15 Reasons Why Straw Bale Gardening Was a Terrible Choice

I will never set up another straw bale garden.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a straw bale garden is a type of raised bed where you grow plants like vegetables directly into bales of conditioned straw.

The promised benefits are that this way of growing in bales is efficient, cheap, productive, and easy.

The reality is none of those things. It’s the opposite of them.

I found my experience of gardening and growing food this way difficult, costly, inefficient, and not sustainable in any capacity. I get angry thinking of the wasted time and effort.

I will never try this way of gardening again. It was a huge waste of time.

I do not recommend it to any gardener or homesteader.

1. Straw Bale Gardening is Expensive

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I don’t know what bales of straw cost in your area, but they’re barely cheaper than what the high-quality third-cut alfalfa hay I feed my sheep costs here.

With inflation and unpredictable gas (and therefore fertilizer) costs, they’re also not going down anytime soon.

Considering how limited you are with how many plants can fit per straw bale, you’re looking at spending way too much money each and every year, over and over again, if you want to grow significant amounts of food.

Although the upfront costs of high-quality raised beds may seem steep, you only pay once for years (or decades) of use.

My metal raised beds will last for over 20 years and cost very little over that period when those costs are calculated annually.

In the long run, straw bale gardening will be way more expensive for most people.

2. Straw Bales Are Limited For Planting Space

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You need a lot of straw bales to feed a family or even just yourself.

Again, that adds up in costs quickly and adds unnecessary labor.

Want to grow extra produce for canning and preserving? That’s even MORE bales needed.

You can fit many more plants in a raised bed or in the ground.

How many plants can fit into a single bale of straw? Only 2 to 6 plants can fit per bale.

Now contrast those measly 2 to 6 plants with square-foot gardening, where in my 5 foot by 5 foot raised beds, I can have 1 plant per square foot on the low side for large plants and up to 16 per square foot for something like carrots.

3. You Can’t Grow Everything In Bales

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Speaking of carrots — you can’t grow them in straw bales. Or at least not efficiently.

A considerable number of crops, like root vegetables, simply do not perform well in straw bale gardens.

And something like corn? No.

Perennials are also out, so if you want a dedicated strawberry raised bed that will deliver fruit every year, you need to find alternatives.

I also doubt I could grow garlic or potatoes successfully in my climate inside a bale, although people apparently do both successfully.

4. Straw Bales Have Weeds

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One of the misconceptions of straw bale gardens is that they’re weed-free.

The originator of the method states it several times in his book.

They are most assuredly not free from weeds, I promise you. 

My water and fertilizer-soaked bales quickly became full of weeds, which needed daily tending and pulling. And they were difficult to pull from the tightly packed bales.

Maybe you can find weed-free straw bales where you live, but I don’t have that option here.

5. Straw Bales Are Heavy & Hard To Move

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First, you have to go and get the straw bales from your supplier.

You load them onto your trailer and offload them at home. If you’re lucky, your trailer can be parked directly by your garden plot, but mine can’t. So all of those bales have to be lifted, unloaded and then dragged to the spot where the garden plot is.

And if you’re planning a significant garden, that is at least 15 straw bales.

And you get to do it all over again next year.

I was 6 months pregnant at the time, and as I loaded that first bale, I realized this was not going to be something I ever did again for that reason alone.

Trust me; there are much easier and cheaper ways to grow food.

6. End of Season Cleanup Is Not Easier

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At the end of the season, all of those bales you dragged around, now made significantly heavier by water, have to be dragged into the compost pile.

I couldn’t even lift a bale at the end; it was so waterlogged. My husband did all of the work instead.

You can get a second growing year out of your bales through a complicated method of repressing them, but who has the time or desire for that kind of effort?

I have countless responsibilities on the homestead. I hate inefficient work and wasting my time on things that don’t need to be done.

7. No Permanant Trellises

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You can easily trellis a straw bale garden with t-posts and netting or even place an arched trellis between bales.

But.

You have to take the trellises down and then put them back up again. Year after year.

Why? When you can have permanent trellises with permanent raised beds?

Or semipermanent trellises that are easier to move around?

