Straw Bale Garden Part II: Watering the Bales

straw bale garden--watering the bales

In case you just joined us, we’re starting up a straw bale garden. I’ve decided to go with instructions provided by Washington State University. The first step is to wet the bales. Here’s what WSU suggests:

To start the process, keep the straw bales wet for three to four weeks before planting. If you would like to speed up the process, here is a recipe that works well.

Days 1 to 3: Water the bales thoroughly and keep them damp.
Days 4 to 6: Sprinkle each bale with ½ cup urea (46-0-0) and water well into bales. You can substitute bone meal, fish meal, or compost for a more organic approach.
Days 7 to 9: Cut back to ¼ cup urea or substitute per bale per day and continue to water well.
Day 10: No more fertilizer is needed, but continue to keep bales damp.
Day 11: Stick your hand into the bales to see if they are still warm. If they have cooled to less than your body heat, you may safely begin planting after all danger of frost has passed.

To make sure I keep the bales wet I’ve also installed soaker lines on a timer.

My straw bale garden is more water intensive than I would like, but I try not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. In the end the compost I make will help conserve water in the garden–at least that’s my theory.

Next step will be to add fertilizer in the form of blood meal (I’m puzzled by WSU’s suggestion of bone meal). More on that subject in three days.

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  1. I once used a thick layer of yellow straw in my garden path (very pretty and suppressed weeds) but by the end of the season it had gone moldy and sprouted oat shoots. What to do the straw bale experts say about mold?

    • We haven’t read anything about mold. Mold is not a big concern here, as it may be elsewhere. It’s just too dry. When we’ve mulched with straw, it gets less attractive as time goes by, but never moldy.

  2. I’m playing along with your straw bale garden experiment at my house- that garden you linked to in your last post about this topic spurred me to action and I bought as many straw bales as I could fit in my car- 4. I’m thinking about putting chicken manure on the bales to get them cooking, I have lots of that and the price is right. Looking forward to seeing how it works out!

    • Fantastic! I hope it works for you, and that we haven’t led you down the garden path, so to speak. If this ends up being a bad idea, maybe we can form a support club…

    • We noticed that. And we’ve been thinking along those lines. I’ve been wondering if it would be possible to green mulch them, grow clover on the sides, maybe? Hard to say how the the water demands would balance.

  3. I was interested in the straw bale garden thing until I saw how much water it would require. We are already preparing for a drought this summer. It would be helpful to know how many gallons it took to get them going (I know it will vary depending on your environmental conditions, but an estimate would be nice :). Also, I was curious why you guys opted for this vs. lasagna garden? Not saying its better, just curious. We did one last year and it retains moisture like crazy!

    • Yeah, it’s basically hydroponics. We wouldn’t be doing it if we had better choices, like planting in good soil. But hopefully it will help us make the soil we need, so we can have a more water-wise garden next year. It’s hard to say how many gallons are going into the bales–sorry we can’t estimate that for you. A lasagna garden isn’t an option for us because of the lead in our soil.

  4. Okay, I did a post about this after seeing your post from the other day… we have lasagna-gardened for the last three years here in Kansas… eastern part of the state. Our flower gardens came through the terrible drought with the straw on their beds, and the perennials have come back. We did not have a good result from veggies last year, but frankly, gave up watering, it was down to saving one or the other, as we are on well water.

    I’d love to try this on a small scale… one or two bales, and am going to. I’m enjoying reading all the different suggestions, and will enjoy reading about your results!

    • Ah, the joys of gardening!

      A one or two bale experiment sounds like a smart thing. We’re sort of “all in” on this one– if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be a very sad situation! (But on the upside, we’ll have a ton of mulch!)

  5. Thank you for your blog/website. I live the idea is straw bale gardening until you have enough compost to fill your garden. Being pregnant this summer I am going to adapt this style of gardening. I will be watching yours to see how quickly those bales fall apart.

  6. You guys are the coolest! I can’t wait to see how this turns out for you. May be something we’ll try to get into next year. I didn’t spend 6 hours tilling my raised beds for nothing!

