By: Richard Zondag - President, J. W. Jung Seed Co
Bale Gardening - A Great Alternative to Conventional Gardening
So you decided to try straw bale gardening. There are a few gardening instructions you should know before you start planting a garden in straw bales. You have to choose an area that is preferably next to a fence. Chain link fences are best for climbing vegetables such as tomatoes, and a fence gives structure for the bales to lean against. Straw bale gardening is similar to container gardening. It uses a small space but allows for more impactful beautiful gardens. Vegetable gardens thrive in bale gardens due to the internal composting occurring inside the bale.
When picking out bales for your garden, you should avoid using hay. Hay bales can contain alfalfa and timothy grass seeds and other field weed seeds. When the bale is watered and fertilized, these weed seeds can germinate just like your vegetable seeds. Hay bales have more nutrients such a nitrogen which will cause the bale to decompose too fast.
At Jung Seed, we had a quite successful bale garden, even though it was started in late May which is later than ideal.
Conditioning a Straw Bale for Gardening
Straw bale gardening conditioning is a process which will need to be started before you are able to start planting your desired vegetables. This process can take anywhere from 2 to 2.5 weeks to complete. Start with planning how many straw bales you will need. Our bale garden started with 12 bales for the area to be covered. Placing some bales along the fence for the climbing vegetables, and other bales about 6 feet away for non-climbing vegetables. Adjust your garden to fit your needs and the vegetables you are going to grow.
- Start by placing the bales on their side so the pointed straw sides are up. This means that the long smooth side is against the fence.
- Next step is to water the bales thoroughly for two days. This will soak the bales allowing them to have the nitrogen needed to start the “internal composting”.
- The “Internal Composting” was done by sprinkling a half cup of urea on the top of the bale and watering it in. You will need to do a repeat sprinkling of a quarter cup of urea on the bales and water it in for 3 days.
This was all the fertilizer that was used until after the bales were planted. Conditioning the straw bales resulted in the bales being hot on the inside. It took about 3 days for them to cool off enough, so the plants would not be injured.
Watering Systems for Straw Bale Gardens
You will want to make sure the daily maintenance of bales is simple and easy. Setting up an automatic watering system might be beneficial. Watering systems can be purchased from one of our garden centers. However, you can choose any watering system you prefer. It can be set to water once, twice or more a day and the amount of time can be set from five minutes to however long you want to water. Given the area our garden was growing in, the straw bales were watered once a day for five minutes. You will want to adjust the hoses so they are coming out of the watering regulator towards the center of the bales. You can also use soaker hoses which can be attached allowing the water to leak out slowly for a time set. The hose and soaker hose were still in great shape and were able to be used next year. With little cost to install, it was well worth it, as the system will last for several seasons. If you attach a splitter in the line, you would be able to attach a hose for hand watering if necessary.
Fertilizing Your Straw Bale Gardens
The initial nitrogen added to the bale to condition it was only enough to compost the straw. You will need to add more fertilizer to get the necessary growth. You can add this fertilizer by using compost tea, soluble plant food or garden fertilizer. Using a cup of 8-8-8 when planting the bales and then a weekly feeding of a portion of well-balanced soluble plant food will yield outstanding growth.
Planting Vegetables In Your Bale Gardens
The method of planting depends on whether you will be using starter seedlings or seeds. Through trial and error, you will find the best plants for straw bale gardens for you and your gardening zone.
- If using plant seedlings, you should use a trowel to open a slit in the straw bale and then place the seedling at the depth it would be normally be planted in the ground.
- When planting seeds, if the seeds are large like cucumbers or melons, you will part the straw bale and put the seeds a couple of inches deep.
- With smaller seeds like carrots and beets, if it is sown on the surface, the seeds would filter down into the bale and may not germinate.
In the areas with the smaller seeds, you will first take some compost and peat based potting soil and mixed them together about 1/3 compost and 2/3 potting soil. Secondly, place this mixture on the top of the straw so it has a nice level planting surface. Then you will spread the seeds in a bed type arrangement. This allows seedlings to sprout all over the bale. Finally, put another inch of the mix over the seed and water it to get good germination.
Straw bale gardening problems may start to appear about halfway through the summer. The bales which were not against the fence might start to tip. This is partially due to the composting going faster on one side than the other. A solution was to put fence posts on one side of the bale and place a 2x4 on the posts to support the side tipping. This helped, but some vegetables react to this. Another issue was the need to water occasionally by hand if the bales seemed to be drier than they should be, but in most cases, little extra watering was necessary.
Other observations on the bales were that they did produce some black mushrooms by mid-summer. The production of mushrooms is because the straw is being composted by microorganisms. The mushrooms will eventually disappear, or they can be removed. Their presence does not affect the vegetables growing.
Overall, straw bale gardening was very successful. Check back with us for more growing tips. You can also find more straw bale gardening instructions in the “Straw Bale Gardens Book.”
Click here for 10 Perfect Vegetables For Straw Bale Gardening!
President, J. W. Jung Seed Co.