Learning to Grow: Straw bale gardening an ideal family project

Are you looking for a family gardening project? Look to straw bale gardening.

Gardening with bales is great if you are short on space. Some people garden exclusively with bales because weeding is reduced, no digging is involved, and you don’t have to bend over. Find straw bales at your local garden center or feed store.

Do you want to grow leafy vegetables or herbs? Then put your bale where it gets at least six hours of sun. How about tomatoes or beans? Flowers? Your bale will need at least eight hours of sun for good production.

For root crops like potatoes or beets, watch out for critters who may burrow into the bale and eat your harvest. Set the bale on a sidewalk, driveway, patio or mulched area – grass will die under a bale. Make sure the bale’s string is along the sides, and the cut ends of the straw are on top.

Plants won’t grow in a fresh straw bale because straw doesn’t provide nutrients. You’ll need about two weeks to condition the bale so that plants will grow. You’ll do this by feeding the bacteria that already are living in the bale. Give them high-nitrogen fertilizer, either conventional (ammonium sulfate) or organic (urea). The well-fed bacteria break down the straw inside the bale into nutrient-rich compost.

You can find many versions of this recipe online, but basically, on some days you add fertilizer to the bale and on others you deeply water the bale. That’s it. Here’s a simple plan from the University of Illinois Extension (https://aces.illinois.edu/news/straw-bale-gardening).

Day 1-3 Water the bale until it is saturated.

Day 4-6 Sprinkle ½ cup urea or 1 cup ammonium sulfate on top of each bale, and water until most of the fertilizer has disappeared.

Day 7-9 Use ½ the amount of fertilizer, and water as above.

Day 10-11 Water the bale until it is saturated.

Day 12 Ready to plant.

For transplants, make holes into your bale and plant as you would in the ground. You can even plant on the sides. For seeds, plant into a 2-inch layer of soil that you first add on top. Water regularly, and check monthly to see if plants need fertilizing. A bale may last two growing seasons, then it can be used for mulch or compost in your landscape.

Have fun this spring with straw bale gardening!

• Sue Styer is a University of Illinois Extension Kane County master gardener. Email the extension office at uiemg-kane@illinois.edu for more information.