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Extreme Urban Gardening: Straw Bale Gardens

Here’s a very simple technique for gardening in tight spots and in places with no/terrible soil (from the arctic circle to the desert to an asphalt jungle).  It’s also a great way to garden if you have limited mobility (in a wheel chair).

What is Straw Bale Gardening?

You simply plant your garden in straw bales.   Here’s an example of what a straw bale garden looks like (via author/expert Joel Karsten — he’s got a good book on the topic and he teaches it in seminars)

As you can see, the basic technique is actually quite simple.  You simply grow your garden inside the bales and the results can be pretty amazing.

 

How to grow a Straw Bale Garden

There are lots of techniques on how to grow a straw bale garden.  Here’s one from the West Virginia University.
To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. If you would like to speed up the process, here is a recipe that works well.

  • Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
  • Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup urea (46-0-0) and water well into bales. You can substitute bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.
  • Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.
  • Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep bales damp.
  • Day 11: Stick your hand into the bales to see if they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting after all danger of frost has passed.

Essentially, plant the seedlings like you would do in the ground.  If you plant seeds, put a layer of compost mix on the bales like icing on a cake and plant it there.  Here’s what the University’s straw bale garden looks like:

 

Remember, the bales (like most above ground gardening techniques) will need extra water and fertilizer during the early period.  However, that should diminish as bale decomposes (it will be able to hold MUCH more water).  Here’s some recommendations on plant types and density from the University:

Plants Number Per Bale

  • Tomatoes 2-3
  • Peppers 4
  • Cucumbers 4-6
  • Squash 2-4
  • Pumpkin 2
  • Zucchini 2-3
  • Lettuce Per package directions
  • Strawberries 3-4
  • Beans Per package directions

I’m going to try this out this spring since it looks like fun. Will let you know how it works out.

Resiliently yours,

JOHN ROBB

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Drew

    Checked out Joel’s book on Amazon, but the three star comment entitled ‘Chemical Gardening at it’s best” has me worried about trying this method..

    Any thoughts?

    • John Robb

      Drew, It’s not much of a problem. If you want organic, substitute compost tea, etc. for the petroleum based products. If you are vegetarian, swap out the blood meal. Etc. JR

      • I can think of a pretty good natural source of urea…

        • Mark

          Funny you should mention natural sources of urea. Here’s a link to a video on Youtube by a guy who used that very source to prepare a straw bale to grow potatoes. Potatoes aren’t listed above, but seemed to do o.k. even in this guy’s effort, which has a large element of just “winging it.”

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbJnb3Mti_s

  • windskier

    use alfalfa hay bales instead
    more nutrients than straw/cellulose

  • will ross

    i used to use straw bales for mulch but no more. they introduced too many weeds into my garden, virulent colonizer weeds that are now a constant battle, weeds that would not be in my garden without arriving via mulch. i no longer spread uncomposted straw; now each spring i buy several cubic yards of certified organic compost (about $60/cu.yd. in my neighborhood) and mix it into the tops of the beds before planting. the recurring fertility of these beds is massively superior to the native untreated soil. on the other hand, to me dumping mulch and megadosing on compost is old news; this year’s best idea = 4″ stock panel (4 awg wire welded into 5′ x 16′ panels, get it from a ranch supply store) makes a fantastic trellis. sturdy & long lived, the definition of resilient.

    • Matthew

      You didn’t use straw, you used hay. Either that or your straw supplier is bad. Straw is, by definition, seed-free. I did get a bad batch of straw from a supplier once….messed up my garlic bed…but I switched to another place and have had zero problem.

  • Richard261

    11th Dec 2012
    Being disabled now, and been able to do any gardening for past 2 years, and used be an avid gardener, and now being unable to tend gardening , bale gardening seems to be the answer , as now l’d be able to garden without having to bend… Thighs come for me the right time of year for my part of the world, will temp it,and dig out pictures of my garden without2 years ago, and also how l got on with the bale gardening seems.I just hope it works for me…

    • John Robb

      Good luck Richard. Hope it works for you. JR

  • Raeann Fry

    What do you do the next year ?? Do you reuse them?? Or replace them the next season ??

  • Tim

    Adding a layer of ground leaves to last year’s garden patch with help to indroduce humus structure into the above soil zones. NOVEMBER
    After this, then lix in organic, slow release fertilizer, mixing in.
    Compost inoculent
    Liquid seaweed
    Then add another layer of leaves (4″ – 6″ inches thick)
    Mix in
    Plant appropriately for the season, enjoying the growth of the plants and how they
    respond to your know-how.

    • What does the liquid seaweed do? That sounds interesting.

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