by Joel Karsten
Are you sure that’s a garden?… It looks like you’re bringing goats into your backyard!
What do you suppose your neighbors will say when they see you watering a bunch of straw bales lined up in your back yard this spring? The first question is usually, “Are you feeling okay?” or even, “Are you planning on bringing home a goat or a horse, or what EXACTLY are you doing?”
You explain somewhat hesitantly that you’re planning to grow vegetables by planting directly into the straw bales. Your neighbor, a long-time gardener, tells you “that is never going to work, because vegetables require specific nutrients and those nutrients can only be derived from the soil, and anything that grows from a straw bale will be lacking in nutrients… if you can get anything to grow in the first place.”
It is at this point when you become a teacher.
You calmly explain that while it may sound crazy, the science behind straw bale gardening is incredibly simple and straightforward. And its success rate is undeniable, taking out so many variables that would otherwise impact traditional soil gardening.
For two weeks prior to planting in the bales, you will be “conditioning” them. Conditioning is a process where nitrogen and water are applied to the bales to feed the (naturally occurring) bacteria inside the bales. These bacteria, when given a food source (nitrogen) and water over a few warm days, will replicate every 15 minutes until they colonize or saturate the bales.
Once the bacteria have completely colonized the bale, during which time the bales get very warm, they begin to consume and digest the high-carbon cell walls of the oats, wheat or barley straw in the bales, and quickly break down those cells, releasing the molecules that created those cells, turning what started as straw into brand new “soil” inside the bales.
The previous summer, Mother Nature constructed the straw by taking from the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three fundamental building blocks of all plant life on earth, along with a variety of micronutrients or trace-elements like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and then organized them to construct cells that expanded and grew the oats or wheat.
Everything that has ever been alive on this planet is eventually decomposed back into soil, deconstructing cells and releasing molecules, which can then be absorbed by the roots of a new plant and transformed into a new organism.
This process of deconstruction, digestion or decomposition is accomplished by five main decomposers including insects, worms, fungi, mold, and the heavy lifter of all decomposers, bacteria.
The smallest, microscopic in size, but the most effective of all decomposers, bacteria is the engine of decomposition that allows all forms of life to exist, by “recycling” the molecules from one organism so that they can be used again to grow another plant.
The bales will be a host for all of these decomposers, filling with insects, worms, fungi, mold and bacteria, all of which work together to create beautiful virgin “soil” inside every bale.
Once the bales have been conditioned they are ready to plant. There is no lingering disease or insect infestations in this virgin “soil.” Last year’s garden soil lying just below the bales may very well be harboring disease or insect issues, and certainly contains thousands of weed seeds in every cubic foot.
It is important to never introduce existing garden soil into the new Straw Bale Garden, because many potential issues may ride along. Weed seeds, which often harbor in soil for years before getting the right conditions to germinate, would be spread on the surface of the Straw Bale Garden if soil were introduced, along with potential fungal spores, insects, or other diseases that may be lingering in that existing garden soil.
Choosing what to plant is really easy, because almost anything with roots will thrive in these newly conditioned bales. Stay away from the few plants that like extremely acidic or alkaline growing media, because the bales will produce a “soil” that is nearly neutral.
Avoid planting corn, only because the roots are huge, and even the biggest bale would only have room for a few stalks of corn. Other perennial rooted vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, which take a few years to get established, will never be harvested from the raised height of the bales. The bale decomposes and will collapse and disintegrate right on that spot within three years for sure, leaving behind a little lump of soil, and an asparagus or rhubarb patch in that spot.
Beyond that, plant everything else that you like to eat. Leafy greens love the bales, as do root crops, vines, cucurbits, herbs and even flowers. If you normally plant using seeds, then use seeds in your bales as well, but create a seed bed on top of the bales first using about an inch or two of sterile planting mix.
Soil-less mix, with no potential to harbor disease, insects or weed seeds, spread on the surface of the straw bale will hold moisture around the seeds until they germinate and send a root shooting down into the bales. Or if you are planting using bedding plants or transplants, just make a hole in the bale and tuck the rooted plug down into the bale. Pretty simple!
It is at this point when you become a preacher about the method!
Straw Bale Gardening provides many advantages over traditional soil gardening, some of which have already been alluded to: no weed seeds, no disease or insect carry over, and a neutral pH which allow you to grow essentially anything with roots.
There are many other advantages to this method, which have made it so popular among brand new gardeners, and those gardeners that are well seasoned and may be nearing the end of their gardening careers. The raised height of the bales is a big advantage, eliminating the need to get down on the ground level to plant and harvest. Soil is heavy and moving it around is labor intensive, while straw bales once in place eliminate much of the physical requirements of traditional gardening.
Straw Bale Gardening provides at least ten other distinct advantages as well, which you can learn more about by visiting www.StrawBaleGardens.com or our Facebook page. Get your hands on a copy of the comprehensive guide to growing in straw bales, my book titled “Straw Bale Gardens” which is filled with specific details on the entire process, garnered from my 22 years of research on this amazing method called Straw Bale Gardening.
Copy and use this Gardening Channel coupon code 4G8Z2HFV31LG to receive a discount on your purchase of the book. You can also learn more about me, Joel Karsten, or send questions you might have about Straw Bale Gardening.
Enjoy trying and sharing this revolutionary method and all the crops it will yield!
I love it, but for the 2 weeks prior, how do you get the nitrogen into the bale for conditioning?
Buy the book.
