Alrighty, so you’ve obtained some straw bales, laid them out into the raised garden setup you would like, and spent the past 12 days watering them and sprinkling them with fertilizer.
(At this point, your neighbors, having witnessed you mysteriously watering straw bales, are probably starting to ask questions. This is perfectly normal. The decision to give straw bale gardening a try, as it turns out, often includes an implicit level of straw bale gardening evangelism as you explain what in the world you are doing. Do not be surprised if lots of people say “Oh I think I heard about that,” and maybe even imply that they are going to be keeping an eye on what you’re doing because they want to see how it works. For me, at least, this has ended up being a really great opportunity to get to meet several of my new neighbors. And since my boys are almost always out working with me on the bales, the connections and information on which families are around the neighborhood with kids their age came fast and furious. This was an unexpected bonus, and a welcome one!)
Anyhow, we’re to the point you’ve been waiting for, because it’s time to start planting!
Well, almost. Before you run off to the local nursery or garden supply store, I recommend you make a sketch of your garden and come up with a plan on what you want to grow, based on how much space you have to work with. Straw bales actually have some of the advantages of container or square-foot gardening in the ability to grow more in a smaller space than you might in the ground, so be creative. Your average bale is approximately 36″ by 14″ by 18″, but can be larger or smaller, so be sure to measure so you know for sure. Keep in mind that some things (such as herbs, or even decorative flowers like marigolds) can actually be grown out of the side of the bales, so you may have more space than you think.
You can plant just about anything in the bales, though some things might make less sense — corn, for instance, where an entire bale would only give you cobs from 2 or 3 stalks, or asparagus, that don’t produce a crop the first year they are planted.
Other than that? Go nuts, based on what you want. We have 21 bales in all (after conditioning the first 10, we ordered more when we saw how well it was working) and the list of what we have growing is very long (about 46 different things, in all), but a few examples include multiple varieties of tomato, pepper, squash, cucumbers, kale, onions, herbs, beans, peas, and potatoes.
There are two basic methods for planting in the bales: transplanting and seeding directly.
I’ll go over both methods, but I will say upfront that so far I have had much more success with transplants than with seeds. That is to say that just about every transplant has done well so far, while many of the seeds have either never germinated, or popped up nicely but struggled, died, or disappeared. That definitely may be inexperience, or hungry local critters, or too-cool early spring temperatures, or any of a number of reasons. But suffice to say, transplants seem to be far more fool-proof for this fairly inexperienced gardener. Your mileage may vary depending on what you are planting and your local conditions.
Transplanting is really quite easy. Just take a sturdy trowel, and dig/spread apart a hole large enough for the transplant’s root ball. Add some clean, sterile potting soil to the hole, then carefully push in the plant, and shore up around the base of the plant with additional potting soil. I’ve also taken to adding some loose straw that may have fallen out of the bale and spreading it around the base of the plant, as you would use straw to mulch in a traditional garden.
That’s it, really. Like any transplant, it will benefit from getting a watering shortly after being put in to the bale. The nice warm, moist rooting environment should help the plants get firmly established quickly.
Don’t forget that you can also transplant into the sides of the bales as well:
If you’d like to try sowing seeds directly, simply spread out an inch or two of sterile potting soil over the top of the bale, gently flatten down, and sow seeds to the depth and spacing according to the directions on the seed packet. The warm rooting environment below the potting soil should help the new sprouts establish quickly.
Whether you transplant or direct seed, unless the weather is already consistently warm they would do well with some sort of covering.
In the next part, I’ll go over constructing a simple but very practical trellis system for the bales, which has the advantage of the creation of a very effective cover/greenhouse to give your new plants a kickstart.