Straw Bale Gardening

Using straw bales as self-contained gardening beds would provide ideal growing conditions for many of your favorite crops.

  • A larger planted straw bale garden will benefit greatly from the T-post and wire method. Not only does the wire serve as a later support for the growing plants, but the spacing of the wire lets you protect your plants with an easily movable poly cover.
    Photo by Tracy Walsh
  • At the end of the first summer, this is what you can expect your bales to look like. No need to cover or worry over them, just let them sit till next spring/summer so they can be reused for root crops such as radishes and beets.
    Photo by Katherine Weber-Turcotte
  • Ready for seeds: Second-year bales that have held together tightly are now ready to be seeded with root crops. Seeing mushrooms on them is a good sign!
    Photo by Katherine Weber-Turcotte
  • Straw bale gardening is a low-effort way to start a vegetable garden.
    Photo by Tracy Walsh
  • The author uses discarded metal bed frames with garden twine to support taller plants. Mulch can be placed around the bales for a tidier look. You can also plant flowers on the sides of the bales!
    Photo by Katherine Weber-Turcotte

Unless you are a bona fide farmer or grew up on a farm you may find it a little challenging to distinguish the difference between hay and straw. An easy way for me to remember is by the color; hay is green, straw is yellow. Or imagine, if you will, the old saying, “I am going to hit the hay,” but substitute it with straw . . . ouch! Hay is soft, straw is prickly.

You are about to embark on a no-fail gardening journey—straw bale gardening. I have to admit, I did scoff at the idea when I first heard of it, but after I gave it a go, I loved it. Most importantly, it works. My bales survived a very harsh winter with lots of rain and snow and were still intact and ready to be planted this year with root crops.

First of all, you will not need to spend a small fortune on materials; in fact, with the exception of straw, you might have some of the materials already on hand. While I can’t give you all of the instructions in this article, I will share the basics with you. I was fortunate to catch up with Joel Karsten, author of Straw Bale Gardens between some of his speaking engagements, and he spilled the beans on what makes straw bale gardening work.

Fall is an excellent time to gather your bales. They are abundant at roadside stands along with the fall fare of pumpkins, mums and cornstalks. Use them in your autumn decorations if you are so inclined but don’t toss them—save them for next year’s garden. If you are really thrifty, wait till after Thanksgiving and you will find many bales discarded and free for the taking.

If you are purchasing straw, do not purchase wet straw. Purchase bales that are tightly compressed and dry. The tighter the compression of the bales, the longer they will hold up. Don’t worry about the coming winter, they will be just fine come spring when you are ready to set up your straw bale garden. Until your nitrogen source is added to the bales, the inclement weather will not harm them.

Hay vs. Straw

Henrietta Scales
3/8/2018 8:17:37 AM

Can I do this method in my window for a small window box?



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