You might have seen it pop up on your Pinterest feed — cabbage, herbs or even flowers grown out of straw bales.

“It’s the hot new gardening trend,” said Holly Froning, program coordinator for the master gardeners for the University of Illinois Extension.

But this is more than just a trend, Froning added, at a seminar at the Bourbonnais Public Library last week.

“You can grow earlier in the spring and later in the season than using soil,” she explained. “All said and done, you gain about six weeks.”

Straw-bale gardening is a great option for those without a lot of space, because you can grow out of both the top and sides of the bale, and bales can be placed on concrete or asphalt. Because of their height, straw bales are a great alternative to raised-bed gardening and the straw, after conditioning, is incredibly fertile. You also can plant multiple times in the bale within one year, such as radishes in the spring and kale in the fall.

The bales last at least two years and can be used in composting or to enrich the ground.

When buying bales, usually about $5 each, be sure to check that they are made completely out of straw and came from a field without pesticides or germicides, which can inhibit some of your vegetables’ growth. Here are a few more tips from Froning’s talk.

Location

Pick a location that gets at least six hours of full sun. Place the bale so the open end of the straw is placed upright and the twine is wrapped around the side. (If the twine is placed underneath the bale, it’ll rot.) If placing the bales on the lawn or bare soil, place four to five sections of newspaper under the bales, with several inches sticking out of the base, to prevent weeds.

If you want to walk between bales, position them 4 to 6 feet apart.

Conditioning

Conditioning is the process by which you fertilize the bale and make it ready for planting. Make sure to do the conditioning in the final place you want the bales, because they will get heavy. As they start to decompose, they also will begin to heat up.

Days 1-3: Water bales thoroughly with water mixed with three cups of organic fertilizer. Keep them wet for three days.

Days 4-6: Sprinkle water mixed with one cup of organic fertilizer each day.

Days 7-9: Sprinkle water mixed with 1/2 cup of organic fertilizer each day.

Day 10: Sprinkle three cups of fish or bone meal (you can buy the dry grains at a garden center). Keep the bales moist.

Check back frequently, keeping the bales moist. Once they have cooled to the touch, in about three to four weeks, they are ready for planting. Mushrooms or other fungus might grow during this process; they won’t affect your plants and you can simply knock them off. However, they are poisonous, so do not eat them.

Planting

You can plant with both seeds or transplants. To plant with seeds, cut the top of the straw about 1 inch, leaving a lid around the edges. Cover with a layer of soil. Place dampened paper towels down, place seeds where you want them, and cover again with damp paper towels. Cover with another layer of soil.

To plant transplants, simply make a hole in the top of the bale. Loosen the transplant roots, place the plant in the hole and gently firm the straw and some potting soil around the roots. Water immediately after planting and daily.

Fertilize the straw once per week with a water soluble garden fertilizer with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients.

(1) comment

Straw Bale Gardening Guy

Just a couple of suggestions/corrections if you want those who read this article to be successful with their Straw Bale Gardens. First, if using organic fertilizer they should NOT dilute the bottle of fish emulsion, or other organic, it should be used at full strength. We need to introduce a minimum of one pound of actual nitrogen into a typical 40 pound bale of oat straw, or nearly two pounds into wheat straw. If using hay, they can introduce 1/2 pound and have success. Use the percentage of nitrogen on the label to calculate this. If 5% nitrogen you would need 20 pounds of that fertilizer to get one pound of actual nitrogen, which is a lot, and very expensive. The numbers provided in this article do not account for the type of fertilizer nor the type of straw/hay. Also, don't dig out any straw, don't ever add soil, this will bring in weed seeds and potential for soil bourne diseases and insect problems. Instead cover the surface with an inch of clean sterile potting mix, rinse it in with a spray of water and then add another inch, seed directly, and lightly cover. Don't use paper towels, especially a two ply paper towel, as fresh paper towels will be too strong for a seed to push through, and mushrooms that sprout in the bale will push the paper towels up and dry out the seeds. It won't work. Use very thin single ply towels, and use a mix of flour water to make a quick glue, to set seeds in place, then quickly roll out the towels for easy seed placement. Lightly cover this paper towel with potting mix and water well to help it disolve quickly. Lots of other missing information on Straw Bale Gardening, so I would encourage anyone planning to try it, to please do more research, or you will not be happy with your results. It is simple to do, but success isn't easy if you don't have good information to go on.

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