Why Grow Vegetables in Straw Bales?
Straw bale gardening is a technique that involves growing vegetables in very little soil.
The straw bale provides an environment which retains the moisture and provides nutrients to the plants as it decomposes.
Straw bale gardens are excellent for growing vegetables for a number of reasons:
- There’s no digging required
- They are not permanent so great for those who are renting
- Straw bales can be lined up into whatever shape suits your needs
- You can create a garden as big or as small as you like
- Pests and diseases don’t build up because the bales will need to be renewed each season (depending on your climate).
- Because they are raised, straw bales provide good drainage which is essential for the health of your vegetables
- The warmth of the composting straw provides insulation to the roots of the plants
- The decomposing straw provides wonderful nutrients to the plants as it composts down
- Once the bales are depleted, any remaining straw makes a great mulch for permanent garden beds
- Reduces the need to spray pesticides because the plants grow healthy and strong.
- Growing organically means food is pesticide free and bee-friendly
Why Grow Your Own Organic Vegetables?
Growing your own organic food is one of the best ways to ensure that you are not consuming any harmful chemicals. It also minimizes the risk of ingesting pesticides which are often used on commercially grown vegetables.
There are many benefits of growing your own organic vegetables. It is a great way to provide a healthy diet for you and your family and to also save money on groceries.
Growing food organically means using no chemical sprays. Pesticides are harmful to humans and deadly to bees and should never be used. Another good reason to grow organically!
And then there’s the therapeutic value of gardening. You get to be out in the fresh air, getting some exercise while pottering about in the garden and you might find, as I do, that it helps you relax and unwind which can do wonders for your mental health.
Choose the right straw bales for gardening
Do your homework!
Source your straw bales from a reputable supplier and make sure they are pesticide free. There's no point growing organic vegetables in straw bales treated with chemicals!
Oh, and also make sure to ask if the straw bales are seed-free. Otherwise you could end up growing nice big hairy bales of grass that will outdo any vegetables you plant.
Arranging the straw bales
Set up your bales up in an area where they'll get a good amount of daily sunshine, and ideally located near a tap for easy watering.
Arrange your bales cut side up and leave the baling twine in place as it will help hold the bales together.
You can arrange the bales in whatever shape meets your needs or fits your space. For ease of watering, we like to use a drip irrigation system on top of the bales so we find it works best to set them up in long rows.
Once the bales are in place, give them a good watering from the top.
Note: When straw bales are dry, they are usually fairly light and easy to move around. But when they are wet they become very heavy so it's important to have them set up exactly how you'd like before you start to water them in preparation for planting.
Installing an irrigation system (optional)
Once the straw bales are in place we like to install a drip irrigation system. We are always pressed for time in the mornings so we find it easy to just simply turn on the tap for 10 minutes or so and the watering is done.
Using a drip irrigation system also reduces water consumption as the water goes directly to the roots and there's no overspray. Keeping the leaves dry also helps prevent fungal diseases.
Once the irrigation hose is in place, we use long pieces of cut wire bent over to a U shape to pin the hose to the bales.
This is entirely optional though as you can always water by hand if you prefer.
Fertilising the straw bales
We run a line of composted alpaca poo and pelleted organic fertiliser down the middle of the straw bales and water them in well.
The fertiliser adds nutrients to the straw and also gives the micro organisms something to munch on which also helps break down the straw.
Some people have strict routine on when and how often you should add more fertiliser and how long to wait until the bales are optimal for planting. This is no doubt the more scientific and correct approach, however I am not organised enough to set such a rigid schedule!
The bales need to be kept damp so I usually water every day in hot weather or every second day when it's cooler. Around once a week I'll add more fertiliser or more often if it's broken down into the straw and needs a top up.
Planting into the straw bales
For me, the signal that I can start planting is when the top of bale is breaking up and I can easily scratch out a plant-sized hole in the composting straw.
How long this takes depends on the season. Our summers here are hot, wet and humid so the bales break down quickly, whereas in winter when our weather is drier and the temperature milder, the process takes a few weeks longer.
I backfill the hole with a mix of quality organic garden soil which I've mixed with some of my compost and a little worm castings.
Although some people have success direct sewing seeds into bales, I find seedlings do better for us.
More often than not my seeds will get dug up and eaten before they get a chance to germinate. Instead, I start my seeds in enclosed containers and plant them out when they are a reasonable size.
Once established, I use a seaweed plant fertiliser every week or so to keep the plants healthy.
How long will straw bales last?
How long the straw bales will last depends on a few factors, but basically the hotter and wetter it is, the quicker the straw bales will break down. I tend to renew ours every six months at the beginning of the spring and autumn growing seasons.
The remainder of the old bales make a beautiful rich mulch that can be used on other garden beds.
What can you grow in straw bales?
Strawberries love growing in straw bales! And as they are a perennial, you can replant them into your new bales when the old bales are depleted.
You can grow most flowers and vegetables successfully in straw bales which is great news if you're like me and like to grow them together for companion planting benefits. Flowers attract the beneficial insects, especially bees, which are an important part of any garden system.
Peas can be grown in straw bales if you add a strong trellis for them to climb up. We use star posts at each end of the bales and string baling twine in between for the peas to grow on. They are easy to harvest too as you can easily access both sides of the crop.
I have successfully grown cucumber in straw bales by allowing them to sprawl over the ground but I find the smaller, bushy varieties of cucumbers do a little better and they're easier to manage on top of the bale.
We do the same with the silverbeet and anything else that is still thriving.
What you can't grow with great success is most root vegetables (except for potatoes if you can get nice big bales) and large, sprawling plants like pumpkins and watermelons etc.
Pests and disease in straw bale gardens
Our farm is organically managed which means we don't use any chemical sprays, especially pesticides that can have a deadly effect on our bees. We use our honey in our best-selling, delicious Sweet'n'Sticky Honey Chai, so it's important that we keep our honey pure and pesticide free.
Fortunately though, unlike traditional gardening, using straw bales and renewing them every season reduces the chances of pests and diseases building up. This makes managing your organic garden a lot easier.
This is a good start but unfortunately that isn't enough to stop all of the pests.
If the insects get out of hand I might make up an organic spray to keep them manageable.
In winter the white cabbage moths come to feast on our brassicas. Having ducks is helpful in controlling these and other insects, but if they get out of hand I'll just cover the whole lot in a fine netting.