Straw bales—the ultimate garden container.

Straw Bale Gardening
Straw Bales - The Ultimate Garden Container

Would you like to grow your own vegetables this year but simply don't have a good garden spot? Or perhaps you want to start small and wish to avoid all the digging, weeding, and backbreaking work. That desire to grow your own and cook "farm to table" doesn't need to be put on the back burner simply because you don't have a good plot of land. Consider a straw bale garden. It's inexpensive and you can put it wherever you want, as long as the spot gets long periods of sunlight. You can find straw bales at most garden centers, home improvement stores, or feed stores, the same places you will be purchasing your seedling plants. Read these steps before getting started and, by mid-season, you will be serving up delicious vegetable dishes, right out of your own garden.

Choose Your Bales
What is the difference between straw and hay, and does it matter which one you choose? Straw is the stalks or stems of grains like wheat, barley, or oats after the grain has been harvested, leaving very few, if any, seeds. Hay is grass or legumes that have been cut and dried and is generally used as animal feed. Since there is the likelihood of seedpods still in the hay bale, grasses might start sprouting when your bale is watered. That's not really a problem if you don't mind pulling it out but, if possible, leave the hay to the horses and choose straw bales.

Choose Your Location
Once your bales are in place there will be no moving them, so choose your location wisely. If you pick a grassy area, put down several layers of newspaper to keep grass and weeds from growing up into the bale. You can place bales side by side in rows, or, depending on your space, place single bales throughout your yard - one here, another over there - you can even put one on your concrete driveway, as long as your neighborhood HOA doesn't complain. Just be sure the bales get the amount of sunlight required for whatever you are planting. Arrange the bales with cut side up – the twine that binds the bales should run around the sides, not the top.

Condition The Bales
When moisture hits the bale, it will start to decompose and the inside will heat up, so don't jump the gun and plant the same day you buy your bales. You need to start conditioning the bale about two weeks before you plan to plant (so it is probably a good idea to buy your bales first, then a couple of weeks later purchase your seedlings). Conditioning means wetting and fertilizing the bale so the inner straw can begin composting. For the first three days, simply water the bale thoroughly so it stays damp. (This is why you don't move your bale once it is in position – a wet straw bale is heavy!) For the next six days, continue watering and use a liquid fertilizer to speed decomposition. Add a capful to a gallon of water and pour it on the bale. On the tenth day, return to simply watering the bale. You will begin to see black soil-like clumps that signal the beginning of the composting that will continue through the growing season. And don't worry if you see mushrooms sprout up, it simply means the straw is decomposing just as it should.

Plant, Water, Fertilize
Tomatoes need to be planted deeper than other plants, so be sure and read the planting instructions on the seedling containers for each vegetable. Use a garden trowel to remove straw, forming a hole to the required planting depth. Place the plant in the hole, add some good potting soil around it for extra nutrients and stability, and then fill the rest of the hole in with some of the straw you removed. Water well. You can grow just about anything in a bale that you can in the ground, with a few exceptions. Tall plants, like corn and okra, may be too tall and heavy, and can start to break the bale apart. Running plants like sweet potatoes can be harder to grow in a bale, too. Also, if you live in an extremely warm and humid part of the South, the bale may begin to decompose more quickly than in other climates, so stick with smaller plants like herbs and flowers, or use it for your cooler weather leafy crops. Whichever plants you choose, space them as you would in the ground, fertilize them regularly and make sure the bale doesn't dry out.

The Harvest After the Harvest
By the end of the growing season the bales will be soft and saggy. Pile the straw together and leave it to compost over winter, and you will have a mound of beautiful compost to fill all your pots and planters in the spring. What is your garden this year can feed your garden next year. How is that for sustainable living?

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While you've got your hands in the straw, plant some annual flowers and herbs into the sides of the bale -it's otherwise underutilized space, and will make the garden a whole lot lovelier.