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How to Get the Most From Straw Bale Gardening

Updated on January 1, 2018
Kymme profile image

Kim has been gardening and growing her own food for over 27 years. She is a Master Gardener and loves to explore agricultural challenges.

Straw Bale
Straw Bale | Source


In the agriculture world, there are "certain ways" to farm......there is this mindset that, if you don't have vast fields, acres of corn, or cattle, then you aren't doing it right. There's this box, and if you aren't in it...

The agriculture "world" though, is very important. Your food? Comes from us. Your cattle, hay, wheat, sheep, corn, milk, cheese, chickens, eggs.....that's AG. Whether it comes from a grocery store or the farmer's market, when you purchase whole foods, you are supporting AG.

Future Farmer's of America, FFA, is a program offered in rural communities all over America. The goal is to educate and reignite the country to farming. There is more to farming than cows and corn. Anyone can join FFA, the majority, though, are kids from agricultural families or who have ties to the agricultural world. It's a family thing...

My daughter joined FFA in Junior High. I was elated!

What is agriculture?

Agriculture is defined as, "the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products".

So my daughter comes home one day and tells me that we need GMO's in order to feed the world. She also said something about people in the city can't garden. (Guess where that came from)

AG world, meet Kim...

So...growing your own food is agriculture. You are producing products. Right? So why cant people have a backyard garden and a couple of chickens? That's AG...

And why can't people in the city garden? I just read two awesome articles about apartment dwellers and gardening. One was about rooftop gardening in New York, and the other about straw bales.

There are more roads to agriculture than have been I was about to find out...


Click thumbnail to view full-size
Typical FarmSheep and PoultryHorsesBackyard GardenCow
Typical Farm
Typical Farm | Source
Sheep and Poultry
Sheep and Poultry | Source
Horses | Source
Backyard Garden
Backyard Garden | Source
Cow | Source

Gardening without Soil

Straw Bales.

The no mess way to garden where there is no soil. Quite brilliant, actually. The idea is, that apartment dwellers with only a balcony could grow vegetables. The straw would disintegrate leaving no mess. No ticked off landlords.

Straw bales are approximately 3' long and 1 1/2 deep. Using square foot gardening as a guide various vegetables could be easily grown in the bale. As the produce grew, the bale proceeded to biodegrade, creating nutrients and warmth to the produce.

So city people could garden...

I have to try this....

Straw, Hay, Alfalfa, Barley

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Straw BalesAlfalfa Round Bale in the fieldAlfalfa BalesHay Bales
Straw Bales
Straw Bales | Source
Alfalfa Round Bale in the field
Alfalfa Round Bale in the field | Source
Alfalfa Bales
Alfalfa Bales | Source
Hay Bales
Hay Bales | Source

What is Straw?

Straw is the bi-product of wheat. It has no nutritional value. After the wheat has been harvested, straw is what is left over.

Straw is used primarily as bedding material for livestock. It is also useful for Fall decorations, stuffing scarecrows, and strawbale gardening.

The bad news is this, most straw has been sprayed with an herbicide. Right before wheat is harvested it is sprayed with an herbicide. This forces the wheat berries to ripen all at once. Then the wheat machine comes by and gathers the wheat. And that is how flour is made.

Isn't FFA great? Thankfully, some companies do NOT spray their wheat with herbicides, such as Montana Wheat. (The only flour I will cook with)

This means, your straw bale has probably been sprayed with chemicals that kill plants. And we want to grow the straw bale...

Does it have to be Straw?

Hay is for horses.....and cows, livestock...

Barley is a grain used primarily for soups.

Alfalfa is a high protein legume that is used as food for livestock

Straw is the stalk leftover after wheat has been harvested. Straw does not contain seeds.

You don't have to use straw. You can use whichever bale you want. You will grow whatever bale you chose though, along with your produce. This isn't about which bale, this is about heat, fertilizer, and moisture. This is about drought tolerant gardening and extending a growing season by weeks! This is science....

Making Scarecrows

Mystic Scarecrow 2017 Annual Scarecrow Festival Stevensville, MT
Mystic Scarecrow 2017 Annual Scarecrow Festival Stevensville, MT | Source

Let the science commence!

Heat & moisture. When the bale starts to biodegrade it creates heat, the act of biodegrading creates nutrients. I needed 35 bales....and I knew who had them. It just so happened I was friends with a farmer, and he was not only involved in FFA, he was the local extension office manager. I told him my plan and he gave me all the bad bales from winter. (Major score!) They were hay, but I knew they hadn't been sprayed.

Thirty five bales using square foot gardening technique is equal to 105' of choices. I decided for my experiment to plant Summer crops. In Montana our growing season is short. I wanted to plant things that needed extra time, like tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon. I don't want to be limited to 65 day tomatoes, I want to grow Cherokee Purples and 105 day watermelons.

Theoretically, I could plant either starter plants or seeds in the bales, with 105' of choices, I opted for both. I started seeds in the house of each type of vegetable reserving seed to be placed in the bales directly. Using square foot garden techniques, I figured three plants per bale.

While I waited for seed to start I readied the bales. I placed them all in full sun. In summer that is 14+ hours per day. I watered them well. Many of them were already starting to mold from being exposed to winter elements, this was good.

When the weather lifted and the peas started coming up I stuck seed in each bale. When the weather warmed for a straight week I took the seedlings out and planted them directly in the bale.

There were setbacks...deer discovered my science project. In my excitement I overlooked another Montana problem...the deer buffet. I lost half my bales to bambi right off the bat.

The remaining bales did phenomenal. We are still eating zucchini from five years ago. We got to try our first homegrown watermelon and cantaloupe. The tomatoes and peppers were huge and happy.

Seeds did the best over seedlings and plants. Some of the plants struggled but survived..I don't think they liked their roots shoved into a haybale. I had to water the bales more as the plants got bigger. Despite what the strawbale reports said.

I did add a handful of dirt with each seed, it helped identify where I had planted. I don't think it affected the experiment either way.

Straw Bale

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Strawbale with WatermelonBaby Watermelon!!!!!
Strawbale with Watermelon
Strawbale with Watermelon | Source
Baby Watermelon!!!!!
Baby Watermelon!!!!! | Source

Taking the AG world by storm...

I was sold....

The FFA teachers weren't, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that it worked.

City and apartment dwellers CAN grow vegetables in bales. They can enjoy gardening. Renters have more options than containers and dwarfs.

And now, straw bales had another purpose....they can extend the season for northern growers, enabling them more choices and varieties.

Where there is a will...there is a way.

Happy gardening.

Straw bales....

Straw | Source

© 2017 Kim French


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