How to grow veggies in straw bales

I spent a day last week working in the Greenbrier County WVU Extension Master Gardeners Exhibition Garden at the State Fair. I love the fair, and I have so much fun visiting the children who come through the garden.

As always, the Greenbrier Master Gardeners create a garden that is blue ribbon worthy. Yes, the famous zinnias were in full bloom and provided a backdrop for numerous photos. The Pink Diamond hydrangeas were tall and waving their white tops to everyone in the garden. The Lord Baltimore hibiscus with dinner-plate-sized red blooms seemed to get the most oohs and aahs. No wonder: this hibiscus is hardy in Greenbrier County and is a stunner year after year.

The flowers were beautiful, but this year the vegetable garden held my interest. There were trellised melon vines in the high tunnel, where the melons themselves were growing in expandable nets. I have never seen this before, but the nets tied to the trellis help support the weight of the melons on the vines as they grow vertical — such a clever solution to melons pulling vines down.

As you entered the raised beds vegetable section, there were the most beautiful tomato plants. If you took a closer look, you noticed they were planted in straw bales. Yep, straw bales.

I had seen this once before with green peppers during a house and garden tour and I was as fascinated then as I was last week at the Fair. Lucky for me, Tricia was working that day, too. She is the local expert on straw bale gardening and was willing to give me a tutorial on the “how-to” of growing vegetables in straw bales.

Let’s start with the basics. You want a straw bale, not a hay bale. Hay is grass and such that is dried and bundled. Straw is the shaft that remains after grains such as oats, wheat or barley have been removed or thrashed. Meaning, hay was weeds that could germinate and spread; straw does not.

When you have your straw bales, place them in a sunny spot. Take a minute to put the cut side up; this will make for better water absorption. This garden will need a lot of water. Make that a consideration when choosing your location.

Give yourself 10-12 days to prepare your bales for planting.

Thoroughly water the bale, then place fertilizer with high nitrogen content on top and water it into the straw. A quick reminder: nitrogen is the first number on the label; phosphorus and potassium are the other two.

After a few days, when you feel the bale getting warm, add a couple of inches of potting soil or compost on top. You are almost ready to plant.

This might be a good time to develop your trellis system. Remember, one of the big advantages of straw bale gardening is the accessibility of the plants. You want them to grow vertically. Installing a trellis, cattle panels (this is what the Fair garden uses), or a wire stretched between poles is important. Also, be sure the system is anchored in the ground, not just the bale, which could risk toppling over in the wind.

Ideal plants for bale gardening are tomatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, cucumbers, and zucchini, but I would not limit my choices. I say go for it and try anything. Simply use your trowel to make a small hole in the top of the bale and insert seeds or plants.

Other advantages to straw bale gardening are that you don’t need a big field to grow a garden. The bales can be put on any surface, including a patio, driveway, or raised bed frames, because the plants grow in the bales, not the ground beneath. The bale garden will grow on clay or rocks — no need to worry about having the soil tested and amended.

Most straw bales only last one year, maybe two if you’re lucky. After harvest, you can use the straw as mulch (remember it is weed-free) or add it to your compost pile.

Think you might want to try straw bale gardening in the spring? If so, a good reference book to check out is “Straw Bale Gardens Complete,” by Joel Karston. This is the go-to manual for the exact amounts of fertilizer and timing of watering. With a bit of work up front, your bales will yield a maintenance-free garden throughout the season.