straw bale gardens act as natural containers allowing you to plant what you want where you want it.
This also means that they are suitable for almost any location.From rocky outcrops to concrete patios straw bale gardens can thrive just about anywhere .
Even if your space is limited, you may only have a balcony or a small flat roof, you will still be able to fit in one or two bales. Some people have even had success by hanging them from their balcony rails. However , if you do attempt this method make sure that they are safely secured and that any water which drips from the bales doesn’t damage anything below.
2. They are far less labour intensive than traditional forms of gardening.
A straw bale garden does not require large amounts of soil or compost. Unlike raised beds they do not need to be filled with earth. This is not only a back breaking aspect of maintaining raised beds but also, often, an expensive one. In contrast straw bale gardens only need a minimum amount of compost to succeed. They also come in neat bundles that are light and easy to move.
Like raised beds, straw bales are elevated and can be placed in a central location allowing them to be easily accessible. This reduces the need for bending and kneeling. As a result they are easily tended by people with mobility issues.
Straw bale gardens also require less maintenance largely because you are planting into clean soil or straw. This means that weeds are unlikely to come through. Placing your bales on a membrane or hard surface further reduce the chances of any weeds appearing.
If any weeds do appear they are easily removed. This is because straw has a looser structure than garden soil so weeds are unable to gain a firm foothold. In the unlikely event that you do find yourself with a weed problem here is a comparison of some of the weed killers available.
3. Straw bale gardens are more productive than other methods.
This may seem like an outlandish claim but there is a lot of scientific evidence to back this argument up.
As we all know plants need light, oxygen and water to thrive. In recent years scientists have come to realise that the more oxygen that the root of the plant get the better it grows. Unlike conventional pots and raised beds, straw bales are not airtight. This means that more oxygen can access the roots of the plant. This is incredibly beneficial for the plants health and growth.
Additionally straw bales also act like a sponge, soaking up large quantities of water. This allows the plants to stay hydrated during the long, hot summer days.
4. Growing in a straw bale extends the growing period.
Straw bales generate heat as they decompose. This heat means that plants placed in them are less likely to be affected by a light frost as their roots are kept warm. In turn this allows for the growing season to begin earlier in the spring and stretch well into autumn. This feature is particularly useful in cooler climates where the soil can stay cold well into spring.
5. They have far less end product waste.
Unlike grow bags, which have a limited shelf life, and raised beds, that will eventually fall apart, leaving you with unuseable plastic and worn out pieces of wood, straw bales have almost no waste. While it is true that most bales will only last for one year they are relatively cheap to acquire and can be completely recycled.
When they become too worn and tattered to use they can be placed on the compost heap to continue the decomposition process. The following year you will be able to out this nutrient packed compost back onto your garden.
The Supposed Downsides To Straw Bale Gardens.
(And How To Counteract Them.)
1. They need more water than conventional growing methods.
Straw bales have a looser structure than soil. This means that water will run through them quite quickly. To counteract this try to water them gently, at a steady pace.
Another reason why they tend to dry out quickly is because they are always decomposing. This means that heat is constantly being generated. The internal heat can completely dry out the straw bales if they are not watered regularly. This is especially true in warm and dry climates where you may find that you have to water them twice a day.
In cooler climates you may not need to water the straw bales every day. Use the dampness of the bale as an indicator. If it seems to be drying out before the end of the day simply water it again.
A third factor, which makes them more prone to drying out, is that they are not airtight. As air is able to circulate easily through the bales water is less likely to be stored inside and more likely to evaporate.
While watering every day can be labour intensive installing a simple irrigation system will save you time. We will explain how to do this later in the article. Alternatively self winding hoses are easy to use and manage.
2. They look ugly.
The biggest problem for most people when they consider straw bale gardening is how they look in your garden. To be blunt, they do not age well. This is especially true of bales that are used for two growing seasons.
To make your them more aesthetically pleasing try growing herbs or annuals along the sides of the bales. This not only helps to disguise them but also adds more colour and interest to your garden. If your straw bales do start to get out of control there are a number of handy tools such as grass shears which can help you to effortlessly maintain order.
