Straw Bale Gardening Question

Today, a customer writes: “I’m interested in creating straw bale gardens this year.  Many web sites instruct one to use ammonium nitrate to prepare the bale but
yours does not.  Does your method prepare the bale for planting
tomatoes and eggplant or just mainly salad greens?  I prefer not to
use ammonium nitrate but at the same time want to prepare the bales
properly for tomatoes.”……see my reply below

I’ve seen the recommendations for ammonium nitrate but have never liked the idea or tried it. Place the bale where it will remain and really soak it down and keep it wet for a week to ten days. The bale will heat up and then cool down in this period when it becomes ready for planting. If you are planting eggplant, peppers or tomatoes place a scoop of compost and fertilizer in the planting hole. Cover with a little potting soil to prevent any burning of the roots.
The greens will grow in compost or potting soil on the surface and then send their roots down. Peas and Beans need legume inoculant for best performance. I’ve never tried to plant carrots or parsnips but the third years the bales break down sufficiently to produce  a nice crop of potatoes.
Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teeming With Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web tells me that using an application of compost tea at planting time will produce stronger plants and more nutrients will be released from the straw. I shall be using compost tea this year. Also, I will be fertilizing a little more frequently than in past years.

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13 Responses

  1. I’m very much a novice gardener and have decided to try my hand at straw bale gardening this year. I’m documenting everything I do in a blog. I’d really like to stick to organic methods, but I’m not sure if I will or not. Any suggestions or comments are welcome!

  2. Glad to hear you are giving the bales a try. I can’t think of any reason to not grow with organic methods on your bales. I most certainly see no reason to use massive amounts of pure nitrogen as sometimes is recommended. Follow my basic instructions, use a little compost and a good all-around organic fertilizer. For tomatoes you will want to switch to tomato specific when plants begin flowering. As I mentioned before it is possible to skimp too much on the fertilizer and try to set up a small drip irrigation system and then give them a good soak once a week.

  3. Hi, I’m also a novice straw bale gardener and I had the same question as the previous person concerning the ammonium nitrate. I didn’t want to use it either, so now I will skip this step. It appears from your answer that watering for about 10 days before planting is all I need to do. Then compost, fertilize and plant. Another question I had is about using lime for tomoatoes and peppers. I have always used a good treatment of lime on my tomatoes to reduce the black spots, but I do not see anything listed in articles about this typeof gardening. Is it good or bad to use lime when gardening with straw bales?

    Can you recommend or point me to more information about straw bale gardening in general? We want to also grow some squash, zuchinni and peppers and I was wondering if any of these requires a different process.

    • Lime will also protect tomatoes from blossom end rot. Your peppers, zucchini and other squash will all produce on straw bales. Feed with a balanced fertilizer and use compost or compost tea if available. Peppers in particular are much more productive when fertilized.

  4. Hello David,
    there isn;t a lot of information written about straw bale gardening. Most of the older writers were more oriented to a pretty heavy dose of chemicals which as we’ve discussed seem unnecessary. You are correct, the deep soaking of the bales is important prior to planting. You can grow all the vegetables you list above in straw bales. I haven;t found it necessary to use lime because it takes several months for it be utilized by plants. I would suggest you start saving your eggshells and run them through the blender, mix in wiht good compost and fertilzer and place in the planting holes. See next post about bloom end rot on tomatoes.

    • Rose Marie, thanks so much for your help concerning the blosom end rot problem. I’ll try using the crushed egshells when I plant.

      Tell me, how often do you water your bales once they are planted and starting to grow? I don’t want them to dry out, but I am also afraid of over watering them.

  5. HI,
    This is my first year for straw bale gardening. I prepared my straw bales for growing tomatoes by watering well, adding Garden Tone, worm castings and compost over a few weeks. At planting time I scooped out an area of straw and added compost, worm castings, Garden Tone fertilizer. My tomatoes are looking a little sad. One has a purple cast to it with light purple veining and the other has spots on its bottom leaves. I’ve been using a hydroponic formulated fertilizer called Flora Nova 7-4-10 plus 4% cal. and 1.5% mag. once a week for three weeks and also at planting time. Can I correct the purple veining? How? Should I fertilize the tomatoes in straw bale more often? Should I switch to a different fertilizer? Why do I have spots on the bottom leaves just three weeks after planting? Thank you for your help.

  6. Although I’m an experienced gardener, I’m new to staw bales. Everything looked great when it started out. Now…not so much. The 4 tomatoes haven’t grown an inch, the peppers are also the same size. The beans looked great to begin with, but now are turning yellow and dropping their leaves. At first I thought it was too much rain, but I don’t think so now. I used soil and a little aged manure when I planted. Any ideas?

    • Polly,
      I’ve had a similar experience with straw bales. Gardening is not new to me but I decided to try straw bales, well, just ‘cuz. Everything started out well, but nothing grew. It was like I had a miniature garden. Things just seemed stunted. So, what I’ve decided to do is to put some organic amendments in the bales (particularly heavy on the nitrogen), water them for several days, and then give it another go. I can’t find much information on straw bale gardening and a general internet search doesn’t help.

      • Tracy,
        I’m wondering if your bales were contaminated with the herbicide clopyralid. I’ve posted a little information on my latest post.
        Rose Marie

    • Hello Polly,
      I’m wondering if the problem with your straw bales was contamination from the herbicide clopyralid. Take a look at my latest post.

  7. do i have to use new bales or can i use those that have been weathered uncovered over the winter and already rotting?

  8. […] tend to use fertilizer more than I currently enjoy doing. More on that below. [Read More…] Straw Bale Gardening Question Posted on April 17, 2009 by Rose […]

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