  7. I second the pee comment by Reanna! To help facilitate that for women, there is a product called the “P-Style” (and there are others) that works really well. It’s a basic cup/funnel thing that allows the same ease of urinating to women that men naturally have. I have one that I bought specifically to harvest that “Garden Gold” – saves water (no flushing!) AND fertilizes the garden!

    • God help me, I was going to keep this to myself, but I add pee to my compost pile too.

      Being female and not having the natural equipment that makes this effortless I’ve devised another method. I got a cheap funnel with a very long neck at an auto supply dealer. I think it’s for oil or something. I am able to position that strategically with minimal effort. I put the delivery end into a watering can. Then I can walk it to the compost pile conveniently.

      I’ve never used it directly on the garden and I don’t really know if that would be advisable or not but it will heat up the compost and I trust Mother Nature to break it down into salutary products over time and prefer this less direct approach.

    • Genius. A tip o’ the hat to you, sister.

      (And yep, urine needs to be diluted about 10:1 for use on plants.)

  8. I think this is probably a fun and interesting project to try but, enivornmentally friendly it’s not. The growing, harvesting, transport, and converting the bales of hay into garden mulch is an obscene waste of water and natural resources.

    • Got to say you’re right. Anytime we take soil fertility from one place and import it to another we’re causing environmental problems. Ideally I’d be able to garden the way John Jeavons suggests, by growing all my own carbon material. I may get there someday. But for now I’ve got to either move or rehabilitate my lead and zinc contaminated soil. To do that I’ve got to import both carbon and nitrogen containing materials at least for awhile.

  9. My experiments with straw bale gardening here in the Las Vegas desert were very successful. I used a drip-system for the watering and covered the bales with a tarp during the early prep-stage. This reduced the amount of water I needed to use. I didn’t have to soak them, the drip-hose worked well (slower is better). Also, I didn’t have access to a commercial urea product, so I improvised with my own.

    Althought technically you are bringing the fertility of another area into your own, you will reduce your impact in the long run. And it’s not a loss, it’s a loan of fertility. You will be making compost in which you will produce nono-edible biomass which will in turn be composted which will increase the fertility of your soil which will…you get the point. You are actually starting a cycle that will get bigger and bigger as time goes on. Then, you will provide someone else with their ‘starter’ fertility and the cycle will be complete.

    Well done! Garden on!

  10. I wonder if one could grow corn using this method? I hate using planting ground, because corn sucks up so much nitrogen and other minerals, but using this method I’d end up with carbon-rich compost, (and maybe some corn, too)!

    • I dont think it is recommended to plant corn using straw bales. As the bales age, they become loose and as the corn grows taller, they will just tip over.

  11. Heads up: website reference is West Virginia, not Washington. Credit where it’s due and Go Mountaineers!

  12. A bale of straw will hold 30 gallons of water when it is buried in the ground according to Jim Brooks at Soilutions. I don’t know how much it holds above ground. It makes a great sponge! Bone meal makes no sense. That must be a typo. I agree that urine is a cheap, abundant substitute for blood meal.

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  14. Just got my bales (4) five days ago. It has rained a lot everyday since, plus I’ve watered them. The internal temp is a whopping 128 degrees! Is this too high? Is it dangerous? Do I still need to add any nitrogen/blood meal? Or, do I just keep the wet and wait till till the temp falls to planting temp?

  15. I like your ideas, as a Permaculture fan of many years’ standing. Ladies, any ordinary funnel can work for collecting urine: cut off a piece of hose pipe as long as you want the neck extension to be and push the narrow end of the funnel tightly into it. The other end of the hose can go wherever you want it. A bit of wood ash sprinkled over the bales helps with the break-down of the straw and even more nitrogen can be added by planting bush beans a few weeks before planting everything else. If you are collecting your solid waste, sprinkle with wood ash before covering with sawdust or leaves. This dries it out and stops it smelling. I do not think that the mold Terry Golson mentions is much of a problem: it all helps in breaking down the bales and releasing fertility, however if it stinks, it may be due to a pH imbalance. Experiment with adding more fresh pee to raise the acidity, or wood ash to lower it. Best regards to everyone and keep on growing in every way.

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