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Straw Bale Gardening

By Pat Banks, Phase I Fellow

Attending Allegheny Mountain Institute has given me the opportunity to pursue experiments and interests that I may not have had the time or space for in the past. Both of these amenities are in abundance up here on the mountain. This has allowed me to experiment with an idea that I find very interesting: straw bale gardening.

Straw bale gardening was pioneered by a man named Joel Karsten who noticed flowers and other plants growing out of his old straw bales one year and thought, “why not try growing vegetables out of them as well?” Joel went on to write a how-to book called Straw Bale Gardens in order to give readers and potential gardeners a step-by-step guide on how to properly begin straw bale gardening.

In straw bale gardening, the biggest hurdle to jump is how to properly “condition” your bales: Conditioning your bales means speeding up the decomposition of the straw inside the bale to allow for compost and nutrients to form and give plants ideal growing conditions. Essentially, you’re just beginning the cooking process of the straw and giving a nice mushy environment for plants flourish. There are many theories behind the best way to condition bales, but they all basically boil down to soaking your bales with water for a day, and then applying and watering-in high nitrogen fertilizer. (I used blood meal with a ratio of 1 cup per bale). After doing this for 14-18 days, you will have optimal conditions for your straw bales.

Bales during conditioning

One of the many benefits of straw bale gardening is the ability to grow vegetables without soil; you can grow food in cities, on patios, in driveways and on rooftops. Green space and lush soil are not necessary; as long as there access to water and at least 6-8 hours of sunlight, you can grow plants out of straw bales.

Another perk is that straw bales are essentially a raised bed. Straw bales allow for less bending and strain on the back, which gives people who may not be able to traditionally garden on the ground with another avenue to pursue. Instead of spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a raised bed garden system, you could simply purchase straw bales that are both more economically and environmentally practical. It takes years before straw bale gardening becomes more expensive than installing a raised bed. Even then, your straw bale will turn into compost that you can use, whereas with raised beds you may have to continue purchasing compost and soil to keep your soil quality high. So, in the end, with straw bale gardening, you are saving money and mother earth.

Planting into conditioned beds

Growing out of straw bales also provides many perks over a traditional garden. A straw bale gardener can have an earlier jump on the season with plants that require hotter soil temperatures, such as tomatoes and eggplants. While a traditional garden will have to wait for optimal soil temperatures as the earth warms up in the spring, straw bales are at optimal temperatures for any heat intensive plant after they are properly conditioned. With straw bales, there is also opportunity for intensive growing. Not only can you plant closer on the top of the bale, you can also plug in vegetables, flowers and herbs into the sides.

While I may not be an expert straw bale gardener, I’ve watched my bales begin to flourish and I can’t help but imagine the potentials for this gardening strategy in landscapes and areas where soil or accessibility are limiting factors. I believe straw bale gardening has a place in the gardening community. I look forward to spreading the knowledge that I am able to obtain here at AMI, both into my Phase II placement, and into my future communities as well.

If you’re looking for more information, or want to see how my garden progresses throughout the season, feel free to shoot me an email at

Mary-Ellen takes notes on the bales' progress

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