If you want a sturdier solution then consider concealing them with panels. Reed fencing or panels are easily obtainable from most garden centres and can be cut down to fit nicely around the straw bales. If you wish to add an element of design to your garden try placing them in a repurposed galvanised water trough or feeding trough.
3. It takes too long to set up a straw bale garden.
This simply isn’t true. While you do need to take some time to condition the straw bales before planting, if done correctly you will enjoy a long and bountiful growing season.
As the title of the article suggests it is easy to construct and plant up a straw bale garden in 30 days. Once done, as long as you feed and water on a regular basis, it is relatively labour free and easy to tend.
Now that we have explored the many benefits of a straw bale garden, as well as dispelling some of the myths which surround them, it is time to look at how to make your own.
Selecting The Right Straw Bales
Before you rush out to buy as many straw bales as you can stop and take a few moments to consider what type you actually want to use. Despite appearances they are not all the same.
While the straw bales that you eventually use will be dictated, at least in part, by what is available to you it is important to bear in mind that they can be made from a variety of materials. While all of these different types are suitable, some require a bit more time and effort than others.
Ideally you should be using straw bales that are made up of either wheat, oats, rye or barley. These are made from the bare stalks of crops which are left over after the combine harvester has removed the rich seed heads. Using straw bales made from bare stalks means that there is less chance of them sprouting seed heads which will interfere with your crops.
Depending on where you live straw bales made up of alfalfa or vetch may be easier to source. These will do just as well as they have also had the seed heads removed.
Try to avoid straw bales made from corn or linseed (flax). The stalks of these crops are coarse and slower to degrade. Straw bales made of linseed are particularly slow to degrade as the linseed plant contains natural oils which slow down the decomposition process. You can still grow crops in these bales. However the conditioning process that they must go through before you can begin to grow your crops may take longer.
Slightly different to straw bales, hay bales are a mixed bad. The key difference between the two is that straw bales have had the seed heads removed while hay bales often contain whole stalks and seed heads.
Hay bales can also have other plants such as grass or field weeds mixed in. This means that you can get unwanted plants sprouting through your bales.
One advantage that hay bales have over straw bales is that they are naturally packed full of nitrogen. This is essential for plant growth. While straw bales lack any significant amount of nitrogen this is a problem which is easily overcome while conditioning your bales. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do this, we’ll explain how later on in the article.
Finally remember that straw bales generally last longer than hay bales. While both have a limited life span, if you live in a cooler climate straw bales may last for two growing seasons.
Now that you are aware of the pros and cons of the different types of straw bale that are available you it is time to source your bales. The good news is that they are surprisingly easy to source.
Where To Get Your Straw Bales
The majority of garden centres, plant nurseries, home improvement stores and animal feed stores will all stock straw bales.
While they are generally affordable if you are on a tight budget, or are planning on starting a straw bale garden on a large scale, then it may be worth your while paying a visit to your local stable. Even if they can’t provide you with any straw bales they may be able to give you the name of a reliable supplier.
Similarly many farms are able and willing to provide you with straw bales at cost price. Visiting an organic farm is probably the best option if you are particularly interested in growing organic produce. The bales you acquire here will be free from toxic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.
Bear in mind that prices will vary, so take the time to shop around and find the option that works best for you. You don’t have to buy the first ones that you see.
A Brief Guide To Fertiliser and Compost
You will also need fertiliser and compost. Over the course of the next few paragraphs we shall look at all the different types of fertiliser and compost that are available and discuss what will work best for you. It is also worth considering investing in a small seed spreader.
Bending over to sew lines of seeds can be back breaking work. If you already suffer from mobility problems or a bad back then a small hand held seed spreader can save you from much of the pain associated with this chore. A repurposed salt spreader can do the job just as well and can also be put to use during the winter months keeping your paths and pavements ice free. Just be sure to wash it out thoroughly first.
Fertilizer comes in a whole host of varieties. Selecting the right one can be a daunting task, especially if you don’t understand what they all do. Basically the type of fertiliser that you use is key to producing strong and healthy crops. Nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium are the four most important nutrients in this process. Ideally you should use a fertiliser that will boost the presence of these four nutrients.
If you want to keep it simple an organic flower and vegetable mix will work perfectly for our purposes. However if you are unable to obtain an organic mix any general purpose flower and vegetable mix will work be fine. Just make sure that it has a high nitrogen content.
