Straw bale gardening serves as great alternative conventional planting
By Wes Ellard
For the Enquirer
Farmers and gardeners have been using compost for thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean it always has to be the same old food scraps, pet scat and lawn clippings. Wheat straw bales can also make great compost – and great planters.
“Straw bale gardening is simply planting vegetables into a straw bale that has been conditioned or gone through a composting phase,” explained Dani Carroll, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System home grounds, gardens and home pests regional agent. “It is great for urban areas and homeowners with smaller plots.”
Carroll recommends this type of gardening for anyone interested but particularly for people who have difficulty handling tools like shovels or trowels. Urban areas often lack good soil or space, so straw bales are a great way to take advantage of what space is available.
They also contain great nutrients for plants, when properly conditioned. Carroll said she recommends only certain types of plants.
“I like to grow herbs, flowers and traditional vegetables,” she said. “Shorter plants like tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage and greens tend to work best. Taller, larger or heavier plants could knock the bale off balance, catch too much wind or simply be too large to plant in a single bale.”
Transplants are the planting method of choice, as seeds are more difficult to germinate using this method.
To begin, gardeners should buy a wheat straw bale. Carroll said wheat straw works best because pine straw does not break down enough and hay bales might contain more weed seeds.
Carroll said the gardener should saturate the bale with water before adding fertilizer. Use a high-nitrogen, water soluble fertilizer, and thoroughly re-water the bale with each instance of fertilization.
On day 10, the gardener should add one cup of dolomitic lime over the top of the bale and water it in. After that, Carroll said to add some balanced fertilizer for several days until the conditioning or composting process is finished. The process should take about two weeks.
Once conditioning is complete, the gardener should plant the garden as they would any other garden. Carroll also recommends backfilling the hole around the plant once it is in place to fill any gaps and help the root system grow.
The gardener can then maintain the straw bale garden as if it were a basic, on-the-ground garden. Make sure to water regularly until finished with the bale.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Straw Bale Gardening Guide suggests recycling bales after they are depleted. They can be used as mulch or compost.
According to the guide, gardeners might be able to get two plantings out of one straw bale.
Visit aces.edu to learn more about all types of gardening.