Straw Bale Gardening

I love growing things in straw bales!  A few years back I read the book Straw Bale Gardening by Joel Karsten.  The idea is basic.  When you add nitrogen to a straw (not hay) bale it starts to decompose.  As it decomposes it releases nutrients that feed other plants.  Straw bale gardening provides a nutrient grow space that can be placed anywhere.  No digging, no kneeling, and fewer pests. Sounds amazing right?  Well, I have to give it to Joel, it really is.  I have been planting a straw bale garden for six years now and have had a lot of success with it.  I have had some difficulties as well, but what gardener doesn’t?

 I moved my straw bale garden to the front of my house two years ago.  I have a lannon stone home that gets full sun and has a water source.  There is no landscaping that gets in the way and I have a lot of space to do it.  It has been a great learning experience,  you can try it too!  All you need are straw bales, nitrogen to begin the decomposition process,  drip irrigation or easy access to frequent watering, some good quality potting soil, seeds or transplants and poles for a trellis.  I am also working on writing an Ebook about straw bale gardening.  Stay tuned!

STRAW BALE INSTRUCTIONS (you can also download a .pdf here)


When deciding to start a straw bale garden you first need to locate where you want to place the straw bales.  A spot that receives at least six hours daytime sun is best.  Be sure of  where you will put the bales as  you have to as once the straw bales have been watered and conditioned it is super heavy and will be very difficult to move.


You then need to purchase straw bales.  They should cost 3-7 dollars each. First of all make sure that it is straw not hay.  Hay will contain grass and weed seeds and may break down easier.  Straw will not. Unfortunately, I have been unable to tell the difference and have simply bought the bales from a favorite local plant nursery. There will be some grass that pops up along with mushrooms but it is easily removed. You can find straw bales from local farmers, garden stores and big box stores like Home Depot.  Next you need to position the straw bale so that the straw is lined up and down and the twine holding it together is parallel to the ground.  Preferably there should be 2-3 pieces of twine holding it together as it starts to decompose and fill with water it may fall apart.


There are various methods of conditioning a straw bale.  The bale needs to be conditioned with a high nitrogen fertilizer like ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) or Urea (46-0-0). You can also use blood meal, fish emulsion or Milorganite which are all organic but have varying strengths of nitrogen in them.  If you use organic methods then you need to allow a few extra days for the straw to be ready.

DAY 1,2,3water the bale thoroughly

Day 4 Sprinkle ½ to 1 cup of nitrogen over the top of the bale and water it in, do not over water

Day 5 Water the bale

Day 6 Sprinkle ½ to 1 cup of nitrogen over the top of the bale and water it in

Day 7 water the bale

Day 8 Sprinkle ½ to 1 cup of nitrogen over the top of the bale and water it in

Day 9 Water the bale

Day 10 Keep the bale moist, it should start warming up

Keep the bale moist for a few more days and then it should be ready for planting.

***  I have to say here that there are many ways to condition a straw bale with various forms of nitrogen and amounts and schedules.  Use what works for you.  Some people even urinate on the bales instead of buying nitrogen but as a health care worker, I would not recommend this practice!


There is literature suggesting that after day 10 you water in a complete fertilizer.  Yes, the bale will need an even fertilizer that is not Miracle Grow a few times over the summer.  This can either be added to the bale as a side dressing (or crammed into the bale at various intervals and slowly watered in) or added to the top of the bale and watered in.  This is my preferred method. Should the leaves turn yellow you will need to add nitrogen and a complete fertilizer should help.  If you have questions, you can email me  and I’ll try to help.


You can plant either seeds or transplants.  After the preparation of the bale you can take good potting mix or organic compost and put it down 2 -4 inches thick on top of the bale.  DO NOT use soil out of your garden.  Why introduce weeds??  Plant your seeds in the soil and keep the bale wet but not drenched.  If you are starting with transplants, you can remove portions of the straw bale in clumps, 2-3 inches deep, add potting soil around the transplant and place the transplant in the bale. Or you can do both seeds and transplants! Whatever makes you happy.  Last year I transplanted some pathetic looking tiny kale starts that I had neglected and the kale grew vigorous and was yummy.  Ask my neighbor Deb.


Cantaloupe -2

Cucumbers 2-3

Peppers 3-5

Pumpkin 2

Squash 2-3

Tomatoes 2-3

Green Beans /Kale/Swiss Chard 5-6

Peas  12

I also like to plant Nasturtiums, an edible flower, down the front of the bale, pretty and delicious at the same time!


This is very, very important. I prefer a dripper hose, some use a gallon milk jug with holes punched into the cap turned upside down a few inches away from the plant.  Whatever method you choose, they require a lot of water. I can not make this any clearer, the bales need watering at regular intervals, usually daily in the middle of the summer.  This is why drip irrigation works the best and I would not have a successful garden without it.


If you are going to plant heavy plants like tomatoes or climbers like squash and cucumbers you need to build a trellis system.  Here is a link to some instructions

Also, I find that tomatoes, squash, peppers and cucumbers grow like Crazy in the bales.  The bale stays warm and the vegetables love being warm.  Kale, bok choy and lettuce were all vigorous growers as well but I had an issue with slugs and I could not keep them away.  This was my only problem with the bales.