How to make a straw-bale pollinator garden
Straw bale gardens are unique. They fit anywhere, support your plants, provide ample space for roots, suppress weeds, and raise your garden up off the ground where it is easier to reach. Plus, if you have bad things in your garden soil, like nematodes or potato scab, straw bales can provide a clean slate. And all of this comes without the expense of potting soil or an enormous planter.
In addition, things like slugs and snails don’t like crawling up the sides of a straw bale, cats are unlikely to mistake them for a litter box, and moles don’t excavate through them. And I repeat: weeds are almost nonexistent. Yay. I’ve even covered the soggy part of my garden with straw bales: the water seeps up, the roots go down, everyone is happy.
Last week I learned more about syringes than I ever wanted to know. Similarly, when I started researching straw bale gardens, I learned a heap about bales. Although I’ve been buying straw for twenty years, until last week I had no idea bales have a cut side and folded side. If you don’t operate a baler, how would you know?
Anyway, I became fascinated by the vegetables people are growing in straw and thought, why not a pollinator garden? So here I’m going to share what I know about straw bale gardening, and throughout the spring and summer I will post photos of my bee garden . . . assuming it all works. If anyone tries this, be sure to send photos of your garden and bugs along with photos of your sunflowers.
Buying the bales
- First, make sure you buy straw and not hay. Hay is full of seeds, and seeds are not good for your garden. Most often, straw is composed of fully-ripened wheat stems. The grains have already been harvested and the straw is a by-product.
- Straw bales vary in weight and size according to the baler that was used, but generally they are heavy. I can’t lift a 90-pound bale, but I can lift one end and usually unload my truck and get them where they need to be. It’s a matter of leveraging, dragging, pushing, and swearing. Better yet, snag a friend to help.
Positioning the bales
- It is tempting to place the bales in a way that yields the greatest surface area, but you must resist. You should arrange the bales so that the baling twine runs parallel to the ground.
- However, before you do step 1, you need to examine the two sides that are not tied. One side will have folded stems and one side will have cut stems. The cut side goes up.
- Do not cut the baling twine.
- If you are placing the bales in an area where vigorous perennials may push their way through the straw, arrange a layer or two of cardboard under the bales. Cardboard acts as a weed barrier long enough to discourage the perennials, but it will eventually compost and disappear.
Conditioning the bales
- Straw bales must be conditioned before they can be used. If you plant directly into a new bale, the straw will begin to compost as soon as it gets wet and the heat will kill anything you plant.
- The easiest way to condition is to buy bales in the fall and let them sit outside all winter.
- If you’re in a hurry (like me) you can condition them in a couple of weeks by sprinkling them with a high-nitrogen fertilizer and watering it in. Organic gardeners can use blood meal or feather meal.
- Simply sprinkle the fertilizer over the cut surface of the bale. The fertilizer will work its way down through the bale, in and between the hollow stems.
- The nitrogen encourages the growth of soil organisms which hastens the composting of the straw. In no time, the bales will get extremely hot. If you want, you can stick a thermometer into the bale to monitor the temperature. Once the temperature drops to ambient, you can begin planting.
Planting the bales
- Straw, even if fully composted, may be lacking in nutrients. Many gardeners sprinkle a layer of compost or potting mix over the bale and work it in a little, although others do not.
- Alternatively (or in addition) you can dig holes in the straw and fill the holes with compost before planting your seeds or seedlings. (Digging holes is much easier if you remembered to place the cut side up.)
- The plants you select will depend on your local area, but remember heirlooms usually provide the most pollen and nectar, and bees love blue, white, and yellow blooms. You can plant seeds or starts.
- Make sure any plants you purchase have not been treated with pesticide.
- Go heavy on late summer and fall flowering plants: these are the ones in short supply.
- Check the HBS Plant Lists to see what plants have been successful for other bee lovers in your area.
- Provide a water source with stepping stones for the bees: marbles in a shallow pie dish works great.
Watch them grow
- Water the garden as necessary. You will find that the bales retain moisture while providing good drainage—perfect conditions for healthy roots.
- Provide compost or fertilizer as needed.
- Have your camera ready.
My plan is to make a two-bale pollinator garden right beside the lemon queen sunflowers. For those of you who use straw bales for windbreaks around your winter hives, you are almost there. All you have to do is plant.