Straw bale gardening sounded so promising that we decided to give one a go last year. However, our straw bale garden failed to live up to expectations or any of the promises and benefits. If you're looking for cheap, efficient, raised beds — straw bale gardens are not that, and there are a multitude of better options to explore instead. The proclaimed pros and advantages do not live up to the hype.
What Is A Straw Bale Garden?
A straw bale garden, sometimes called a hay bale garden or just bale garden, is a type of raised bed where you grow plants like vegetables directly into bales of straw that have been conditioned beforehand with a generous application of fertilizer, significant watering, and then topped with soil right before planting.
The method was popularized by Joel Karsten and I eagerly got his book Straw Bale Gardens: Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding
The promised benefits are that this way of growing in bales is efficient, cheap, very productive, and very easy.
After spending a whole summer last year making my own disappointing straw bale garden, my experience was the opposite in every way.
I will never try this way of gardening again.
I do not recommend it to any gardener.
In fact, I cannot think of a single situation where there aren't significantly better, easier, and cheaper options to grow food.
What To Do Instead Of Straw Bale Gardening
What do I recommend instead of a straw bale garden?
Regular raised beds. And you can read my article on the benefits of raised bed gardening at that link.
If you can't afford to buy or build raised beds, that article will show you the best alternative that is free or cheap/nearly-free, no nonsense involved.
This spring and summer of 2023 we are building out our annual garden, it's going to be big, efficient, beautiful, and (hopefully) incredibly productive and bountiful. You can follow along on Instagram for regular stories to see how it all turns out.
Why I Won’t Do Straw Bale Gardening Ever Again
We gave straw bale gardening a try after deciding that raised beds were not in our budget. I wasted an entire growing season as a result.
1. Straw Bale Gardening is Expensive
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 costs of gas (and therefore fertilizer), they’re also not going down anytime soon.
In fact, it's been a whole year since my failed straw bale expiriment and prices have remained the same.
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 very year, over and over again, if you want to grow significant amounts of food.
The upfront costs of high-quality raised beds may seem steep, but you only pay once for years (or decades) of use.
And there are actual cheap alternatives to traditional raised beds as I already mentioned.
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
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 way more plants in a raised bed or directly 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 something like 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
Speaking of carrots — you can't grow them in straw bales. Or at least not efficiently.
There are a considerable number of crops, like root vegetables, that simply do not perform very 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 still need to find alternatives.
I also doubt I could grow garlic successfully in my climate inside of a bale, or potatoes, although people do both successfully.
4. Straw Bales Have Weeds
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, 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 too which means they just regrew from the roots I couldn't get out.
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
First you have you go and get the straw bales from your supplier.
You load them onto your trailer, then off-load them at home. Maybe you're lucky and your trailer can be parked directly by your garden plot — mine can't be. So all of those bales have to be lifted and unloaded and then dragged across 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
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 anything and wasting my time on something that doesn't need to be done.
7. No Permanant Trellises
You can easily trellis a straw bale garden with t-posts and netting, or even place an arched trellis between bales.
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 one of the most useful tools for a home gardener, and growing vegetables vertically is the best way to maximize your growing space while also improving plant health and yields.
8. Attracts Animals
Since the sides of the bales were prolifically growing weeds and mushrooms every single day, rabbits and other critters were attracted to the bales.
My chickens, ducks, and geese would routinely eat the weeds growing and I was nervous they would just hop up on a bale one day and destroy the vegetables too.
Luckily that didn't happen, but that doesn't mean it's not a possibility.
9. Straw Bale Gardens Are Ugly
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
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, the weeds and mushrooms growing from the bales were rampant despite my best efforts.
11. Straw Bales Are Not Sustainable Gardening
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.
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 from the bedding that my sheep live on all winter long when they can't be outside on pasture.
That stuff is absolute gold and it can be used to amend soil, or mixed with other organic materials and varieties of composts and used as a growing medium itself.
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? Not my idea of a sustainable system.
12. Straw Bale Gardens Are The Opposite of Self-Sufficiency
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 are 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
You can't just throw some dirt on top of your straw bales and plant in them.
Straw bale gardens have to go through a lengthly "conditioning" process where they're fertilized heavily and water 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 just 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 no dig/no till gardening which makes for healthier, stronger soil that sequesters carbon and grows vegetables beautifully.
And we can produce most — if not all — of what we need to maintain these beds on our own small 3-acre homestead.
14. Soil Health
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 just 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
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, accesible, raised bed garden that works with your abilities rather than against them.
My Straw Bale Garden (Video)
Here is a short Instagram reel of my straw bale garden shortly after setup with some of my ducks examining the handiwork. What a huge waste of time and effort.
Straw Bale Gardening Pros & Cons
I've gone through my list of reasons why I will never make another straw bale garden and I believe I've explained the major disadvantages of straw bale gardens too.
But what are the pros? Many people obviously love this method of growing food.
Advantages Of Straw Bale Gardening
- Temporary. I hate the temporary nature of this system, but maybe you're only renting or living in a place for one season. And while I still believe this isn't the best choice for your situation either, it may be the most readily accessible one to you.
- Cost. Setting up a straw bale garden is significantly cheaper — as long as you don't plan to do it every single year, year after year. But again, there are cheaper and better alternatives, and I discuss the best one in my article on raised beds and alternatives.
- Compost. The biggest advantage is that the old straw bales have composted nicely into a rich, organic matter I will be able to use in my raised beds this year.
I will never set up another straw bale garden and I found my experience of gardening and growing food this way to be difficult, costly, inefficient, and not sustainable in any capacity. While the conditions may exist that would make straw bale gardening the best choice, I find that difficult to imagine. Ultimately, traditional raised beds or even in-ground planting are better options. You have been warned.
You can follow along on Instagram as we build out and plant our annual garden this year.