Save those straw bales; grow vegetable plants in them next spring

straw bale gardening
You can place straw bales anywhere. The Kruzels have them in a garden bed in front of their house as well as along the driveway. You could even place them right on top of the driveway. Photo courtesy Gina and Tony Kruzel

by Connie Oswald Stofko

If you are using a straw bale in your autumn decorations, don’t throw it away! You can grow tomatoes and other vegetables in it next spring.

I saw photos of the technique called straw bale gardening on the Vegetable Gardeners of WNY Facebook page. I was delighted that Gina and Tony Kruzel allowed me to visit their Kenmore home early in October to see what they had done.

They decided to try straw bale gardening because their backyard is all shade, and vegetables need a lot of sun. The straw bales can be placed on any surface, so you can grow vegetables wherever you have sun– even in your driveway.

Another reason the Kruzels tried straw bale gardening is because they’re renting. They didn’t want to invest a lot of time, energy and money creating new garden beds that they would have to leave behind if they move. Straw bales are inexpensive; they cost $7 at Goodman’s Farm Market in Niagara Falls and are available throughout the year.

The straw bales are easy to move when they’re dry, but once they get wet, they’re quite heavy.

Tip: If you want to move the straw bales, Tony suggested setting the bales on pallets when they’re still dry. Then, when they’re wet, you can move them using a dolly or hand truck. How cool is this– Even if you moved to a new town partway through the growing season, you could take your garden with you!

straw bale gardening
The poles hold wires that act as a support for the tomato plants. You can also use regular tomato cages. Photo courtesy Gina and Tony Kruzel

Before you plant into the straw bale, you have to “condition” it. Two to four weeks before you want to plant, water the bale until it is soaked through. Then sprinkle the top with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The idea is to get the bale to start to decompose, the Kruzels said. You want to leave enough time for this step because the bale will get hot as it decomposes, and you have to wait for the bale to cool. If the temperature in the bale is too high when you add your plants, it could damage the plants.

Dig down into the bale just enough to make room for the root ball of your plant, Gina said.

Add a little soil. The Kruzels used about a third of a bag of soil for each bale. The roots of your plant will bind around the straw.

Feed the plants with fertilizer once a week.

You can find detailed instructions in a fact sheet on straw bale gardening at the Washington State University Extension website.

containers on steps growing vegetables
In addition to planters, the Kruzels use storage totes to grow even more vegetables. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

The bales will get weedy, sprouting grass and mushrooms, but they’re easy to pull out, the Kruzels said.

Gina thinks that mice may have been attracted to the bales, so that’s one downside to straw bale gardening.

You might get just one season out of the bales, but Tony thinks he will be able to reuse theirs again next year.

“We were looking for different ways to do container gardening,” Gina said.

In addition to the straw bales, the Kruzels have pots and plastic totes filled with vegetable plants lining their front steps. With just those containers and the straw bales, they harvested enough tomatoes to eat, use for sauce and freeze. They also harvested peppers, cucumbers, beans, dill and green onions. They even grew one watermelon, which is quite a feat with our short growing season.

“That’s not too bad for a container garden,” Gina said.

16 Comments on “Save those straw bales; grow vegetable plants in them next spring

  1. I live on Vancouver Island and we have a rainy wet winter for months. Can I get bales in the fall and leave them outside all winter before planting in the spring?

  2. Thanks for the tip to place dry bales on pallets so they can move easier once they’re wet. What a great idea and way to think ahead for when you need to move. I never would’ve thought to do this so I will definitely keep it in mind once I get a bale or two to make a garden out of.

  3. So I’ve been straw bale gardening for some time but because of health issues my bales had sat for 2 years. They are still straw, so if I just till them with compost and soil and plant on top am I going to have unbeknownst issues?

  4. Judi Vogan, yes you can reuse them. Sometimes if they are partially decomposed you need to reconnoiter them. I like to push two or three bales into one bale, then wrap his with chicken wire. Staple the overlapping ends of the wire onto a 3’ tall wood stake like a 2×2. Then twist that wood stake and this will squeeze the wire tightly around the straw “bale” and once tight pound the end of that stake into the ground to hold it from unwinding. This works well and makes a terrific “bale” for planting root crops like potatoes, carrots, beets and sweet potatoes. Just sprinkle a cup of nitrogen fertilizer on top to help replace nitrogen lost due to leaching from rain and snow, but no other conditioning is needed on a second season bale.

  5. Can I reuse the straw bales from last year’s straw tomato garden. Do I refertilize the old bales?

  6. I tried potatoes for the first time in straw bales…had only 6 bales. The potatoes were great. Clean and easy to harvest. I am going to triple the amount this year!

  7. If you’d like more information on this method of gardening, you can visit my website at where you can purchase a copy of “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” which is the second edition of my second book on the topic. The pamphlet mentioned in the article from the U of Washington has just enough information to get you in trouble. Get the whole story, so you don’t waste your whole summer and a number of bales and get little or no results.

    Donna: The straw isn’t straw for long, it becomes new soil, this is key and the reason mice are no more interested in a straw bale garden than in a regular garden.

    Martha: put down some hardware cloth wire, then put the bales on top and this will prevent the issues with moles or voles, which try to dig up from below.

    Carolyn and Connie: The bales of straw are wet, continuously during the first two weeks as they condition, then the inside is moist all year as it becomes new soil. Very little to no risk of fire, at least no more than dry grass would be.

  8. My first thought was what the neighbors would say in an urban area. Straw attracts rodents too when they are looking for warm comfy homes.

  9. That is another advantage that I didn’t mention in the article. A straw bale is a raised garden. It can be good for people who can’t bend over or kneel when they garden.

  10. Carolyn, I’m not sure about fire codes, either. I do see lots of people using straw bales as part of autumn decorations and I haven’t heard any cautions against that. In addition, the straws bales used in gardening are supposed to be kept wet, so the chances of them catching on fire would be slim. Thanks for your comment.

  11. In rural areas many people use bales of straw around their foundations as insulaation in the winter time, but in the city this could be a fire hazzard. I would be surprised if a fire department would condone this practice. Not sure, but this may be called an attractive nuisance.

    But, kept away from a residence, this seems like worthwhile project.

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