Straw Bale Gardening Instructions and How it Works

Planting in Straw Bales Makes Sense and Here's Why

Straw Bale Gardening Instructions and How it Works

I didn’t believe it. Though straw bale gardening instructions sat before me, I was skeptical. I compost. Plant in the ground. Nourish my soil with probiotics. Nobody could convince me it worked until I saw it in practice. And I was immediately converted.

Joel Karsten faced the same skepticism when he brought the idea to top-rated universities. It would never work. He was wasting his time.

The concept developed of necessity: Joel had no arable soil. He grew up on a farm, acquired a horticultural degree, then bought a home of his own. Too late, he discovered he could not plant where he had landed. It seemed he had two options: spend hundreds of dollars to build raised beds and fill them with soil, while still paying off student loans and a mortgage. Or just not grow his food.

Then Joel remembered his childhood, when he stacked bales on his dad’s farm. Sometimes bales broke. He tossed the straw against the barn, where weed seeds fell and winter did its worst. In the spring, those bales sprouted bigger, greener thistles than the surrounding dirt.

Joel knew several factors: thistles use the same nutrients as peppers and tomatoes. Straw becomes arable dirt because of decomposition. Joel approached the universities and was discouraged, but his dad wasn’t. So they set up two gardens: one with straw bales and a control group in fertile soil. By July of that year, the plants in the bales were twice as big as the soil crops.

For 14 years, it seemed nobody cared except those who drove past his property and demanded to know how he grew eight-foot-tall tomatoes. Joel’s pamphlet on straw bale gardening instructions turned into a self-published book. A publisher approached Joel, then a review in the New York Times turned the concept into an international phenomenon. Now there are more than 50 Facebook groups, in different languages, focused on straw bale gardening. The book is published in 21 languages.

Joel constantly gets letters from people who can now grow food despite physical demands: handicapped people in wheelchairs or elderly gardeners who cannot bend over. His website contains photos of bales across the world, submitted by happy gardeners.

Joel sets up straw bales. Photo courtesy Joel Karsten/Straw Bale Gardens

Why Straw Bale Gardening Works 

I believe in soil. That’s what I told people last year when they asked me if I recommended the method. Then a friend invited me to see her garden. It was a 10-minute walk on a sunny day, so I had no reasons to decline. As I stood between rows of tomatoes bigger than my two fists combined, I asked her how long she had been gardening. That was her first year.

Ames Family Farm is almost filled to capacity but I still have 100 hundred square feet and it bothers me that I can’t dig deep into my concrete driveway to grow more food. Apparently, that violates the rental agreement. And though I’ve used the front drive for growing vegetables in pots, I didn’t have money to purchase soil and containers for the back. I bought my own book of straw bale gardening instructions. Then I heard that Joel Karsten himself would be speaking at Rail City Garden Center, just a few miles over in Sparks, Nevada.

Sitting in a propane-heated room with 48 other curious gardeners, I learned about micronutrients locked within the straw. Each vegetable needs different micronutrients, such as iron and manganese, but they are all unusable until the straw decomposes. Fungi and bacteria break down cells and leave the high levels of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus necessary for all crop growth. The bale contains enough nutrients as long as it is not over-watered. And since straw absorbs and holds water, only a drip line is necessary.

Straw bales are lightweight: about a tenth to a fourteenth of the weight of soil supporting the same root capacity. This makes them good for rooftop gardening. They’re highly portable, and portability increases if bales are set on pallets. Because they sit higher, can be used on driveways or patios, and can be arranged with wide walkways, they are handicap-accessible. Roots grow faster because the bale heats up due to decomposition, which allows planting sooner. It also allows for crops which like warm soil, such as sweet potatoes. And if organic straw is used, there are no chemicals, which can be a concern for anyone researching how to care for tomato plants in tires.

The best reason to garden in straw bales is probably protection against diseases and insects. Blight ravages tomatoes but it’s carried within the soil; as long as tomato vines are tied up high and don’t touch the ground, the blight stays put. Tying up foliage also promotes air circulation, which prevents mold and mildew. It’s easier to see beneath leaves to identify pests such as squash bugs and earwigs. And since decomposition is actively changing the straw, it’s “virgin” soil: never before planted and contaminated with weeds or viruses.

But … What Will Actually Grow?

Almost any vegetable can be cultivated within straw bales. Because of the quick decomposition, growing carrots is as doable as transplanting hot peppers. Joel does not recommend sweet corn, because only a couple ears will develop from an entire planting, or perennials because the bale will break down within two years at the most. All other annual vegetables and flowers are fine.

Because the bales heat up, and because salad greens, spinach, and beets don’t care whether it freezes, you can plant early. Greens such as lettuce and spinach are “cut and come back” crops, which will keep growing until the weather is too hot. Snip off a couple leaves when you want a salad. Succession planting is easy: pull a beet for dinner, drop a seed in the hole, and sprinkle some potting mix on top. Pull the beets around that seed so the plant isn’t shaded when it comes up and drop more seeds into those holes.

