Straw Bale Gardening

Discussion in 'The Green Patch' started by Mountainman, Apr 28, 2013.

  1. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    April 28, 2013
    By Mary Beth Breckenridge
    Akron Beacon Journal

    AKRON, Ohio — When Joel Karsten was growing up on a farm in Minnesota, he noticed how lushly weeds grew from rotting bales of straw.

    That made him wonder: If straw worked so well for growing weeds, wouldn't it work just as well for vegetables?

    Karsten's question eventually led him to devise a method for growing plants directly in straw bales. His idea is gaining momentum among gardeners with the release last month of his book, "Straw Bale Gardens" (Cool Springs Press, $19.99).

    In Karsten's method, the bale is used as both a container and a growing medium. The straw decomposes over the growing season, producing compost that feeds the plants. The twine around the bale holds the straw together and contains what is essentially a small compost pile.

    The method reduces disease problems, practically eliminates weeding and gives plants a jump start on those grown with traditional methods, he said. It also puts plants within easy reach of people who have trouble bending or kneeling, and it does so more cheaply than creating raised beds.

    Karsten said straw bale gardening is also a good option for gardeners with poor soil — or no soil, for that matter. Straw bales can even be used to grow gardens on hard surfaces such as parking lots, he notes in his book.

    And at the end of the season, the bales can just go into the compost pile.

    Karsten developed his method when he bought his first house and discovered the soil was mostly fill dirt poorly suited for gardening. He remembered those discarded straw bales on the farm, left behind when they would fall off the bale rack on the way to the barn. They were useless once they got wet, so they were just ignored.

    He remembered the way airborne thistle seeds would take hold in those decomposing bales and grow into tall, healthy plants. He figured vegetable plants would thrive, too.

    A horticultural science graduate, Karsten ran his idea past some of his former professors at the University of Minnesota, with little encouragement. It was his father who suggested he give it a try. "What'll it hurt?" his dad said.

    "I discovered very quickly that it worked," Karsten said. "It worked very well."

    Karsten has refined his method over the years and until recently has been spreading the word mostly through a Facebook page and a website he initially threw together to handle the response from a local TV station's story about his method. He used the website to sell an instruction booklet he wrote at the request of his father, who got tired of explaining the method to people who stopped by the family farm to see the straw-bale garden Karsten had created there.

    Now you can read more about his method at or Karsten's Facebook page,

    Part of the success of straw-bale gardening lies in a process Karsten calls conditioning the bales. His soil science classes had taught him that bacteria need nitrogen and water to start the composting process, so he developed a method of preparing the bales so the straw would start to break down before planting time.

    He starts with common bales of straw, approximately 2 feet by 11/2 feet by 31/2 feet, an agricultural leftover that's used mainly for animal bedding and mulch. Some people confuse straw with hay, but they're different things. Straw is the dead stems of cereal grains, left behind after threshing. Hay is a crop grown for animal feed.

    Karsten places the bales so the cut end of the straw faces up and the twine is around the sides, not on the top and bottom surfaces. Then, starting a couple of weeks before planting time, he follows a regimen of watering the bales daily and sprinkling them with fertilizer on specific days and in prescribed amounts.

    The conditioning system starts the composting process enough that nutrients can be made available to the plants. Heat is produced as the straw decomposes, so transplants and seeds planted in the bales have a warm environment for root development.

    That warmth helps the plants take off faster than plants in the ground, he said. And faster growth early in the season can bring earlier harvests.

    Planting in bales isn't too different from planting in the ground. For transplants, Karsten just opens up a hole in the straw, adds the plant and fills in the extra space with a little sterile potting mix. For seeds, he covers the top of the bale with a layer of potting mix and plants the seeds according to the packet directions.

    As the plants grow, the straw continues to break down and supply the plants with nutrients.

    "In a straw-bale garden, we're creating our own 'soil,' quote-unquote, in the bale," he said. Unlike soil in the ground, though, the growing medium contains few weed seeds or disease-causing agents.

    That doesn't mean straw-bale gardens are immune from weeds, insects and diseases, but Karsten contends his method significantly reduces those problems and makes them easier to deal with.

    The bales do need regular watering, but Karsten recommends using a soaker hose and a timer to make watering automatic.

    Karsten said the decaying straw provides almost all the nutrients the plants need, although some plants might need added calcium from a source such as crushed eggshells. He also recommends applying a liquid fertilizer every few weeks, either a chemical fertilizer or an organic one such as fish emulsion or kelp emulsion.

    Most garden plants can be grown in straw bales, Karsten said, but some are better suited than others. Corn, for example, requires too much space and produces too few ears per stalk to make it worthwhile. He also recommends avoiding perennial vegetables such as asparagus, artichokes and rhubarb, because the straw bales are typically used for only one season.

    Alexandria Straight, an extension agency with West Virginia University who wrote a fact sheet on straw-bale gardening, said the method has few drawbacks, other than the bales' tendency to dry out quickly if they're not watered regularly.

    It's also important to condition the bales properly and to time planting correctly, she said. An initial spike of heat is produced by the conditioning process, and it needs to subside a bit so the plants can survive, she said.

    Straight especially likes the method for people with limited mobility. One of the master gardeners she works with has bad knees, she said, and the gardener was able to take a chair out to the garden and work from a seated position.

    Karsten tells of a woman in her 80s who wrote to him once, saying she had given up on gardening because she couldn't handle the physical labor. But then she tried straw-bale
    gardening and told him she grew the best tomatoes of her life.

    "You've made one old lady really happy," she told him.