Trellises are among the most useful tools for a home gardener. Growing vegetables vertically is the best way to maximize your growing space while also improving plant health and yields.

8. Attracts Animals

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Since the sides of the bales were prolifically growing weeds and mushrooms every day, rabbits and other critters were attracted to them.

My chickens, ducks, and geese routinely ate the weeds growing in the garden, and I was nervous they would hop up on a bale one day and destroy the vegetables, too.

9. Straw Bale Gardens Are Ugly

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There can be a certain charm to a straw bale garden when it is first up and fresh.

And I’ve seen very lovely, neat, and attractive pictures of straw bale gardens from gardeners, too.

But I’ve also seen messy, haphazard, ugly eyesores, and those seem to be more common.

And the prettiest straw bale garden will still never be as attractive and neat as a well-planned garden of any other type.

10. Straw Bales Deteriorate And Become Messy

Strawberry growing in the garden.
Photo Credit: Envato Elements.

As my growing season went on and the interior of the straw bales composted and deteriorated, the garden began to look worse and worse.

The soil would blow off, and the weeds and mushrooms growing from the bales were rampant despite my best efforts.

11. Straw Bales Are Not Sustainable Gardening

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Straw is a byproduct of food production; it’s not the main crop. And it’s very useful, organic matter that composts beautifully and has wide uses as animal bedding.

We use it to bed our Icelandic sheep, and we also use it in our deep litter composting system for our chickens, ducks, and geese.

But a straw bale garden requires so much straw while it also requires a MASSIVE amount of fertilizer application to condition the straw bales to make them begin to heat up and compost deep inside the bales — that’s what makes them effective at growing vegetables.

Know what’s even more effective? Composting and then growing in that compost.

I get a massive amount of compost from the deep litter system I use in my chicken coops and duck houses. Same as the bedding that my sheep live on all winter long when they can’t be outside on pasture.

A small homestead like ours can produce an incredible amount of fertility through the various organic composts we can make and procure.

But buying specific fertilizer every year? Buying excess straw every year? It’s not my idea of a sustainable system.

12. Straw Bale Gardens Are The Opposite of Self-Sufficiency

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Straw bale gardens rely on outside inputs — from buying straw bales every year, to buying fertilizer every year.

If the supply for either of those things is suddenly cut off or if the price increases for any reason, you have no other choice as this is the unsustainable system you’ve committed to.

13. Straw Bales Take A Long Time To Condition

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You can’t just throw some dirt on top of your straw bales and plant in them.

Straw bale gardens have to undergo a lengthy “conditioning” process, during which they are heavily fertilized and watered very deeply.

The process takes around 2 weeks of daily prep work. Often more.

You may think I’m being overly negative about the work involved, but I absolutely hate inefficiencies and a straw bale garden is the epitome of that to me.

I’m not interested in toiling over dirt and doing the same thing over and over again, repeating a hard process annually when EASIER and CHEAPER systems exist.

My metal raised beds will be filled with compost and other organic materials and then topped up 1-2 times annually with additional compost in the autumn and/or spring.

We practice organic no-till gardening, which produces healthier, stronger soil that sequesters carbon and grows vegetables beautifully.

We can also produce most—if not all—of what we need to maintain these beds on our small 3-acre homestead.

14. Soil Health

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Soil health matters deeply to me.

This topic is too large to get into in this article, but we know that the degradation of soil is one of the reasons why the nutritional quality of our food has also gone down.

I want to combat that by growing food in the healthiest, most nutritious soil possible to feed my family.

Can a straw bale soaked with fertilizer do that?

I truly don’t know the answer, and I don’t know if any studies have been done that could settle this.

I know that I have my doubts and I’m hesitant to believe this is the best gardening system for the healthiest food or environment.

15. Terrible For Accessibility

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How can an elderly person or someone with physical limitations build a straw bale garden without having to rely on help each and every year?

They can’t. And what happens when the help isn’t there anymore?

You can install a wonderful, accessible, raised bed garden that works with your abilities rather than against them.

Benefits of Raised Bed Gardening

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Learn More: 22 Benefits of Raised Bed Gardening {And The BEST Alternative}

No-Till Gardening

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Learn More: No-Till Gardening {Everything You Need To Know}

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