Even if you are not planning a strictly organic straw bale garden, but you really should be, then you should still consider using something more exotic than a standard fertiliser mix. These are often packed full of nutrients and will help your plants to thrive.
A seaweed mix contains many enzymes and minerals that are not found in regular fertilizers. They are recommended for those of us who wish to produce a heavy yield. Seaweed mixes are particularly effective when used on flowering plants such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
A fish oil mix contains most of the nutrients present in a chemical fertiliser. It will be high in nitrogen and amino acids and will also boost levels of potassium and phosphorus. As the fish oil contained in the mix becomes available to plants quite quickly, usually just 1 or 2 days after being applied, it is often applied just before planting your crops. This is a great way to give them an early boost.
Bone meal and fish meal are commonly found in garden centres and are both packed full of helpful nutrients. Bone meal helps to boost levels of phosphorus, calcium and nitrogen. Fish meal adds nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus to your soil.
Slightly more unusual is compost “tea”. This provides an effective boost for plants helping to protect them from fungal diseases. It is also said to provide beneficial microbes and helps to make nutrients available to plants more quickly than standard, chemical fertilisers. If you decide to brew your own compost tea here is a good, in depth guide.
Finally composted or sprinkled wood ash can be used. This provides a lime and potassium boost to your plants. It can also be spread around the plants, acting as a natural barrier against slugs and snails.
If you do decide to use wood ash make sure that you use it sparingly. When wood ash gets wet it produces salts which can damage crops. One way of avoiding this is to add the wood ash to compost before applying it. This allows the salts the opportunity to drain away.
While a liquid feed is ideal, and easy to apply, granular fertilisers are often more economical. If you do decide to use a granular fertiliser just try to get the granules to dissolve as much as possible before watering them in. This is best done by mixing the granules with water in a watering can before applying them to your straw bales. If you don’t have a watering can a salt spreader or clean plastic bottle with holes pierced in the lid will do just as well.
If you want to read more about the different types of fertilisers that are available to you then the RHS has a great guide here.
Finally you will need compost. Using fresh compost, not soil dug up from your garden, reduces the chances of any weeds, slugs or snail eggs being transplanted into your bales. In the long term this means that you will have a lot less weeding to do.
Unlike gardening in raised beds you won't need a large amount of compost. A bucket for each bale should be more than enough.
Where To Locate Your Straw Bale Garden
Before placing your bales it is important to consider the location. To get the most from your garden it is vital that you locate it in the best possible position. If the growing area is forming part of a larger redesign then this article is full of handy tips for making the most of your outdoor space.
When considering where to place your garden consider what sort of fruit and vegetables you want to grow. Full sun plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers and beans, basically anything grown for its fruit, grow best when placed in direct sunlight. Partial sun plants such as carrots, cabbage and most types of root vegetables are happy to grow in shaded areas.If you don’t have a particularly sunny spot don’t despair you can grow vegetables in most locations. Just bear in mind that if you only have a shady spot the veg may take longer to grow and mature than if it was grown in direct sunlight. Here is a good, in depth guide to growing plants in shaded areas.
Designing Your Garden
Once you have chosen where to place your garden the next thing to consider is the layout. One of the best things about straw bale gardening is that you can be as creative with your layout as you like. Some people spend hours arranging their bales in complex step designs, castle patterns or grand geometric shapes. If you don’t fancy anything that complex then the traditional row design is perfectly fine. Not only is it quick and easy to place but it is also highly functional allowing you to organise plants into sections.
A row design also allows easy access to all corners of the bale. This makes watering, pruning, weeding and harvesting an easy task. Finally, bear in my that if you decide to place the bales directly onto grass then you will still need to mow the lawn. Try to leave enough space between them for a mower to pass through. If you want an environmentally friendly alternative to the lawn mower then consider investing in a reel mower, not only are the noise free but they are also pollution free. I have found that if they are placed too close together for a lawnmower to pass between them then a reliable set of shears helps to keep the lawn neat.
