Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Building a straw bale garden

straw bales beginning

We learned at last year’s Bonnaroo gardening workshop that straw bale gardens are a simple alternative to raised beds. You can place them right on top of any poor soil you may have or – even better – on top of some grass you’re aiming to kill off. Some things to know:

  • Straw is different from hay – Straw bales are made of the dried stalks of grain plants, hay bales are made from cut grasses that still have seed and grain (a nutrient source for horses and livestock) attached. You only want to use straw bales as a growing medium, not hay. Rice, wheat and barley straw is ideal for drainage, but fescue and rye are ok, too.
  • Be sure that the straw has not been treated with anything you wouldn’t want your food growing in and that will not deter the growth of vegetation (herbicides).
  • Straw bales should come bound with rope or twine – this is a good thing. Do not cut off the binding on your bales, it will (as they say) keep it together.

To get started:

  • Lay out a tarp that is a little bit bigger than the straw bales’ footprint and place the bales on top – so that the twine runs parallel to the ground. The tarp makes the soaking process most effective.
  • Soak the bales using a slow stream of water from a hose. This can take a while.
  • Once the bales are moistened, fork in lime (1 pound per bale) and fertilize with a manure or compost tea. The fertilizer will ensure that the bale will really cook.
  • If you’re worried about critters, lay the bales on top of gardening cloth or a layer of poultry fencing.
  • If after about 3-5 days, the bale does not reach an internal temperature of 100 degrees F, add a bit more fertilizer and re-check after three days. You can find a good soil thermometer for under $10 at your favorite garden centers and online.
  • Now you’re ready to plant! Pour about four inches of soil on top of the bale, then create a hole in the soil and the bale for your starter plants. Any vegetable will grow well in straw bales, but stay away from anything that grows too high and may topple over the whole arrangement. Lettuces, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs and peppers are big favorites with straw bale gardeners.
  • Water frequently and weed as necessary. Watch out for slugs as this is moist luxury condo living for them.
  • You can re-use the same bale for subsequent plantings (be sure to fertilize each time) and, once you think you’ve grown all you can in it, compost it for future soil.

Straw bales with growth

Joel Karsten’s book “Straw Bale Gardening” is a downloadable pdf that can be found here. The web site is packed with great information and there is a calendar of workshops for interested Minnesotans, too.

Photos courtesy of Creative Commons on Flickr user RuTemple

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20 Responses to “Building a straw bale garden”

  1. Tried this about three years ago – got loads of spuds but couldn’t cope with the slugs! But hey this is Scotland! Be serious with those organic slug pellets!!!!!!!!!

  2. I did this last year and, for me, it was a miserable failure. My bales didn’t provide nearly enough nutrients to the poor little plants. They held on for dear life for a couple months, but didn’t really grow any bigger than the day I planted them in there. The herbs were so stressed that they almost immediately flowered.

  3. I saw a guy on youtube putting human urine on his bales . He says it adds nutrients. That’s a bit to out there even for me lol

  4. I haven’t tried this, but why wouldn’t you want to use alfalfa hay? It doesn’t go to seed before harvested, and as a legume wouldn’t it have a higher nitrogen content?

  5. What a great idea. We have very poor soil in our garden areas so I use raised gardens or small container gardens. I think I’ll add this to my list of things to try.

  6. […] of the structure – “think Guggenheim” says Sarah. There will be raised beds, containers and straw bale gardens housing tomatoes, peppers, beans, greens, lettuces and herbs – potato bags, […]

  7. Rice straw is disposed by burning on sito in Egypt causing high air pollution each season. We used compacted rice straw bales successfully in commercial vegetable production in the desert land saving costs of land reclamation. Also in the old delta land highly infested with weeds, nematodes and other soilborn diseases saving application of herbicides, nematicides and fungicides beside most of the tradittional agricultural practices, e.g., soil leveling, weeding by hand, preculturing irrigation and fertilization, saving water instead of flooding traditional irrigation. All resulted in 15-20% increase in harvest and better fruit quality with fair prices contributing to income increase for the participating vegetable growers. If you wish, I can send you photos for the commercial production of vegetables on compacted rice straw bales in Egypt.