The #1 rule of deciding what to plant: Grow what you eat. Don’t plant too much lettuce if you dislike salads and want to preserve your food; grow spinach because it can be blanched and frozen or grow tomatoes for home canning. Grow crops you will eat every few days or can easily put up for the winter.

Photo courtesy Joel Karsten/Straw Bale Gardens

Straw Bale Gardening Instructions

First, you need a straw bale. Hay works as well and contains more nutrients, but the primary reason to purchase straw instead is cost. Essentially, straw is the leftover stalks from harvesting cereal grains and isn’t edible so it’s used as animal bedding. Hay is the nutritious dried grass and alfalfa used for animal feed. The overall value of both makes straw much less expensive.

Second, purchase fertilizer. Though conventional granulated mixes work faster, this method can be done organically. Conditioning the bales takes about 12 days conventionally and eighteen organically. Any high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer is fine, but avoid anything with herbicides, such as Weed and Feed. For organic conditioning, don’t rely on manure or compost; they’re not “hot” enough. Chicken manure is fine as long as it’s mixed 50/50 with a bagged nitrogen source such as blood meal, feather meal or mixes purchased at garden centers.

Joel’s book contains the most precise instructions regarding when to water and when to sprinkle more fertilizer: one half cup conventional fertilizer or three cups organic per bale on day one, watering it in well. Water on day two, avoiding cold water if possible. Add another half cup fertilizer on day three, watering again. Water only on the fourth day. Another half cup fertilizer on the fifth. Water only on the sixth. Days seven through nine, use a quarter cup per day, watering in well. On day 10, switch to a 10-10-10 garden fertilizer.

Straw Bale Gardening

On day 11, get your seeds and plants ready.

On day 12 for conventional methods or day eighteen for organic, plant your crops. The bale will probably look no different than day one. But if it’s warming at all, decomposition is happening. As Joel says, “It’ can’t ‘not’ work.”

Soaker hoses and drip lines should be set before planting. Lay them down the middle of the bales and hold in place with landscape pins.

For transplants, use a sharp trowel to dig a hole in the straw, being careful not to cut the strings. Seeds can be planted by sowing directly into the straw in a checkerboard pattern then covering with a thin layer of sterile planting mix until seedlings sprout.

During the growing season, keep the bales moist but not wet. They can’t flood because excess water comes out the bottom. However, if you notice water running out, stop. You could wash away nutrients if you over-water, necessitating a top-dressed fertilizer to keep the plants healthy.

Photo courtesy Joel Karsten/Straw Bale Gardens

The Fine Details

If you’re serious about using this as a major gardening method, I really recommend reading Joel Karsten’s book, Straw Bale Gardening. Instructions cover little nuances like why tomatoes should be tied up on supports but squash vines can trail along the ground. (Hint: It has to do with disease.) He describes how to make new bales from the old, decomposed ones, adding another two years onto their life until they become soil to fill raised beds. Even simple problems, like the birds which insist on perching upon wires and dropping unwanted nitrogen onto the plants, are solved within the book. To explain all of these solutions myself would mean writing another book!

As the method becomes more popular, straw bale gardening instructions pop up all over blogs and prepper sites. Most are brief and not very succinct. They don’t tell you what to plant or in what formations, as the book does. For instance, did you know that kohlrabi seeds should be planted within the bale on day 12 of conditioning? Or that the bales limit growth of parsnip canker, a fungus affecting the roots?

Joel also describes how to use plastic and a bucket set into the ground to catch water that has dripped through the bales so you can re-water, putting nutrients back onto the plants. This is valuable for drought-stricken areas.

Photo courtesy Joel Karsten/Straw Bale Gardens

Harvesting the Vegetables

Here comes the fun part. Haven’t we been waiting for just this moment? Harvest is extremely easy with straw bale gardening since very little bending is required. But do it often. Harvesting regularly keeps the plants healthy, removing leaves which may die or develop mildew, and keeps air flowing around the bales. Overripe vegetables attract insects.

Most vegetables can be picked directly from the plant or pulled straight up out of the bale. To harvest a carrot, grasp firmly where the greens meet the root and gently tug straight up. And you only have to bend a couple inches to do that.

Potatoes and sweet potatoes, however, must be picked from a bale that has been knocked apart. I plan to grow sweet potatoes within bales that will later be used to keep the chicken run from becoming chicken soup in the November rains. Next year I’ll plant potatoes in this year’s used bales.

So do you need another reason to follow these straw bale gardening instructions? Here are seven. Driveways. Apartment balconies (with plastic underneath to keep neighbors happy). Rooftops. Desert sand. Compacted clay. Blighted soil. Giving land a “rest” period. Increasing your growing capacity doesn’t have to involve fertile dirt. Purchase a bale or two and give it a try.

Notice the harsh high plains desert in the background? Photo courtesy Joel Karsten/Straw Bale Gardens

Do you plant using straw bale gardening instructions? Have you been successful? Let us know in the comments below.

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