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MELINDA MYERS: Create a Garden Anywhere with Straw Bale Gardening

Add productive garden space and raise your planting bed with straw bale gardening. This technique allows you to create a raised bed garden on the patio, lawn, or poor compacted soil. Straw bale gardening has been around for centuries, but thanks to Joel Karsten’s book Straw Bale Gardens it has gained new popularity.

All you need are a few straw bales, fertilizer, a bit of compost and time to condition, plant and water your garden.

Purchase straw bales made from alfalfa, wheat, oats, rye or other cereal that have less weed seeds than hay. Start a few weeks before you plan to start planting.

Place bales in their permanent location with the cut sides up and twine parallel to the ground. When you start the condition process, they become very heavy and hard to move. Once the bales are in place, you are ready to start the conditioning process. This is done to start the inside of the straw bales composting, so they will support plant growth.

Day one spread fertilizer over the tip of the bale.  Use one half cup of a complete garden fertilizer or three cups of an organic fertilizer, like Milorganite.  The organic fertilizers feed the microorganisms that help decompose the straw into a nutrient rich planting medium. Now thoroughly moisten the bale with water.

Continue to thoroughly soak the bale every day. On days three and five you will also add more fertilizer at the same rate used on day one.

Days seven through nine use half the rate used on day one. This would be one quarter cup of a complete garden fertilizer or one and a half cups of an organic fertilizer. And once again thoroughly water the bale.

On day ten you will add one cup of 10-10-10 or three cups of an organic fertilizer rich in phosphorous and potassium.  This completes the conditioning process.

Bales treated with a complete fertilizer should be ready to plant. You will likely need to wait a few more days when using an organic fertilizer.  The inside of the bale should be the temperature of warm bath water or cooler. If it is hotter than this, wait for the bale to cool a bit before planting.

Use a trowel to pry open a hole in the bale. Place the transplant in the hole and cover the roots with potting mix or compost.

Create a planting bed for seeds by covering the bale with a one- to two-inch-thick layer of planting mix. Follow the planting directions on the back of the seed packet.

Regular watering is critical for success with this method. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation make this an easier task. You can also use gallon milk jugs with holes in the bottom or inverted 2-liter soda bottles placed near the base of each plant to provide water where it is needed.

Give your straw bale garden a nutrient boost about once a month or as needed throughout the growing season.

You are on your way to growing a productive straw bale garden to enjoy throughout the season.

Melinda Myers has written more than 20 gardening books, including The Midwest Gardener’s Handbook and Small Space Gardening. She hosts The Great Courses “How to Grow Anything” DVD series and the nationally-syndicated Melinda’s Garden Moment TV & radio program. Myers is a columnist and contributing editor for Birds & Blooms magazine. Her web site is

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