Friday, March 20, 2015

Straw bale gardening

A straw bale cold frames whose bales will be turned into
a straw bale garden.
A few years ago, I built a straw bale cold frame to house some winter crops. It was a very basic structure made up of 6 straw bales arranged in a square with an old window on top. Come spring, I had planned to break up the straw bales and use them as a mulch in my veggie beds, but then I read about a unique gardening technique called straw bale gardening. So, instead, I used my bales to build a no-dig garden, planting an assortment of veggies, herbs and annual flowers. The result? A fabulous harvest with no backbreaking digging, bending, stooping or weeding.

In his recent book, Straw Bale Gardens (Cool Springs Press), Joel Karsten details his secrets to creating a productive and beautiful straw bale garden. He writes that you need three essential components: 1) At least one straw bale 2) sunshine - 6 or more hours if you want to grow food crops 3) water. 

You don’t need a large property to straw-bale garden, and can even use this technique on decks, patios or unused concrete areas, or place them directly on the lawn. The easiest way to arrange the bales is in single or double rows where they are placed end to end. Orientate the rows north to south for maximum sunlight. 

Bales are held together with string and when you are placing the bales, make sure the strings are running along the sides and not the top. “Bales of straw are like Humpty Dumpty,” writes Joel. “If they break open you’ll never get them put back together again.” The strings, which are tightly compressing the straw actually help the interior of the bale compost down, making the lovely growing medium for your plants. Between the bales, you can add landscape fabric, straw, wood mulch or another type of material to keep your feet clean and the garden tidy. 

Seedlings ready for my straw bale garden.

Before you plant, you’ll need to ‘condition’ your straw bales. “The process of conditioning will take approximately 10 to 12 days - with the exact time determined by the air temperatures,” writes Joel. “This means that the bales will have composted far enough that the bacteria inside is activated and begun to digest the straw, making nitrogen and other nutrients available.”

When it comes to what to grow, you’re only limited by your imagination. Joel recommends erecting wire or string trellises above the straw bales - just like you would in a conventional garden - to support climbing crops like pole beans, peas or cucumbers, or annual flowering vines like sweet peas or morning glories. Rambling vegetables like pumpkins, squash and zucchini respond extremely well to straw bale gardening. 

To plant seedlings, dig into the top of the bales with a hand trowel and insert the young plants into the straw. For seeds, Joel adds a one to two inch layer of potting soil on top of the bales for edibles like carrots, lettuce and beans. Keep the newly planted seeds and seedlings well watered. To keep plants irrigated, he recommends running a soaker house along the top of the bales, among the plants. This prevents the need for overhead watering, which can spread disease, but will also reduce water waste. 

Have you ever straw bale gardened? 


  1. Great way to convert a bit of lawn to garden--always a good idea!

  2. I'll be trying the straw bale method this year in my seemingly never-ending attempts at getting a good harvest of squash...fingers crossed that I'll finally grow enough zucchini to prompt my neighbors to lock their car doors ;)

    1. Perfect crop for straw bales Margaret.. I've had good luck with squash, which are nutrient pigs. Pumpkins and gourds too!

  3. Looks very neat - I agree with Margaret that it would be great if it could get squash to grow!!! Or maybe peppers - they are also elusive in my garden...

  4. Such a practical and attractive way to plan a garden - this concept can also be used to make the most of small spaces. Looks great!

  5. Hi,

    I just ordered his book and testing it this years! Sounds really good and no need for crop rotation over the years as the soil is always newly borned ! It reduces diseases too as the crops are higher and most do no touch the ground!

    Do not add soil on top!

    Take care.



Please feel free to leave comments. I welcome your tips, questions, thoughts and ideas (and suggestions for new veggies to grow!)