Straw Bale Garden Part V: Growing Vegetables

basil in straw bale garden

It’s too early to call my straw bale garden a success but, so far, the vegetables I planted in the bales are growing. I got a late start on planting–I put in the tomatoes, squash and basil in mid May/Early June–just in time for the cloudy, cool weather we have here in early summer.

raised bed vs. straw bale tomato

Check out the difference between the tomato I planted in a bale on the left, compared with a tomato in one of my raised beds. The tomato in the bale is doing a lot better.

mushrooms in straw bale

The bales are home to organisms that support healthy vegetables: mushrooms and worms. When I dug into the bales to plant some chard seedlings yesterday I found a lot of worms. I had thought that straw bale gardening was like hydroponics–essentially fertilizer added to a growing medium. But the presence of worms and mushrooms indicates that well rotted straw bales are more like the kind healthy soil that supports a web of soil organisms that, in turn, help vegetables grow.

squash in straw bale garden

Some of the plants, like this winter squash, I planted as seedlings.

cucumber in straw bale garden

Others, like this cucumber, I sowed directly into the bales by making a little hole and putting in the seed with some home made seedling mix.

Again, the vegetables in the bales are doing better than veggies in my two remaining raised beds. The reason, I believe, is that the beds are depleted and the compost I added to them was low quality.

While more resource intensive than growing in the ground or raised bed, straw bale gardening has a lot of advantages for the beginning gardener. Integrating fertilizers into a straw bale is a lot easier than making high quality compost and a lot faster. While not a long term strategy, I’m looking forward to trying straw bale gardening again.

How is your straw bale garden doing?

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  1. On my bales where I could get mushrooms to grow, the plants did exponentially better in terms of growth rate, health and vigor and productivity. On the ones where no mushrooms grew, my plants did quite well, were healthy and productive, but didn’t come close to the levels of the others.

    Once I introduced earthworms into the bales, they all did about the same. It certainly boosted growth rates and overall productivity. And although I didn’t actually count the tomatoes, I would swear that they were each much more productive once I added the worms.

    I also noticed that on the bales where I had built up an earth berm on the sides did much better in the summer heat here in Las Vegas. They held the water much better and required less frequent waterings. That’s important here where the biggest expense to producing food is the cost of the water.

    I also was able to put my trellis system directly into the bales. They were able to hold them without breaking down or tipping over.

    • Interesting about the worms. I haven’t seen any in my bales; I think I will try adding some. Did you just plop them on top and let them burrow in?

  2. Yay! I have been wondering how it was doing so I’m very glad to have this report and look forward to others to follow.

    I have a strip that’s about 3.5′ x 15′ for a veggie garden. It’s defined by a concrete wall on one side and a very deep concrete pad on the other. I’m considering putting bales on the pad next year and extending my growing area because the sun is the most abundant and consistent there.

    Everything else I planted in the strip has been completely overshadowed by the tomatoes.

  3. Is the straw bale more dependent on your presence and care? Since the straw bale is so nutrient-rich, would it work to spread the straw over the ground and to plant there? Do you think additional prep work or nutrient additions have any influence on the productivity of the straw bale over the productivity of the earth.

    I love the comparisons and appreciate the post, but I am wondering if difference in care or nutrients you supply made any difference. Did you pray over the straw bale, speak incantations, appeal to higher powers?

    • Higher powers were indeed invoked. It is definitely more work and resource intensive than a raised bed. But given our lead soil situation and lack of compostible materials I think it will be decent short term solution. Once I’m done growing in the bales I will turn them into compost for the yard and our raised beds.

  4. Looking good! How often are are you watering these? Are you still fertilizing them or have you stopped now?

    • Sorry Sara, I should have included these details. They are watered every day via a soaker hose for around 10 minutes. I fertilize them with some fish emulsion every two weeks.

