There’s no shortage of straw bales in Southwest Virginia, which is good news for fans of organic gardening. Though not used as frequently as compost or fertilizer, straw bales can help rectify problems associated with nutrient-poor soil. With a little conditioning, straw bales work as organic raised beds that help feed and fortify plants with minimal effort on the part of the gardener. Plus, straw bale plant beds fit perfectly into fall garden designs—just add a couple pumpkins and some hot apple cider!
Building a Straw Bale Garden
First off, make sure you are using straw instead of hay. Straw is a thick, crunchy stalk; whereas hay feels more like dried grass. Hay bales are often littered with hay seeds, so, if you use a hay bale to plant flowers or vegetables, there’s a healthy chance you’ll probably end up growing hay too. Straw—the stalks of harvested grain plants—is a safer, more effective option. Bales of straw can typically be bought for cheap (or even free) straight from the farms they come from. When purchasing straw, make sure it’s certified organic. Non-organic straw could be contaminated with pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, which isn’t good for your plants.
After securing a bale, you’ll need to decide on a location for your straw bed. The clumps of straw become quite heavy once they are established, so you’ll want to pick out a sunny place that has easy access to water beforehand. Once you’ve picked a spot, lay down a sheet of paper or cardboard over where the bale is expected to go. This will prevent weeds from growing into the bale.
The Conditioning Process
As mentioned, straw bales need some slight conditioning to become planting beds. To begin the conditioning process, soak your bale completely with water once a day for three days. This will jump-start the decomposition process, which, in turn, will create some yummy nutrients for your plants. After the first three days, spend another three days adding nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the top of your straw bales. Add about a cup of fertilizer and then water thoroughly once a day. After you finish this step, you will have completed the first six days of your bale conditioning.
On days seven and eight and nine, continue to water and fertilize the bale once a day, but cut the amount of fertilizer in half (half a cup). On day ten, stop fertilizing but continue to water the bale every day until your straw compost feels warm to the touch (but not hot).
Once conditioning is done, you’re ready to plant! Some plants, such as lettuce and green beans, can be sowed directly into the wet straw. Other plants must be transplanted along with their soil into the straw bale. Once your plants are planted, remember to water frequently. Straw bales have a tendency to dry out quickly, especially in hot weather. Since straw contains no nutrients on its own, you’ll also want to fertilize every one-two weeks to ensure your plants are getting the nutrients they need. If you are not growing plants directly in the straw, you can fertilize less often.