I typically write about landscape improvements, however, Illinois Extension has been getting a number of calls regarding vegetable gardening in straw bales. So, I decide to write a special edition on the basics of straw bale gardening.
If you are gardening on a budget, have poor soil, or lack space you may want to consider straw bale gardening. This innovative method utilizes a bale of straw as a raised bed garden to grow just about any vegetable, flower or herb. Special consideration should be given to corn and sunflowers as those plants will become top heavy and cause the bale to tip over. Beyond that, choose any crop based on what you like to eat and plant them slightly closer than you would if growing in the ground. For example, one tomato plant per bale and three pepper plants were manageable in Illinois Extension bale gardens.
Selecting and positioning the bale is the next step. Use straw bales, not hay, because hay will result in weeds and grass sprouts. The bale can be placed on paved areas or lawn in full sun. When placing it on lawn, you can add a layer of cardboard or newspapers around the bale then cover the paper with mulch to limit maintenance of mowing around the bale(s). Position bale so that the twine is on the side and the cut side faces up. Next comes conditioning the bed, which requires soaking the bale thoroughly. Be sure to locate it where it will not have to be moved because it will be heavy once wet.
Conditioning the bale is an important step because it will speed up the decomposition process and allow for easy planting. Straw bales that have been sitting exposed outside for a year or more may not need conditioning. There are varying recipes for conditioning fresh cut bales and the process takes about 10 to 12 days. One suggested recipe is shared below.
Days 1 to 3: Keep bale wet each day.
Days 4 to 6: Each day, add ½ to 1 cup of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, such as urea (1/2 cup) or ammonium sulfate (1 cup), then add water. Organic gardeners can substitute 3 cups blood meal over synthetic fertilizers. Organic fertilizers may require more time to allow for decomposition.
Days 7 to 9: Cut the amount of fertilizer in half and add water each day.
Day 10: Stop adding fertilizer but keep it moist.
Day 11: Feel the top of the bale and if it is less than your body temperature it is ready to plant.
Planting is simple. When using transplants make a hole in the bale and place the plant in the hole. It is surprisingly easy to spread the bale apart to make a hole. Adding a cup full of soil to the planting hole will help. If using seeds, place moistened paper towel on top of the bale, then space seeds accordingly and cover them lightly with compost or potting soil (as shown in photo). Keep seeds moist to increase germination rate.
Keep your plants vigorous and healthy by following proper after-planting care procedures. The straw will require a bit more fertilization versus growing in soil. As plants grow add a complete garden fertilizer one to two times per month and water in well. Bales tend to dry out quicker than soil, so water the bale well. Setting up a drip irrigation will limit your time spent on watering. Your time spent on weeding should be little to none. Learn more from Illinois Extension straw bale garden experts by visiting Fruits, Flowers, and Frass blog.