Straw bales have many uses – as seats, as compost bins, as borders to a garden to keep out rabbits. On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. People still do this today to create sheds, barns, homes and even churches, and they provide great insulating walls – and are no more a fire hazard than wood.
If you don’t have the wood or time to build regular garden beds, you could plant a garden directly inside your bales.
First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales, or add urine in whatever way will not upset your neighbours.
After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw.
The best straw bales for a garden are wheat, oats, rye or barley straw. These consist of stalks left from harvesting grain; they have been through a combine harvester and had the seeds threshed from them, leaving none or very few left. I got mine from a farmer in Maynooth who still uses the small bales.
Hay bales for gardening are less popular as they have the whole stalk and seed heads with mucho seeds. They also often have other weeds and grass seeds to cause trouble. Use what you can get locally — it may even be lucerne, pea straw, vetch or alfalfa bales. Corn and linseed (flax) bales are not so good as they are very coarse, and linseed straw takes a long time to decompose due to the oil residue left on the stalks.
An approach like this is not for everyone – it requires a great deal of water, which was not a problem for me, who lives along the canals. Other people might find it too much trouble. But it can allow elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests. It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it cuts down on the amount of weeding.
Most of all, this approach can work well for homeowners with what I call suburban soil: a thin layer of grass and topsoil, covering clay and builders’ rubble from the construction of the house. Such people need to build up their soil, and straw bales allow you to bring in the organic material to do so – and straw makes a light and easily portable material.
By the time your gardening project is done for the year, the straw bales will be well-decomposed, and you can simply take apart the soil and wet straw and spread it over your garden as winter approaches. The straw will keep weeds down like mulch, but unlike mulch is already partly decomposing and will finish turning back into soil quickly, and can be mixed with the rest of the soil come spring.
If you’re just starting to garden, try doing this with bales the first year, and that gives you an additional year to build wooden or stone beds; by the time they’re done, you have the soil to fill them. In effect, you will have created soil without having to lift the mineral and water content that comprises most of the soil’s weight.
Photo by Mohamed Haddi, courtesy of WikiCommons.