Planting vegetables in straw bales

A TV program recently had a segment of the practice of planting in straw bales. This is not a new idea, but has been around a while. This method is claimed to be unequaled if you have poor soil, no soil, a bad back, no gardening utensils or are concerned about cost. Diseases and weeds are at a very low minimum.

You can use a lot of bales or just one, whatever you choose. Set the bales or bale on its side, cut side up. Use the side that is cut, not the one that has straw rolled over. Place several layers of newspaper underneath to prevent weeds from growing in and around the bale. Soak bale completely for a couple of days. On the third and fourth day, sprinkle with a fertilizer high in nitrogen such as lawn fertilizer (without additives) such as weed killer. Urea or ammonium nitrate can also be used. Water in thoroughly each time. On the fifth and sixth day, use half the amount. Nitrogen fertilizer is used to start decomposition of the straw and instead of using nitrogen, the bale will start giving off nitrogen allowing nutrients to be used by the vegetables. The bale will heat inside but do not plant until it has cooled. Place your hand inside until it will feel only warm before you can plant. This process can take up to two weeks so start early. Keep straw wet.

Depending on what you want to plant, make holes about 6-inches by 6-inches by 8-inches deep and fill with compost or purchased growing mix. Tomatoes will need three holes, cucumbers, peppers and squash about four and smaller vegetables can be planted in about two inches of soil sprinkled over the entire bale. It gives small seeds a start and the roots will get their nourishment from inside the bale. This method is ideal for herbs and you can put them close to the house for easy use.

If you plant tomatoes in the bale, you will need support for the plant or it will tip. I’ll use small metal fence posts. This method is claimed to also work for potatoes. Planted about 12 inches deep and when harvesting just tip the bale over. You can also cover the bale with plastic, tucking edges under making a mini greenhouse. The bales should be in full sun, at least six hours a day. The mini garden needs to be kept continually moist. A soaker hose works well. Use water soluble fertilizer once every week or two after planting to give the plants extra nutrients.

This is a disposable garden and can be used as compost at the end of the season. I will put mine around the base of the apple trees to hold moisture. The straw will disintegrate into the soil adding nutrients and holding moisture in my sandy soil.

May note: Early May marks the arrival of hummingbirds, orioles and bluebirds. Put out the feeders and check bluebird houses for cleanliness. Bluebirds are a docile, timid bird and subject to predators so prepare boxes for protection. Metal poles smeared with grease help as will baffles placed beneath the box. I have heard of deterring English Sparrows by placing a fishing line in front of the entrance hole about three inches away. I don’t have sparrows, but cats and squirrels are my greatest predators. “Cat owners, keep cats penned during the summer.”


Betty Winscher is a Master Gardener Emeritus and can be reached at (320) 584-8077 or via e-mail at bjwin [email protected]