Straw Bale Gardening With Herbs

Straw Bale Garden Photo
If you want a nice raised bed but don't have the time, resources or energy to invest in cultivating it, there may be a fast, fun solution that can help. If you're having back problems that are keeping you from enjoying your garden plot, then getting some easy elevation on the problem may be just what you need too.

Straw bale gardening is a version of hydroponic gardening for outdoors. It uses bales of mixed grasses, straw or hay as a growing medium. Add water and high nitrogen fertilizer to speed bale prep, and you've got a perfect spot for herbs, vegetables and annual flowers. Just choose low growing species to keep things from getting out of hand.

If you think the setup will look ugly, there are worse things to be cluttering up the garden. For a little camouflage, choose herb ground covers like thyme or woodruff, or annual flowers, and grow them up the sides of the bales.

You can grow two tomato or sage plants, or three cucumber, basil or squash plants per bale. You can even plant seeds directly into the bales.

How to Start a Straw Bale Herb Garden

Here's how it works:

Lay out bales in a geometric configuration that will allow you to move between them easily. Once in place, saturate the bales with water for a few days. A week isn't too long. Add a high nitrogen fertilizer in two applications over the next week, watering daily. As a general rule, use a half cup of ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, or organic fertilizer (yes, you can go organic) on a bale for the first application and a quarter cup for the second application. Oh, you can also use blood meal.

The bales will heat up, which is a good thing. The heat tells you the process is working. Once the temperature starts to drop, you know the bales are almost ready to go. The whole process will take 10 days to two weeks.

When the temperature drops to something close to the soil temperature, dress the bales with potting or tops soil to a depth of a couple of inches and you're ready to plant. Just rough up the tops of the bales, or make wells on the surface to give plant roots a jump-start.

Over the course of the season, worms will work the soil under the bales, making it a better growing medium next year. Your plants will have a relatively bacteria free and naturally elevated substrate to grow on. It's a tidy solution.

You can even place bales on top of concrete or brick. You lose the benefits of improving your soil, but if you've always wanted a garden instead of that concrete slab, it's an effective method that bypasses having to invest in innumerable small pots that need to be watered twice a day during hot weather.

Tips and Tricks for Herb Gardening with Straw Bales

Don't wet bales and then try to move them. They get heavy.

If you use hay, you'll have to invest some time in removing sprouting hay seeds. It's part of the process.

Make sure the temperature in the bale has dropped before you proceed with the planting process.

Because the plants get their nutrition from what you put in the bale and not the straw itself, keep the setup uniformly moist and fertilized throughout the season.

The conditions your herbs or vegetables like in dirt is what they'll want when they're planted in straw. If they like sun, then situate the bale in good light. If they like shade . . . likewise.

After a few seasons, the bales will break down naturally and become part of the garden.

Great Plants for a Straw Bale Garden:

Vegetables for a Straw Bale Garden:


Some Easy Herbs for a Straw Bale Garden:


Nice Herbs to Grow Along the Sides of a Straw Bale:

Creeping Thyme
Sweet Woodruff

For more complete information about starting and maintaining a straw bale garden, I set up a blog to record my experiences.  I think you'll find it useful. Straw Bale Gardening

Photo courtesy of Make Me Smile. Visit her straw bale gardening and other projects at her flicker page.


  1. We grew toms, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe and zukes in bales last year - worked a peach! The one thing we did figure out was that we had to wrap them in plastic or they dried out waaaay too fast from all our summer heat and wind.

  2. Tina,

    Thanks so much for stopping by. The idea of adding cantaloupe and watermelon sounds like a really neat option if watering isn't going to be an issue.


  3. Anonymous4:58:00 PM

    I really want to try this in one raised bed that is soggy all spring. It will be easier than trying to make the bed higher with timber.
    My husband says he is worried that fire ants will invade the hay bales. Any suggestions?

  4. Laurie,

    I've read that fire ants dislike cinnamon and are repelled by diatomaceous earth. You might try placing a layer of diatoms under the bales and then treating the area with cinnamon. Diatomaceous earth is used in aquarium filters, among other things.

    Hope this helps. If anyone has a more sure fire solution, please let us know.


  5. Anonymous10:43:00 PM

    Thanks for the suggestions. I'll try both. I hate fire ants!

  6. Anonymous3:53:00 PM

    I am wondering if I can grow vegetables in straw bales if I cannot eat gluten. Any ideas?

  7. This is not my area, but I would think that if you used a grass variety that doesn't pose problems for folks with Celica Disease (or gluten intolerance) you'd be in the clear.

  8. I have some raised beds, mix vegetanles, fruit trees and flowers and also grow on the lawn....and the most successful....the straw bale bed with some dirt in the middle...sitting on a brick paved area. I have lots of bitumen and am tempted to do it over with straw bale beds.

  9. Stephanie4:45:00 PM

    Coeliacs do not need to worry about planting their herbs in straw or even any grasses at all as they are not ingesting (eating) the straw or grass, simply the herbs or vegetables they have planted. My partner is a coeliac and he uses lots of straw in his vegetable garden. Even without that knowledge though, it is simply common sense. Good luck with your straw bale gardens. Sounds like a great idea.

  10. Anonymous11:00:00 AM

    We live in a high desert mountain area, we have planted a strawbalw garden and everything was going beautifully, but over the last week insects have been eating all my sprouting plants down to nothing. I sparyed anything that was left with a Garlic repellent that I bought from Arbico (which in the past has worked great on my roses and fruit trees) Unfortunately this morning everything was gone. Any help would be appreciated. :(

    1. Not sure when you posted this - the blog page doesn't have a date. I also live in the high desert - 3400'. You need to employ a Neem program, starting when the plants have 3 permanent leaves. You can now get organic neem on the net. If you follow a judicious program of spraying EACH week for five weeks, you will not have this happening. However, if you have an extra long season like I do in California - this has to be done again in August - for five weeks. Because neem disrupts the insects ability to chew, it starts chewing and then stops. Neem also disrupts their ability to reproduce - this is why it is so important not to miss even one time of the five week schedule. Spraying must be done in weather below 80 degrees. In the hot summer I get up before sunrise. This small amount of work reaps huge benefits. Any problems or questions, anyone can email me at riverpinballwizard @ yahoo dot comm

  11. That's dreadful! I'm so sorry. It's early enough in the season in many areas for you to start again though. Treat the bales with an all-purpose insecticide like Malathion that can eradicate of many pests. Try spraying in the evening because quite a few pest varieties, including cutworms (which can be a problem in straw), feed late in the evening or at night. Consider spraying on a regular schedule for a couple of weeks to take care of pests and their hatching eggs, too. Making this decision can be a struggle, I know. Killing a bad pest infestation usually means killing beneficial insects like bees too. With any luck your biggest problems with pests will be over for the season after one round of spraying.

    Good luck and please let us know how it goes.


Share some ideas.