Many yards this fall were decorated with scarecrows, pumpkins, and bales of straw. But what happens to these bales once the winter holiday season approaches. One approach is to put the unwanted bales in the trash. Another approach is to use them as mulch in the vegetable and flower garden. While this is a great use for straw, there does exist another use and that is as a unique garden container.
This type of container can be used in the garden, on the patio and even on a deck but before we jump into creating this container we must first talk a little grass. Many people confuse straw and hay. While on the surface this may not seem like a big deal, it is when you are talking about straw bale gardening.
Hay is created when the whole plant is cut and baled. This includes seed heads and stems. On the other hand, straw is created by harvesting and baling just the stems with a few seed heads. When creating this type of container garden only use straw. This decision will reduce the amount of weeds you will have to deal with in your straw bale garden.
To begin creating your straw bale garden, start with the positioning on your bale. Place the bale where you want your garden to be and arrange it so that the twine used to wrap around the bale is not touching the ground. If the twine is touching the ground, the moisture from the soil will breakdown the twine and cause the bale to fall apart in a few months.
If using more than one bale, arrange the bales so that the tops can be reached. An easy way of doing this is to line up the bales end to end. This allows the “garden” to be reached in all directions and helps add support to all the bales.
After the bales have been arranged, it is time to prepare the bales before planting. This can be done immediately or you can wait until it is closer to your area’s spring planting season. Regardless of when you “season” your bale, you will need to first completely moisten the bale with water. Continue to water the bales every day for the next three days. After this time period, continue to water the bales but mix ½ cup of compost or manure tea to the water per bale. Add this mixture to the bales for the next three days. Once this time period has passed, mix ¼ cup of organic fertilizer only with the water and water with this solution for the next three days. Continue to water until day 10 is reached. When the 10th day has been reached, it is time to check the bales internal temperature. This is easily done by pushing ones hand into the bale. If the bale is hot, continue to add water and check again in two days. If the bale is cool, then it is ready to plant.
Planting in a straw bale can occur in two different ways, this includes by seeds and plants. Each technique though requires a little preparation.
If utilizing the seed technique, one must first prepare the garden’s surface. This is done by laying two to three inches of garden compost and/or potting soil on the top of the bale. This soil will then be the medium by which the seeds are planted into.
If you plan to use plants, then you have a choice of two techniques. The first technique utilizes the method described above and instead of planting seeds you would plant transplants. The second method requires the gardener to open up the bale with a hand trowel and filling the space with compost. Once this is done, simply place the transplant in the hole and allow the straw to fill back in around the plant. When using either approach make sure the plant is planted the correct depth and spacing.
After the bale has been planted, it will need to be watered daily. Straw bales loose a large amount of water due to the way the stems are aligned. Water will follow the direction of the stems and run off. If you live in an area that has water restrictions, straw bale gardening is not for you.
Straw bale gardens do require some fertilizing but keep in mind though that the more one fertilizes the quicker their straw bale will decompose. A bi-weekly application of compost or manure tea or fish emulsion is all that is needed.
If one is going to grow tall plants in a straw bale, then one will need to trellis or stake them. Plants that will need support include corn, indeterminate tomatoes, and sunflowers. Do not attach the trellis or stake to the bale nor should you push these items through the bale. The best approach is to push the trellis or stake through the ground beside the bale and tie plants to the support.
Straw bale gardening can be a fun and unique way of extending the use of a fall decoration.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mindy McIntosh-Shetter has been an Agricultural Science educator, and is a horticulture and/or environmental blogger who earned a degree from Purdue University in Agriculture Education with a minor in biology, and natural resources. Presently she is finishing up her Masters in Environmental Education and Urban Planning for the University of Louisville while working on her own agriculture/environmental blog.