Preparing The Ground
Now that we have found the ideal location to place our straw bales take a moment to look at what kind of surface they will be sitting on. One of the advantages of this form of gardening is that it doesn’t disturb the ground in any significant manner. However sometimes putting a base layer or membrane down first is a practical idea. If you intend to place the straw bales on a concrete base then you need not worry. This is an ideal surface as it minimises the risk of weeds and pests breaking through to damage your crops. If they will be sitting on soil or grass then you should consider putting a simple membrane down first. While they will work perfectly well without the membrane its presence will help to minimise weed growth. It will also help to protect your lawn from any long term damage.
Should you decide to place a membrane down just about any material can be used. Straw, old pieces of carpet, newspapers, cardboard and plastic can all do the job. However if you wish to invest in a base that will last for more than one growing season then you can purchase burlap membranes from your local garden centre.
If you are placing the straw bales on a heavy clay soil then it is strongly recommended that you put some form of membrane barrier down first. This will protect the bales from the detrimental soil conditions and prevent them from quickly turning to mush. Some form of membrane is also strongly recommended if you have moles or groundhogs in your location. Placing a galvanised bird wire beneath the bales will stop these pests from breaking thought and destroying your crops. If you have a serious problem with burrowing pests this is an insightful article which should provide you with lots of help. Finally if you are placing your straw bale garden on a balcony or a deck then some form of frame to place your bales in is highly recommended. Raising the straw bales just an inch above the deck will help to prevent the deck from rotting when you water your crops. An added bonus of this slight elevation is that it will encourage air to circulate freely stimulating plant growth. A frame can be easily constructed with a few pieces of garden lumber. Placing caster wheels on the bottom of the frame allows for added mobility. This means that you can alter the layout of your garden during the growing season without damaging you plants.
Whatever type of frame you choose to use remember to ensure that it has either holes or slats in its base. This will allow water to drain away, preventing your crops from getting waterlogged.
Placing Your Straw Bales
Now that you have prepared the ground you are ready to place your straw bales. They should be placed narrow side up so that the strings which keep the straw in place are on the sides. This will help to minimise the risk of damaging the string when planting or digging. Damaging the string may cause the bale to fall apart which will ruin your crops. If you look at the straw bale you will notice that one side of the straw will look “folded” whilst the other side will look as if it has been cut. Place the straw bale cut side up. This means that the hollow straw tubes are exposed allowing for better hydration.
Do You Need A Path?
Now that you have placed your straw bales in your favoured layout it is worth taking a moment to consider adding any additional features such as a path or a frame. Many people like to place a path around their garden. This can be not only functional but also decorative and need not cost a great deal. If you need help planning your path this is a helpful article. A simple material to acquire and use is mulch. Not only will a mulch path keep weeds at bay but they are also low on maintenance and add interest to the garden. Like a wood chip path, which shares many of the benefits of mulch, it is soft to walk on.
Laying some form of membrane such as fabric or burlap down before spreading the mulch or wood chip gives added protection from weeds and makes sculpting your path a far simpler task. A wood chip or mulch path will have a lifespan of between 3 to 5 years.A straw path can blend in well with the bales as well as being both functional and decorative. Like mulch and wood chip it is soft to walk on.
A more expensive option would be to lay a stone or gravel path. This will give your garden a more organised, high end look. Unlike the other materials we have discussed it will also last for a significant period of time and doesn’t get soggy in the rain. However it is also the most expensive option and is probably only to be considered if you intend to keep your garden in the same location for many years to come.
One advantage that gravel has over a solid stone path is that it is permeable. This means that rain water can easily drain away. If you wish to read more about permeable paving before making your choice this is a helpful article.
Installing An Irrigation System
As we have already noted straw bale gardens take more watering than other forms of garden. This is especially true at the start of their life.
It can also be a particular problem in warm and dry climates where you may have to water the bales twice a day to prevent them from drying out.
If you are unable to water your straw bales on a regular basis consider installing a simple irrigation system. These can be purchased online or from a garden centre. Alternatively you can make your own basic version.
To make your own irrigation system you will first need a garden hose. If you don’t already have one here is a guide to some of the best around. To turn it into an effective irrigation system take a length of the hose and lay it flat.
