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Straw Bale Gardening

Vegetable gardening without soil

By Pat Morgan ©2016
Penn State Master Gardener

Straw bale gardening is generating excitement in the edible gardening world partly because it’s soil-free, so there is little danger from soil pathogens.

straw bale garden

There are several other advantages to raised-bed gardening in partially composted straw bales

• Easily accessible beds are 2 to 4 feet high depending on the number of bales stacked for planting. That makes them easy to tend from a sitting position.

• No tilling and minimal weeds.

• After bales are conditioned, the growing media stays around 85 degrees, giving gardeners a head start on seed planting and seedling transplants.

• The bales can be placed on balconies, decks or pavement.

• Low cost. Bales are less than $10 apiece. Fertilizer costs vary.

• Bales can be composted at the end of the garden season.


How to start a straw bale garden

• Purchase tight bales of oat or wheat straw from local farm or nursery supply vendors. Straw is greatly preferred to hay, which has lots more weed seeds. Tight bales compost more slowly and provide a longer growing season.

• Choose a site with at least six hours of sun per day during the growing season.

• Place several layers of newspaper on the soil under the bales to prevent weeds from colonizing the bale.

• Provide water and a nitrogen source to start the “cooking” or composting process.

• Bales should be thoroughly watered for the first three days.

• After the initial watering, keep the straw moist but avoid getting to the point of run-off.

• On days 4-6, sprinkle a high-nitrogen fertilizer over the bale to accelerate “cooking.” Fertilizer recommendations vary, but typically ½ cup per day is the recommended rate.

• Reduce the fertilizer to Ό cup on days 7-9.

• Once composting begins in earnest, the bales can reach temperatures up to 105 degrees. Once they cool to about 85 degrees, they are ready to plant.

Synthetic fertilizers such as urea or ammonium sulfate can be used as well as organic options like blood or feather meal. A balanced fertilizer containing phosphorous and potassium can be added on the final day of conditioning.

The combination of heat and microbial, worm and insect activity produces a rich, fertile, organic medium for roots to thrive. Early spring conditioning gives gardeners a 30-degree advantage over soil temperatures in late April and early May, which average 50 degrees in the Pittsburgh area.

Some gardeners have reported that cooler than normal spring temperatures may require extra time for the cooking process to complete. Continue to keep the bales moist and monitor the internal temperature prior to planting.


Any annual that can be grown in soil will thrive in bales, including vegetables, herbs and ornamentals. Summer bulbs and root crops can also be planted in bales, including the sides. Tomatoes and other vining plants can be trellised above the bales and row covers and hoops can be used for season extension. “Straw” berries can be treated as annuals, then overwintered and transplanted into new bales.

Seeds or seed tapes, especially for cool-season crops, can be planted in a tamped-down, 1- to 2-inch layer of sterile or soilless planting mix with slow-release fertilizer added. Do not use garden soil as it may introduce weed seeds or pathogens to the bales.

Seedlings should be removed from pots, including peat pots, to maximize root growth. Cover all exposed roots with the sterile mix, and use this mix to fill in the planting hole.

In the Edible Teaching Garden at 400 N. Lexington St., Penn State Master Gardeners have grown vegetables in garden soil and bales. Straw bale plants had two or three times longer roots, up to 36 inches, than plants in normal beds. Bales saw reduced weeds and minimal tomato blight and allowed diverse crops to be intensively planted.

Watering was our major challenge at the garden site. Our 2016 trial will test two sources of irrigation: a solar-powered soaker hose system and an ancient low-tech system of using ollas-embedded, water-filled clay pots.

Allegheny County Master Gardeners will be hosting a free workshop on straw bale gardening on Monday from 6 to 7 p.m. at the Edible Teaching Garden. Information:


Master Gardeners have used the protocols detailed by horticulturalist Joel Karsten in his book, “Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding” and “Straw Bale Gardens Complete


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