Unhelpful, if you have the Internet and are paying for weightless information..you’re doing it wrong 😛
You’re definitely not a gardener.
who cares they want to start why do people have to be so rude instead of just helping out other interested
it’s just easier for some people to be rude as they don’t know the answer.
You just keep positive! And ignore that haters!
Liz Schadee says
Everybody has to start somewhere! & there is no excuse first rudeness! I am not in a position to purchase the book as I’m looking at thousands of miles of postage! I’m going to check out my local library if not available in always find Mr Google very obliging. Good luck.
J alan says
Beginner’s Guide to Straw Bale Gardening – Safer Brand
I found this hope it helps you. http://bonnieplants.com/library/how-to-condition-and-plant-a-straw-bale
this link was far more helpful. thanks
Deborah Sammons says
Thanks Tania your a great help.
Liz Schadee says
Thank you Tania I will.
Use fertilizer high in nitrogen at least 20percent I’d do like 45 but with NoWeedkiller. Just sprinkle along center and water. Fertilize every other day and water everyday. Hope this helps. Good luck:)!!!
I think another site said to purchase cheap lawn fertilizer that has on chemicals for weed killer and the number 20 as the first is nitrogin
local hardware stores will sell a nitrogen mix of 20-0-0, you can use that:)
Hope this helps.
Farmer Del says
I have been leaning on You Tube for this. I started here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKbejoV9UZE
Hope this helps.
Linda Corbin says
You just need to water them…the directions are in this article, read it…
Water the heck out of it
join facebook page Straw Bale Miracle Garden….we use Joel Karstens’ methods
Michael LaBelle says
Apply a complete organic fertilizer onto the top of the bales and water it in. It’s also a good idea to add some lime as well as a trace mineral mix of some sort to supply some of the other needed nutrients. Don’t forget a nice sprinkling of Epsom Salt for magnesium. Other than that, just keep the bales damp and let nature take its course.
Fertiliser Id recon.
Go to pod cast still growing and the podcast number is SG515 Joel lays the whole process out. If you garden organically it’s bloodmeal you water in for two weeks, and if lawn fertilizer if you don’t care about organic
Alicia A Magee says
Put high nitrogen fertlizer on top of the bale every other day and water it in. On the off days just use water. After ten days when the bale has cooled off, you can plant. It get’s hot so you have to watch it so no fires. Mulch can smoke too.
Will this type of gardening work in Lubbock, TX? We are in zone 7
It will work any where in the world. Get the book it has all the info you need.
Imagine my surprise as I’m scrolling and see my hometown mentioned!! Did you try the bale gardening and did it work?
Bale, not bake!! Dang autocorrect!
Charles R. says
If you have to buy the book, and not get any info from other people why do you even need this site. Just advertise the book and don’t waste some ones time reading rude remarks.
Tried this 2 years ago, fair results but only because of my inattention; the only thing that really bugged me was mushrooms! Had small mushrooms growing all over my bales! I don’t eat ’em, so have no knowledge of good or bad, so wasn’t sure what to do.
I had tomatoes, peas, beans, carrots, marigolds, nasturtiums, and mushrooms.
That just means your soil is doing really good! The mushrooms will die off and when the temperature cools down you can start planting. My bales got up to 140 and then cooled way down. Best garden I ever had…
Norma Sweet says
I wonder about by the time you get the straw bales which is usually June where I live and condition them it would be too late to plant, or do you buy the year before?
Many farmers and ranchers will have bales from the year before stored. Check on Craigslist in your area.
Its all abut the money
Joel Karsten says
Do you suppose the author has a mortgage too? Or does money grow on trees? I wonder do you work for free?
Wow! I don’t usually read comments and most of you confirmed why that is the case. Most people are just asking for guidance and grief.
I tried this, two years in a row, poor results at best.
I’m so excited to try this for the first time. Starting small – only 6 straw bales for $6.50 each that I picked up from a local farm that advertised on craigslist. Got my SBG book in the mail yesterday and tomorrow I hope to start the 2 weeks of prep that’s required. I’m getting a later start than I’d hope, but I’ve started – that’s what counts!
Sifiso Dlamini says
Thanks for good information I will try and notify other’s
Laura Griffin-Stewart says
I have an area in my backyard that I would love to put a garden in, but it floods all the time. I have been considering dumping fill dirt in it then building boxes to garden there. But Straw Bale gardening sounds like I would be doing myself a huge favor by putting good soil back into the ground, rather than cheap fill dirt. My only question is, with the flooding problem, would this area be to wet to do the Straw Bale gardening in. It does not stay wet all summer, if we have a huge rain, the area floods and it takes a long time for the ground to soak up the water because the soil is not the best to begin with (lots of clay, rocks, bricks, etc. mixed in, your typical fill dirt).
Anyone done this successfully with old hay bales? I always have a few left over at the end of the season that the horse decides aren’t to her liking!
Does a bale last just one year or more?
Karen E McCarthy says
Is anyone the least concerned about residual herbicides that are part of growing a hay or wheat crop???
You must seek out bales from un-sprayed fields.
Good luck with that!
Joel Karsten says
Not a concern at all. Bacteria metabolizes hydrocarbon chains quickly. Even if it were present the microbes quickly break down those residual chemicals. Never a single case in Straw Bale Gardening history where this occurred, not one!
Can you use bales from rice crops? Here in Thailand that’s all we have,, no wheat grown here that I know of.
Joel Karsten says
Yes rice straw works well. See http://www.strawbalegardenclub.com for more info.