  5. Thanks for the update!
    I planted in my six bales late May. I’m in Michigan.
    I also have some veggies in containers and a raised bed. My property is on reclaimed swampland/former farmland and very fertile. My comparisons so far:
    Tomatoes in the bales are huge, bushy, flowering and I already have some maters. Bale maters are outperforming the others dramatically.
    Okra: Not doing so well in the bales, much sturdier in the soil. Might be too damp of a medium for okra.
    Eggplant doing equally well in both soil and bales, I already have grape-sized baby eggplants.
    Cilantro growing almost too well! I have to keep snipping my lone cilantro because it wants to bolt.
    Basil doing better in the bales.
    Bush beans are also growing very vigorously.
    Marigolds LOVE bales, apparently. :o)
    I’m pleased, despite a gloomy, wet start to the growing season! I keep getting mushrooms because of all the rain. I’m fertilizing lightly once a week and have barely had to water.

  6. Is that a drip line on the bales? It looks heavy duty! Did you purchase it locally? If so, where?

    • It’s from Home Depot. And yes, it seems to be a lot more durable than soaker hoses I’ve had before. Generally, I’m not a fan of soaker hoses, but this one seems to be holding up.

  7. I’m trying to grow zinnias in some straw bales. Have never tried straw bale gardening before so this is a little experiment. The zinnias are doing OK – not awesome, but not terrible either. It seems that there is some sort of a bug problem – some of the leaves have been munched on. I wonder if the bales could be a host to bugs I don’t want. Or perhaps the bugs are just coming from our garden. Anybody have any issues with bugs in the bales?

    • Emily, I had slugs in my bales. I think I have solved the problem by placing little rings of crushed eggshells and sandpaper as “mechanical” barriers around the affected plants. Copper mesh or tubing works too…you can google it.

    • Hi Jason–we’re in Los Angeles, and this straw bale garden is the most successful garden we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, our planting dates are very different than yours. I’d suggest seeking out planting date information from your local extension service/Master Gardeners.

  8. I am new to straw bail gardening & gardening in general & will be starting this year & was wondering how many plants per bail to plant everything. I have tomatoes, bell & banana peppers, bush beans, cucumbers, spinach, zucchini, yellow crook neck squash & sugar snap peas. The plants are already growing. Also, what would be the best layout to plant everything? I will have rows of 5 running North & South. Any help appreciated! THANKS!

    • As far as spacing goes I would recommend two tomato plants per bale and two squash plants per bale. The other plants you listed I’d probably do 3 or 4 per bale. Your layout is perfect, just make sure to leave enough room between the rows to access the plants.

  9. Another question: I have been conditioning my bales for 6 days now & checked to see if the bails were hot inside & they’re not even warm. Am I not watering enough? HELP PLEASE!!

    • My did not get hot either–but they worked fine. I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  10. So happy to see this!!!!
    I have straw bales that have been left outside for the past four months in the rains. They have some weeds and lots of black spindly mushrooms in them. R these mushrooms poisonous? How do I know if they have decomposed enough to plant? I was planning on adding a Nitrogen fertilizer, but how do I know when they r ready?
    Thank you!!!

  11. Addition to last comment:
    The straw has already turned a dark grayish color.
    Also, has anyone had a problem with gophers going under and into the bales?
    I don’t want to Lay wires under each row…..

  12. First year for a straw bale garden and things are growing well, but some issues. Peppers are yellowing and not as vigorous as expected. Bush beans are a flowerless jungle. Any suggestions.

  13. Hi! Please help! :)I planted my straw bale garden am Having some serious problems:( all my seeds stop growing after a few leaves and the transplants will not grow, almost at all, and are yellowing. The cucumbers have turned light yellow/ white. The transplants are really skraggily and tight. The only bales that are thriving are the few that have fallen apart… I followed all the conditioning directions and have no idea why all my plants are unable to grow. (lack of oxygen for decomposition in the tight bales?) also it has been in the 100 s and dry all summer. The bales ate on a drip system. There are tons of mushrooms and I have fertilized twice since planting and still no improvement…. Advice greatly appreciated. Thank you

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