Using a pin or strong needle prick holes in the length of the hose. Make sure that you rotate the hose so that the holes are not in a straight line. If the holes are in a straight line and it becomes twisted water won't run out sufficiently. One hole every inch should be plenty. Make sure to block the far end of the hose with a switched off sprayer head, this will stop water escaping all over your garden. The sprayer can be switched on to act as an overflow if the water pressure becomes too high. Once you have done this simply lay the hose along the straw bales before you begin planting.
If you don’t have the time to water your garden every day consider incorporating a regulator and a solar panels such as these into your irrigation system. This will allow your garden to be watered every day with little cost to the environmental. Hooking it up to a waterbut will also save on water costs.
If you don’t have a garden hose to hand a second home made irrigation system can be constructed from empty plastic bottles. First wash the plastic bottles. Simply wash out as many of your old plastic bottles as you can. How many you need will depend on the size of the bottle and how many straw bales you have. Start with 2 in each bale and add more if you need to.
Prick several holes into the cap of each bottle with a strong needle. Fill the bottles up with clean water and replace the cap. Then simply turn the bottles upside down and push them firmly into the straw bales. This will allow the water to steadily seep out throughout the day allowing your plants to stay hydrated.Not only does this method help you save on water usage and time but it also helps you to repurpose single use plastics.
Supporting Your Plants As They Grow
If you plan on growing vine plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and also peas and beans then you will need to put plant supports into your straw bales.This is particularly true for tall or top heavy plants. Some, such as tomatoes or raspberries tend to have less well anchored roots. This means that a support such as a trellis is vital to stop the plat from falling over and damaging itself and your straw bales. Remember as well that peas and beans will need a larger form of support than tomato plants.
As well as helping to support your growing crops these supports can also be aesthetically pleasing. They will also freeing up more growing space on the surface of the straw bales.Many forms of support, such as teepees and trellises, allow plants to wind of their accord. Just be sure to use twine to secure the vines to the stakes every so often to prevent them from falling down or breaking.
Cages, trellises and standard stakes are all easy to acquire either online or from a garden centre. However if you don’t want to purchase a trellis or a cage they are easy enough to construct. Everything from willow to bamboo can be utilised to create a sturdy support frame for your plants. A simple and functional structure can be created by placing stakes at regular intervals across the length of the straw bale. Then simply run twine or branches between the stakes to create a sturdy support.
If you are completely new to gardening here is a handy guide to some of the other tools and implements that you will need.
Now that you have your everything in place it is time to condition your bales.
Conditioning Your Straw Bales
One of the many benefits of straw bale gardening is the natural warmth that is generated as the bales decompose. This allows you to not only plant crops earlier in the spring but prolongs the growing season well into the autumn. If your straw bales are brand new then they will require some conditioning to help kick start this process.
While conditioning the straw bales is probably the most labour intensive part of the process it is worth the effort. If done correctly it can help to speed up the decomposition process.
If you don’t have the time to condition your straw bales then try to acquire some which are at least 6 months old. This means that they have already been through some weathering and are naturally starting to decompose. If they have been thoroughly soaked then they may well have already been fully cooked and are ready to use immediately.
Don’t worry if you can’t acquire older straw bales, new ones are easy to condition. In total this conditioning process will take between 10 and 14 days, so plan accordingly.
Spread a nitrogen rich fertilizer, a standard vegetable/ flower mix is fine, evenly over the top of the straw bale. A high nitrogen content is essential as it helps to speed up the decomposition process which in turn generates heat allowing our plants to thrive. If you are really interested in how this works then here is a detailed explanation of how nitrogen achieves this.
If you are planning an organic straw bale garden then, as we have already discussed, there are plenty of suitable organic fertilisers available. 3 cups of fertiliser per bale should be plenty.
Water the fertilizer thoroughly into the straw bale. You should stop watering when water starts to seep out of the bottom. Also try to water slowly, as this prevents large amounts of seepage. You want the fertiliser to be soaked up by the straw not spread around your garden.
If the prospect of watering your garden every day seems daunting an irrigation system, as we have already seen, can take away much of the labour. Alternatively self winding hoses such as these can also make the task easier.
Repeat this process every day.
Continue watering and feeding as before but now use water either from a waterbut or that has been left to stand in a bucket overnight. This won't be as cold as water straight from a tap. Continuing to expose the bales to very cold water now may slow down the decomposition process.
