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News from the Edible Demo Garden

March 2023: Straw Bale Gardening

Setting up straw bales for growing spring and summer veggies has become an annual event in the Edible Demonstration Garden. Over the years, a number of different edibles have been tried in the straw bales but the most successful have been tomatoes, peppers, and cucurbits such as cucumbers and summer and winter squash. The bales give them the freedom they need to spread out without taking over other garden bed areas. Straw bales are a great way to add garden space, but they need preparation for the best results. In the Edible Garden, the process starts in late January and early February with the acquisition and placement of the bales.


How to Prepare Straw Bales for Planting Edibles 
  • Purchase straw bales at local feed stores. It’s important to buy straw rather than hay bales to avoid the seeds that are often found in hay bales. Straw is what is left over after grain crops are harvested and rice straw is the best choice for edible gardening.
  • Place the bales with the narrow side up making sure that it is the cut end rather than the folded end that is up. Check by sticking a trowel into the end of the bale. If it goes in easily, then it will be the end that will best absorb water and amendments.
  • Space the bales far enough apart to allow adequate room for plant growth and harvesting. The bales are heavy, so you need to put them in the position you want for the season.
  • Secure the bales in position and set up wiring and trellises to accommodate plant growth. Gophers are a problem in the Edible Demo Garden, so the bales are wrapped in chicken wire. Not only does this keep out critters, but it also keeps the bales from falling apart when they become saturated with water and start to decompose.
  • Season the bales. There are not sufficient nutrients in the straw to support plant growth, so amendments are needed. Because the bales are high in carbon, the addition of a nitrogen containing fertilizer is important to promote the bacterial growth that initiates the composting process. In the Edible Demo Garden, organic feather meal fertilizer is added regularly over a two-week period. The feather meal is watered in consistently so that the bales remain saturated during the seasoning process.
  • Once the bales have been seasoned, planting can begin. Soil mix will need to be added for direct seeding. Seedlings can be tucked inside the straw and soil added as needed.
  • Keep the bales moist but don’t overwater. Too much water will wash away nitrogen and other nutrients. Drip lines work best for maintaining consistent moisture. In the Edible Demo Garden, parallel drip lines are placed along the upper length of the bales and the plants are nestled in between them.
  • Fertilize periodically during the growing season with a complete fertilizer to ensure that the plants have adequate levels of phosphorus, potassium, and other nutrients.


What are the Advantages of Straw Bales?
  • Straw bales are an inexpensive way to add raised garden space.
  • Weeds are rarely a problem in straw bales.
  • It’s possible to plant earlier in straw bales because the straw temperature is higher than the soil temperature. The increased temperature results from decomposition during the seasoning process along with increased sun exposure to the raised bed.
  • Harvesting is easier when plants are in straw bales. There is less stooping and bending involved.
  • There are fewer problems from soil borne diseases and insects.
  • Straw bales are recyclable.


What are the Disadvantages of Straw Bales?
  • Straw bales are a one season and done gardening option. Although some gardeners report reusing straw bales, the bales tend to fall apart at the end of the season and are best used for compost and mulch.
  • Not All plants are suitable for straw bales. Bales are not an option for perennial plants. Corn and okra can grow too tall and become top heavy. Root crops such as potatoes, onions, and carrots also don’t work well in straw bales.
  • Moisture needs to be maintained consistently and nutrients added more frequently to achieve the best results when growing edibles in straw bales.