A Beginner's Guide to Straw Bale Gardening
Whether you're looking to find the best additives for your raised garden bed or simply want to find an easy planting method, straw bale gardening is a great option to consider. The biggest factor in growing happy, healthy rows of vegetables is your soil, but there are a number of different aspects that could contribute to poor conditions, such as the soil's pH and uninvited microorganisms. If that's the case for you, straw bale gardening may be the solution you've been looking for. Joel Karsten, author and gardening expert, actually pioneered this method of planting and believes it's the simplest and most predictable way of starting a flourishing garden.
What Is Straw Bale Gardening?
Straw bale gardening is an easy way to grow a raised vegetable garden without using any other kind of soil. Seeds are planted in bales that are treated with an organic nitrogen source like bone meal or something non-organic, like fertilizer. In days your bales will heat up and the interior will become compost, creating the perfect environment to grow plants without straining your back or your wallet. Straw bale gardening proves itself time and time again as a way to create a self-contained garden.
How to Prep Your Straw Bales
Gardening, especially the straw bale method, is all about preparation. Most vegetables need direct sunlight, meaning about six hours of light a day, and a healthy dose of H2O to grow. Finding the perfect spot before you buy your first straw bale will make things a lot easier, as once you start planting, your bales will be heavy and difficult to move. Now that you have a spot in mind you can head to any nursery or gardening center to pick up your straw bales. You can also get them directly from a farm, but make sure to ask for organic bales—you don't want straw that is sprayed with commercial fertilizer. You'll also want to pick up sheets of newspaper or cardboard to place under your bales, and a hand trowel ($18.99, amazon.com).
You may also want to solarize your bales by wrapping them in plastic to allow the sun to heat them up, which kills any viable weed seeds inside. Karsten says, "It isn't normally necessary but in rare cases when a bale of oat or wheat straw is baled without having grain harvested first, this means zillions of viable seeds exist which makes a bale sprout like a chia pet. Solarizing can solve that problem."
How to Begin a Straw Bale Garden
Now that you have your organic bale, a perfect location, and all of your supplies, it's time to start gardening. Karsten says to add your organic or non-organic nitrogen source to your bale. Then you can add water and let your bales sit, soaking, for a few days which will turn to compost. After your bale is conditioned and ready to go it's time to start planting.
When asked about the perfect seeding technique Karsten says, "Seeds are planted at varying depths into a seedbed on top of the bale. Some [seeds], large ones, like peas, beans, [and] squash, can actually be shoved into the bale itself." The size of the seed will keep them from moving around and they will be deep enough that moisture will reach them. When it comes to smaller seeds, Karsten suggests planting them ¼-inch deep. All of these steps should take a total of 10 days, and yield beautiful results.
Tips and Tricks for Straw Bale Gardening
Make sure you properly condition the bales from the start, Karsten notes. "Use the right [materials] and follow instructions as closely as possible." Next, it's important to not overwater your bales. "Overwatering will allow water to run through the bales and carry out soluble nutrients," he explains.
"Finally, don't plant too many things into each bale," he says. It's important to note that some vegetables grow better than others with this method. Karsten mentions tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, the entire squash family, cabbage family, all greens, and herbs as the vegetables that will flourish with this method. In fact, Martha uses the method in her strawberry garden.