Straw Bale Gardening


 Anita Mills

Anita’s Arbor


Benefits of Straw Bales

  • Temporary
  • Can Be Set Up on Pavement
  • Compost Fodder at the End
  • Raised beds
  • “Clean”

The Strategy

  • The Straw Bales are conditioned over 10-14 days to start composting on the inside.
  • The strategy is to introduce microbes to start the composting, then feed them, then maximize their growth.
  • Then plants will thrive because they have all the nutrients they need.

How to Set Up

  • The straw (not hay!) bales (unsprayed) are placed on their sides so that the binding is on the sides of the bales.
  • This also means that the ends of the straw are usually pointed up and so can take in the water.
  • If the bales are lined up, run a soaker hose along the top so that watering is easier.


Timeline for Conditioning Straw Bales

  •  Day 1 – Fertilize and soak the bales. Sprinkle an organic fertilizer with microbes– like compost, compost tea,  or Garrett Juice (  on the bales – about ¼ c. per bale – then water the bales until they are soaked.
  • Day 2 – Soak the bales thoroughly.
  • Day 3 – Fertilize and soak the bales. A good fertilizer with lots of micro-organisms (like worm castings) – ½ c. per bale sprinkled on top and watered in well. You can add some Wildroot mycorrhizal fungi inoculant, too.
  • Day 4 – Soak the bales thoroughly.
  • Day 5 – Sprinkle on each bale about ½ c. of molasses water (1 c. of non-sulphured molasses in a gallon of water) or ½ c. of dry molasses. Water in thoroughly.
  • Day 6 – Soak the bales thoroughly.
  • Day 7 – You may notice some mushrooms growing and a sweet smell coming from the bales. Either or both of these signs means the bales are “cooking.” They may also be warm to the touch.  Once again, then is a fertilizer day – compost, compost tea (about 1 c. per bale) or worm castings on each bale is called for.
  • Day 8 – Soak thoroughly.
  • Day 9 – Sprinkle some blood meal, bone meal and wood ashes (N,P,K) on the top of the bales if you have these. A good organic fertilizer will also have a good combination of NPK.  And water in thoroughly.
  • Day 10 – you can begin setting up for planting.


  • a soaker hose laid out on top.
  • water by hand.
  • once the bales are covered with plant growth, watering can be about every week or two – the bales will hold water very well.

Planting Techniques

  • Transplants – pull some of the bale apart and set the transplant in with the soil in the pot included with the roots, then close up the straw around it.
  • Seeds – sprinkle some soil in the area for seeding, then plant the seed(s) and moisten.
  • Water – from top until plant roots are down into the composted materials

What to Plant?          

  • Karsten says about anything, including carrots and potatoes.
  • My experience – limited success with potatoes, but tomatoes and squash transplanted have both done well, as have peppers.
  • Greens and lettuces
  • Avoid tall plants, such as corn or okra – they cannot get root purchase for stability

Plant Spacing

Washington State University Benton County

Extension advises the following spacing:

  • Cucumbers – 4-6 plants per bale
  • Peppers – 4 plants per bale
  • Pumpkins – 2 plants per bale
  • Squash – 2-4 plants per bale
  • Tomatoes – 2-3 plants per bale

What Else?

  • poles in either end of straw bales, run a wire trellis from one end to the other.
  • The wire can support: plastic over the line to create a mini-greenhouse and use the warmth from the composting actions to start plants early
  • trellis climbing plants such as beans, cucumbers and tomatoes
  • put shade cloth over plants to shelter them from hot summer sun

And in the End?

  • A straw bale garden lasts one to two seasons.
  • Then it’s COMPOST! Rich, rich, compost!
  • Or mulch for a garden bed!
  • And you can start over with new bales.


  • This method of gardening was based upon

Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens. Cool Springs Press, 2013.  ISBN 1591865506