    One old lady made him really happy, too.
  2. tulianr

    tulianr Don Quixote de la Monkey

    I tried this last year, on a small scale - just a couple of bales, with mixed results. I'm sure that with a little more attention to detail I can make it pay off properly. I had a problem with all the seeds already in the hay, both grass and non-grass, competing with my vegetables. I may give it a try this year, and use straw bales vice fescue. Last year, I had a couple of bales of fescue which had gotten wet, so I tried to use them. They didn't prove to be the best choice.
  3. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    Bought 5 straw bales and fertilizer yesterday to try this out. Going to try tomatoes and will report back how things are working out.
  4. Mortblanc

    Mortblanc Monkey

    I used this system 3 years ago and it was OK if you only want a few plants or only have room for a 4'x4' spot or just want to line the patio with tomatoes.

    Otherwise cost is going to eat you alive. In my area hay bales are $5 each and each bale will hold only two or perhaps three plants.

    The bales do hold water. The water source also attracts ant colonies and my bales were soon the haven for billions of insects. Fortunately I had it well away from the house.

    If you use 20 bales spaced around your property for growing 60 plants, in three years you will have spent enough on the bales to cover the cost of a tiller. If you only want two or three bales it is a good fun activity and gets a lot of attention.
  5. kellory

    kellory An unemployed Jester, is nobody's fool. Banned

  6. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

  7. ditch witch

    ditch witch I do stupid crap, so you don't have to

    I tried the straw bale gardening several years ago, when I lived further south. I learned that fire ants take great delight in setting up shop in the bales. Picking peppers in the fire ant ghetto wasn't quite how I'd envisioned it working out.
    chelloveck likes this.
  8. Tracy

    Tracy Insatiably Curious Moderator Founding Member

    Be careful - lost a barn (and nearly a horse) to straw/spontaneous combustion.
  9. Motomom34

    Motomom34 Monkey+++

    I love this idea but we have so many elk that I think this would be a magnet to them. I am interested in your end results so please let us know.
  10. -06

    -06 Monkey+++

    If you have room for straw bales you have room for planters which will almost guarantee you good results. Plastic 3-4 gallon pots are cheap, easy to water, and fertilize. Never did have good results with straw.
    Motomom34 likes this.
  11. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    The straw bales are just an experiment I wanted to try after reading about it. We have raised beds that are used each year with different types of seeds to find out what grows the best here and we document each year.

    I am in the fertilize and water stage of this and the plants should be going in this weekend. @Motomom34 - Will post updates and pics.
    Motomom34 likes this.
  12. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    It's been 2 weeks since I put the tomato starts in the hay bales and thought I would report how things are going. There are 2 different types of tomato starts I am using in this experiment, 5 ea. Red Pear and 5 ea. Hillbilly. Our weather since I planted these went back to late winter temps and the plants only have about 2 inches of growth. The main difference is the Red Pear plants look sickly and the Hillbilly are fine, you can see the difference in the pics.
    One thing I did different was to use Urea 46-0-0 instead of Ammonium Nitrate 34-0-0 since you don't get strange looks when you ask for it and don't have to sign anything.

    This is how I prepped the bales:
    3 days - water bales until soaked.
    5 days - 1/2 cup Urea sprinkled on top and watered until gone.
    1 day - 1/4 cup Urea sprinkled on top and watered until gone.
    1 day - water only with same amount as when Urea was applied.
    Plant P1010008.JPG P1010009.JPG P1010007.JPG
    Motomom34 and tulianr like this.
  13. VHestin

    VHestin Farm Chick

    Yeah the weather is being horribly rude right now, I try and look on the bright side that the rain is good for keeping fire danger low and helping the plants already in the ground.
    Mountainman likes this.
  14. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    Plants are growing better now and 5 of them are between 3 to 4 feet tall. Not growing as expected and I think the bales took longer to decompose then I thought they would. Tried to get some AN a while back to go with what the original post said and it's not available locally. Did not want to go to far out of the way to try and get some for obvious reasons.

    100_5725. 100_5726.
  15. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    Update after 6 weeks on this experiment. Plants are the same height as the above pictures and have been producing well. They look a little shorter because of the weight of the tomatoes.

    100_5755. 100_5756.
    Yard Dart, chelloveck and Motomom34 like this.
  16. Motomom34

    Motomom34 Monkey+++

    Did you find that the bales retained water pretty good or did they dry out fast? This is such a cool way of planting. Also, were the plants as stable as if they were in dirt?
  17. Silversnake

    Silversnake Silverback

    I am going to try that for potatoes next year. I don't care for digging them up, but busting up hay bales sounds like it won't be that big of a deal.
    Mountainman likes this.
  18. Motomom34

    Motomom34 Monkey+++

    I have read that growing potatoes in mulch works also. But unsure if you would have a ph issue with mulch.
    Silversnake likes this.
  19. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    I have a drip watering system set up for the bales and the raised beds they are next to that waters every day. The bales are getting 1.5 times the water that the bed plants are getting. I had the same concern and just figured they would need more water. The bales get 1 gallon each day per plant and when the temps go into the 90's they get 1.5 gallons.

    There is not a difference in the stability since the plants are actually planted in dirt with the bales around them. One thing that will be different next year is that tomato cages will be used instead of hardware cloth behind the plants.
    Motomom34 likes this.
  20. Mountainman

    Mountainman Großes Mitglied Site Supporter+++

    Thank you ghrit for making this a featured thread. I was going to start posting about year 2 of this experiment pretty soon and was waiting since the plants I have in them were only put in 1.5 weeks ago.

    This year the 5 bales have 4 tomato, 2 broccoli, 2 cauliflower, and 2 celery plants. All the plants are growing well so far except the celery. Will post some pics when they get a little bigger.
    Motomom34 likes this.
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