May 24, 2022

Down the Garden Path: Guest columnist series – Benefits of straw bale gardening

Editor’s note: As of April 29, Richard Hentschel has retired from University of Illinois Extension with nearly 30 years of service as a horticulture specialist and educator in northern Illinois. As this growing season begins, a selection of qualified Extension guest columnists will occupy this space. In time, another Extension educator will join our communities and likely continue this column, a long-standing Kendall County tradition.

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. You can 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 such as 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 the plants will grow. You do this by feeding the bacteria already 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 you add fertilizer to the bale on some days and on others you deeply water the bale. That’s it. Here’s a simple plan from the University of Illinois Extension:

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 half 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. Learn more at

Have fun with this spring with straw bale gardening.

Have questions for the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners? You can call, email, or visit during the growing season. Learn more about connecting with the Kendall County Master Gardener Help Desk at, or call or visit during office hours: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at 630-553-5823 or at 7775-B Route 47, Yorkville.