Within a few days you should be able to feel them starting to warm up.
If you don’t want to stick your hand inside a straw bale then a thermometer with a long metal spike will allow you to accurately measure their temperature. A meat thermometer such as these is ideal for the purpose.
You will find that the heat inside the straw bale will peak at around 150°F about halfway through the conditioning process, so on either day 6 or 7.
By now the straw bales should have received enough fertiliser. This means that you can stop feeding the bales. However you should continue to water them on a daily basis. Letting them dry out now would ruin all the work you have done up until this point.
Your straw bales should feel hot and damp inside. You may notice black clumps of compost on the inside of the bale, this is the sign that they are now ready to be planted.
Don’t worry if mushrooms emerge during the conditioning, they are perfectly harmless and just another indicator that the decomposition process is working well.
An Alternative Method
If you find that this method of conditioning too labour intensive a fertiliser with a higher than average level of nitrogen can be applied every other day. This method is often favoured by straw bale gardeners in cooler climates.
As per the first method add 3 cups of fertiliser to each straw bale and water in well. On the days that you don’t feed them remember to check that they are not drying out. This may be a particular problem at the start of the process. If they do feel dry simply water them.
Reduce the amount of fertiliser to 1.5 cups per bale on days 7 and 9.
On day 10 switch the fertiliser to a phosphorus and potassium rich fertiliser. As we saw when following the first method by day 14 our straw bales should be ready to be planted.
While you are waiting for your straw bales to properly condition it is time to turn your attention to what you want to grow.
What to Grow
The beauty of a straw bale garden is that you can grow just about anything.
If you have conditioned your bales correctly almost all types of vegetables, herbs and flowers will thrive. Just be careful not to plant too many top heavy plants close together as, even with adequate support, their weight may tear the straw bale into pieces. Growing dwarf varieties of plants will help to minimise the risk of damage.
You should also bear in mind that running plants which spread via offshoots can be hard to manage. If you want a garden that requires minimum attention then try to avoid planting too many of these.
If you are new to gardening this article is full of useful tips and hints. We however shall continue by taking a closer look at some of the different fruit and vegetables you may be considering.
Fruiting plants such as strawberries, squash and tomatoes all thrive in straw bale gardens. Tomatoes in particular do well in these conditions. Varieties such as sungold, carmello and black cherry are amongst the most popular.
Unless you live in a particularly warm climate if you are growing tomatoes or other plants from seed it is probably best to germinate the seeds either in a greenhouse or on a window sill indoors.
Finally make sure that if you are growing any vine plants, such as tomatoes, that they have an adequate support structure. This means that the plant doesn’t break under its own weight or force your bale apart.
Root Vegetables and Tubers.
Both root vegetables and tubers grow best in loose soil that retains moisture but drains easily. These are the very conditions which straw bales replicate. Consequently root vegetables and tubers are great options for those wishing to enjoy a low maintenance bale garden.
Not only do their roots spread more freely than in soil but the plant itself finds it easier to break through to the surface. All of which means that these plants thrive in the conditions provided by straw bales.
If you do decide to grow potatoes you will find that they particularly enjoy the depth which a straw bale provides. When growing in soil, because potatoes form on the stem, you need to build soil up around the plant in order to keep them underground. However if you cover them too deeply the plant may struggle to reach the surface and could die.
In a straw bale garden these problems are avoided largely because the stems grow more easily through straw than soil. Simply plant your seed potatoes at a depth of about 4 to 6 inches and make sure that they are well covered with straw. If light reaches the tuber then it may turn green and rot. As the plant grows keep covering with straw. Try to leave about 1 inch showing above the surface.
Yukon Gold and Red Pontiac are particularly popular amongst straw bale gardens as are many of the early maturing varieties.
When you harvest your potato crop you will find that as it has grown in straw they will be a lot cleaner than potatoes grown in earth. Simply wipe off the camp straw and they are ready to eat.
Leafy Greens and Herbs.
These crops also thrive in the conditions which a straw bale garden provides.
If you chose to grow a quick growing plant such as lettuce try staggering your sowing throughout the season, planting new seeds every fortnight. Not only will this cut down on wasted produce but it will also allow you to enjoy an uninterrupted harvest.
