Straw bale gardening

Tomato and peppers planted in a straw bale
Tomatoes and hot peppers are growing well in these straw bales.
© George Weigel

No place to dig a garden? Or do you have bad soil, a bad back or just aren’t crazy about digging up grass to plant vegetables? Believe it or not, vegetables can grow in ordinary straw bales – even if they’re set on top of a driveway or patio. Using a straw bale as a container is relatively easy and the raised height helps eliminate back breaking bending and the heavy work of digging and turning the soil to plant. It's an especially attractive option if you live in an urban setting with little access to soil or are simply plagued with bad soil.

The technique has been popularized lately by Minnesota horticulturist Joel Karsten and his 2013 book “Straw Bale Gardening.” Karsten says the key is “conditioning” the bales ahead of time so they become self-feeding growing boxes similar to containers – except you end up with a half-decayed pile of composted straw by the end of the season.

Start with a straw bale and not hay, which has seeds. Bales are available at most home centers and farm stores for $6 to $8 each. About 12 days before planting, begin a regimen of scattering plant food such as Natural Start by GreenView Tomato, Vegetable and Herb Food or Natural Start by GreenView All Purpose Plant Food on the bale and soaking it with water. “The goal is to partially compost the bales, just enough to get them cooking before plants or seeds are introduced,” Karsten says.

On the first day, set the bales so the cut ends are facing up and down and secure them with posts or stakes. Scatter 3 cups of Natural Start plant food over the top of each bale. Then soak the bales until water comes out of the bottom. Water again on even days 2, 4 and 6.

On days 3, 5 and 7 - top dress the bale with additional fertilizer, 3 cups each day. Let the bale sit a day or two and then plant on day 12 or soon after.

Young plants can be inserted into slits cut in the bale and secured with potting mix.
For seeds, spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of potting mix over the top of the conditioned bale and plant. Water regularly during the season to keep the bales consistently damp. Continue to add Natural Start plant food every 4-6 weeks during the growing season to ensure plants are getting plenty of natural nutrition, based on the label rate. The only thing left to do is harv