  8. Note to my previus cmment: Before planting, a process for fermintation of the straw in the areas under the water drippers was initiated by applying posphoric acid followed after one day by urea and decomposing microorganisms (extracted by leaving peogon drops in water for one day, then filtered in cloh and added to the fertigation system). After one weak in summe and 10 days in winter, these areas turned into like-compost structure inwhich the seeds or plantlets will be inserted. A program for irrigation and fertilization was followed. Healthy powerful plants with large roots were developed giving higher product of good quality.

  9. Thank you, Dr El-Husseini. This is fascinating! Yes, photos would be great. You can email them to me at Cornelia at

  10. Straw bales are high in carbon, urine is high in nitrogen. Anyone who composts knows how important the right mix of carbon and nitrogen is for your plants. If you have male friends or relatives who are willing to(it is a little easier for them to do this), ask them to use your straw bales as a urinal (any barbecue or evening around a bon-fire with a 6 pack will provide plenty of opportunities for this) and it will accelerate the process of composting and provide bacteria good foundation to turn into soil nutrients for your plants. That’s not ‘out there’, that’s good science. The earlier you do this compared to planting, the more time you allow the composting bacteria to get established and utilize the foundation materials to make things optimal for your plants.

  11. Straw bales are great garden materials, not only they keep slugs they add nutrients to the plants as well. Thanks to this post, I am now interested in making my own straw bale garden.

  12. This might help some of you who have had problems with strawbale gardening. It is best to think of it as a cross between Raised Beds and Hydroponics. You must add nitrogen and food and saturate with water for a month or two (in the rain is best), See my interview.
    Episode #18
    Bon Apetit!

  13. We’re a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your website provided us with useful information to work on. You have performed a formidable process and our whole neighborhood shall be thankful to you.

  14. […] and herb garden; what I have now but expanded at least four times. I have read good things about straw-bale gardening – that is, raised beds constructed of straw-bales. In any case, raised beds, and filled with good […]

  15. Malisa Hodges Says:

    @Hoss, Whatever you do, make sure the alfalfa isn’t genetically modified. GMOs are bad bad bad!

  16. Urinating on the bales is disgusting IMO! You can get your nitrogen by adding alfalfa pellets. You can get them anywhere that supplies horse feed. The pellets can also be used to get your compost cooking.

  17. We did the urination on the curing bales technique last summer. It worked a treat. This year the bales have composted down to a rich raised bed. I highly recommend it.

  18. Darlene Olivo Says:

    I grew the most wonderful tomatoes (my Brandywines reached seven feet high, as did Sun Golds), Japanese eggplants, peppers, basil, parsley in my bales last year, which was my first attempt. I’m never going back to in-the-ground veggie planting. I didn’t even put a layer of soil on top, simply a trowel full when I planted my seedlings.

  19. It’s maybe worth mentioning here that in colder climates the bale may not heat up or ‘cook off’as effectively as it will in warmer humid climates. However it will still do the job ok. For colder climates I find it best to expose the straw bale to the weather a couple of months before starting the fertilization or priming process.
    This will ensure that the composting process has a head start before you begin adding the nitrogen-rich fertilizer to really get the action going 🙂
    By the way – Urine is a great compost/bale activator – just stop before you grow and consume your vegetables!

  20. This is my third year at straw are gardening, however I had to get new bales this year. I don’t know if it was a different type of bale, but I had enough rye/ wheat grass grow on each bale that they look like a chia head! I planted my tomatoes and cucumbers. We have had a wet raining spring, so now I have all this fungus(mushroom-looking ) growth coming out of the bales in every direction. Can someone offer any clues why this is happening?

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