How to build a Straw Bale bed
We love our Straw bale beds!
You can make a lot of composty-loamy-top soil in only 2 yearsand it really helps you to clear property and make things look fairly tidy in a quick way.
Tricks and tips for building Straw Bale beds.
We’ve been using straw-bale beds for years. We have learned a great deal by trial and error and we’ve read so much about how others have done it. The following is a re-cap of what we’ve learned.
Use straw bales… NOT HAY BALES!
Hay bales contain far more seed than straw. Straw has had most of the seeds removed. We prefer barley straw because it is finer and breaks down faster.*Use DRY straw bales to build your bed. Wet straw bales can weigh 200 – 300 pounds. Yes, we learned this… from experience; the hard way.*If you won’t be building the bed before the next rain, be sure to cover them with a water proof tarp.*If you don’t have covered storage it is great to store the bales as close to where you will be building the bed as possible..
Organic is best if you can find a reasonably-priced source.
*If organic straw isn’t available, find a source of straw where it has NOT been sprayed with long residual chemicals; that’s chemicals that stay active in the soil for years and years (like Clopyralid and Tordon, even Round-up lasts much longer than originally thought).*Long residual Ag. Chemicals in straw or hay can be readily transferred to your garden soil when the straw breaks down and in turn, will kill or severely damage your plants for years.
Lay the bales on their sides so the two strings show. Place the knots of the straw bale strings or wires on the outside of the bed so that when the straw is ready to be spread and tilled into the ground (two or three years, depending on the type of straw) you can cut the knot and pull the string without resistance.
Originally, we placed bales across the bed every 20 feet or so. *You can see this in one of the photos. We no longer use cross bales because both sides of the cross bale was wet, the slugs loved that area and would eat the plants closest to the cross bar bale.
Save and recycle all your cardboard (except the shiny, picture type) to be used as the first or bottom layer of the bed. The shiny type doesn’t break down well. Ideally, we use the largest pieces we can find and place the straw bales on top of the end/edge of the cardboard pieces. Small boxes and chunks of cardboard are great too but add those on top of a uniform layer of cardboard on the bottom of the bed. Make the best use of what you have to cover as much of the bottom of the bed as possible.
Our favorite method is to use a sod cutting machine to remove the sod around our new garden space so we don’t have to dig it up by hand. We then turn the sod over so the dirt side is up and use the sod in building the straw bale beds. It breaks down into a nice fine peat type of texture. Of course, there is a rental fee to consider and a sod cutter is one “mean” machine to work with! Hard on the old bod!
Now you’re ready to build the layers.
*Remember to water each layer before putting on the next one.
- 1. On top of the cardboard layer you might add a few layers of paper. You can use newspaper, more cardboard, old tax records and any paper that isn’t shiny. We use whatever we have and add no paper at all on the cardboard when we dont have any. The bigger/thicker things that take longer to compost go on the bottom layer. As we clean up our forest we put broken pieces of branches and roots (all smaller than 1 inch in diameter), wood chips and pine cones in this bottom layer. You can also use corn stalks in this layer.
- 2. Next add a layer of green; grass clippings, Kale stalks, extra straw or bedding, hedge trimmings, manures and even things like cat tails, duck weed and pond scum. *We may use green fresh manure in this lowest layer ONLY. All other manures in our straw bale beds, as well as all of the manures we use in other areas of the garden are well composted (one year, or more).
- 3. Begin alternating layers of manure, compost, sawdust, peat moss, leaves, pine and fir needles, chicken or duck bedding or any kind of rakings. Sod and wood ashes (thin layers of wood ashes) also go nicely here. *Remember to place the sod grass-side down. If we are breaking down another compost bin we’ll put the stuff that hasn’t been totally composted yet into this layer as well.
If you have soil amendments spread a few handfuls on this layer. We’ve used kelp, shale minerals, dolomite, old alfalfa pellets and a bit of molasses flakes to get the bed cooking. The soil organisms really like the molasses flakes, or so we’ve read. If you don’t have any soil amendments then don’t worry about it. We often don’t add any and those beds still work great! We have a healing business so often will put into the straw bale beds expired herbs, spices and nutritional supplements as well. (Not medications).
Now add a very thin layer of any kind of soil you have. Once the straw bale bed is filled about half way consider adding some earthworms (if you have them). Red worms are our first choice.
Next add a thin layer of sand… if you have it. It is fine if you don’t.
Then, it’s time for another layer of green plant materials. We put our dead-headed flowers in these beds and also add in kitchen compost.
Keep alternating layers until you fill to the top of the straw bales. Really heap it on. Pile it high!
We’ve used many kinds of manure including; chicken, duck, horse, cattle and rabbit. We don’t/wouldn’t use pig, dog, cat or human manure where we are growing edible plants as these manures harbor parasites humans can ingest and cause illness later on.
The final layer should be 2-3 inches of compost and soil, as you’re going to plant in this layer in a couple of weeks. After a week or two the straw bale bed will have heated up and cooled down enough to plant in it.*We often build our straw bale beds in late fall so they have composted all winter and are ready for early spring plantings.
PLANTING IN THE BED
We have found planting seedlings/plant starts (rather than direct planted seeds) works best. We often make the hole slightly larger and add a handful of compost before putting the transplants in the hole.
We place quick hoops on the top of the bed and cover them with row cover. The row cover is kept on until it’s time to harvest (as that helps keep bugs out, heat in and protects from early season weather changes) or until that time when the plants have grown too tall to be covered any longer. If you’re growing melons they will often cascade over the edges. It’s nice to have your row cover handy to cover your beds prior to hail storms.
Every time you water the bed, water the straw bales.
Once you harvest your first set of crops, the bedding materials will need to be replenished with more layers. Often the original bedding materials have composted and shrunk to half their height the first season.
You may go ahead and add more layers in the fall or wait until the following spring just prior to planting for the second season.
When you can kneel on the bale and it collapses, the bed is ready to be dis-assembled and spread about the garden and may then be tilled into the soil. You may want to pull the bale flakes apart and fill in any low spots in the garden. At this point we use some of the newly created straw bale compost to fill pots in preparation for potting up shrubs, trees and perennials. There is so much compost left over that taking a bit out for your pots won’t even matter. Now spread the left overs all around and til them in.
If you’re using bales of straw tied with wire, be sure to put all your wires in the trash as soon as you remove them. *Bale string goes into the trash, as well. Remove ALL baling wire prior to tilling because those wires are the same color as the soil and… they are VERY hard to remove from rototiller tines. Also ruminant animals may eat bailing wire pieces causing them severe health challenges (Hardware Disease.) Animals can get the wires caught around their legs and receive deep cuts.
We think you’ll love your straw bale beds as much as we do. Have fun!