The Royal Horticultural Society has some great in depth advice on how to successfully grow almost every type of fruit and vegetable. If you are growing something for the first time it is worth reading as much as you can about the plant before you begin. This gives you a greater chance of enjoying a bountiful harvest.
Long popular with vegetable growers companion planting is a great way of attracting bees as well as insects that eat pests. This natural form of pest control not only works well for organic gardens but also makes for an aesthetically pleasing effect.
Amongst the most popular companion plants are marigolds, nasturtiums and dwarf cornflowers. Their colourful flowers will all attract pollinators and pest devouring insects. Perennial herbs such as chives are popular amongst bees.
If you do decide to plant perennials then remember to remove them towards the end of the growing season. This stops them from becoming compost along with the straw bale. Simply place them in a greenhouse to be used again the following year.
How Much Can I Plant In Each Straw Bale?
Now that you have decided what to plant, determine how much you can plant in each bale. While it can be tempting to cram in as much as you can remember that overcrowding can squeeze out some plants, hampering growth and harming your yield. If you have never planted anything before here is a handy guide.
If you are unsure how much to plant consulting the back of the seed packet will give you a good indication of how much space each individual plant will need. Also don’t be afraid to mix it up. Growing a mixture of plants in each straw bale not only creates an aesthetically pleasing effect but also allows you to make the most of the available space.
Here is a guideline showing how many plants will fit in each bale.
Plants Per Straw Bale
Up to 5
At least 5, depending on the variety
At least 5
At least 5
Remember that the table above is just a guideline. Always consult the instructions on the seed packet or label before planting.
How To Plant Your Straw Bale Garden
Now that your straw bales are conditioned and your plants are ready it is time to plant them up.
There is no real difference between planting in the ground or a raised bed and planting in a straw bale. If you have never planted before then you may need to invest in some new tools such as a fork or a dibber. Here is a guide which will help you decide what, if anything, you need.
If you have chosen to start your seedlings off in pots, either in a greenhouse or indoors on a window sill ensure that they have been acclimatised to the outside conditions and have a firm root ball before planting. As with any form of gardening wait until any chance of frost has passed before planting out your young plants. However healthy they look they are still delicate little creatures.
Growing from seed can be a daunting prospect if you have never done it before. The RHS has a handy guide to help you through the process.
To plant your young plants gently pull the straw apart to make a space for your plants to go in. Some people find it easier to use a trowel to do this. Once you have made a hole add a handful of compost to it before planting the plant. Then simply allow the straw to fall back into place and water in well.
If you plan on sowing seeds directly into the straw bales first spread a thin layer, about 1 inch deep, of multi purpose compost along the bale. Sow your seeds directly into this compost.
A second method, favoured by some, is to sow the seeds directly into the straw bales. This will encourage the plants to spread their growing roots through the stalks allowing them to gain a firm foothold. Make sure that you always follow the instructions on the seed packet. After sowing the seeds sprinkle a thin layer of compost or standard potting mix on the top and then water in.
When you are planting up make sure that any soil you add is fresh and not from your garden. While your garden soil may seem alright it probably contains numerous bacteria, weeds, slugs or snail eggs. Using fresh compost minimises the chances of your crops becoming infected or attacked by pests.
To ensure that you enjoy bountiful produce throughout the summer try successional sowing. This is basically the practice of planting or sowing seeds at regular intervals allowing you to enjoy a continuous harvest. This avoids a glut of vegetables ripening at the same time and reduces waste. Here is a detailed explanation to help you grow successionaly.
Enjoying Your Garden Throughout The Summer
Once your garden is planted up and settled the maintenance needed is light. This is one of the advantages of straw bale gardening.
Make sure that you water and feed your plants regularly. As we have already noted this method need more hydration than other forms of gardening, even the most experienced gardener has been caught out by quick drying straw bales. If you are unsure how much water to use a good rule of thumb is to water the bale until water starts to leak from the bottom. This is a reliable sign that your plants are well watered and also works on raised beds and pots.
You will also need to feed your plants on a regular basis, this ensures that they will continue to thrive as the RHS explains. While this may vary slightly depending on what crops you are growing, the seed packets or labels of the individual plants will tell you how often, this will probably need to be done once a week. Plants will need to be fed regularly until harvesting begins.
If you plan on replacing the bales every year then consider adding worms. Worms can not only help to increase the amount of air and water that gets into the soil but also help to break down organic matter such as leaves and grass as this article explains. An added bonus is that, thanks to their diet, the worms excrements are a great, natural type of fertiliser.
As we have already briefly noted weeding is light and easy. If you have placed a membrane down then you may find that almost no weeds appear all summer. If one or two do break through try to lift them from as close to the base as you can. This gives you a better chance of pulling up all the roots of the plant. Just be careful not to cause any damage to the bales or surrounding plants when doing so.
Any pruning and deadheading should be done as and when it is needed. Try to quickly remove anything which is rotting, discoloured or pest infected. This stops the drying plants from taking up nutrients which could be used by the still growing plants.
As maintenance is so low you may want to invest in some new garden furniture so that you can enjoy the long sunny days. Here is a guide to what is available. Unlike your crops that will be kept nice and warm by the bales you may find that once the sun goes down your lovely garden strats to get a bit chilly. Instead of retreating inside why not consider an outdoor heater. This will help you to make the most of those long summers evenings.
Harvesting Your Crops
Harvesting your crops is largely the same as harvesting any other type of crop. If you have never harvested crops before and are unsure when to pick them or how to do it then this is a helpful guide.
If you are used to harvesting crops then the process is largely the same. The only type of crop for which it is different is root vegetables. While some, such as carrots, can be easily pulled , others require a slightly different approach.
When planting potatoes try to place them as close to the edge as possible. This means that when it is time to harvest them they can be carefully prised from the sides of the bale. This is a handy method which can be effectively used on all types of root veg.
Simply cut the twine which holds the straw bale together. Gently separate the straw, this is easily done if you move it into its natural sections or layers either side of the plant. Try not to force it too much as this can cause unnecessary damage, potentially harming your other crops.
Once you have located the plant gently pull it out. After you have done this root around inside to make sure that you gather up any potatoes which were displaced during the removal process.
If you find yourself with a glut of fruit or vegetables there are many options to consider to avoid your bounty spoiling before you can eat it. For single pieces such as onions or strawberries pickling or preserves are both common options which allow the fruit to keep for long after your growing season has finished.
Alternatively making stews or sauces which can then be frozen and used later is a great option. Similarly blending the fruit to make smoothies is a great, healthy option. If you don’t already have one a reliable blender, such as these, is a great investment. Depending on the ingredients these can kept in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer. If you don’t want to go to the hassle of defrosting your home grown fruit smoothie simply enjoy it as a ice lolly.
What To Do Once The Growing Season Has Concluded
As the growing season draws to a close and your thoughts turn to the next year it is a great time to plan ahead.
Generally straw bales will last for only 1 year. In cooler climates they may last for 2 years but during the second year they will look tired and worn. If you have grown root veg in them then any holes made during the harvesting process will probably have left the straw too loose to use for a second season.
If you decide that your straw bales are in a decent condition them moving them to a greenhouse will let you continue growing crops during the winter months. Be careful while moving however, you don’t want to cause any unnecessary damage.
If you don’t wish to grow crops through the winter then any straw bales which are still in a good condition should be stored in a dry space such as a shed. If you don’t already have a garden shed or need a new one this article contains some useful information to help you source the best option for you. Storing them in a dry and sheltered space allows you to use them again next year.
Any that can’t be used again should, once the growing season has finished, be left to dry out before being placed on a compost heap. Starting a compost heap is easy, if you haven’t already done so here is a good guide.
If you don’t have the space for a compost heap cover the bales with tarp or some other waterproof covering. This will allow them to break down over the winter. Once they have fully broken down they can be forked onto next years straw bales, beds, or the soil. This means that the nutrients they contain won’t go to waste.
Through the course of this article we have discussed the many benefits which come with a straw bale garden as well as looking at how to maximise your gardens potential whatever its location or size.
As well as being a highly effective method of growing healthy fruit and vegetables straw bale gardens are also relatively labour free and ideal for people with mobility problems or limited time. When all of this is considered it is no wonder that they are becoming increasingly popular.