Garden with straw bales if you have bad soil

Leimone Waite
Master gardeners

Q: I would like to grow a vegetable garden but my home sits on dense rocky ground. My entire ground is primarily gold tailings between seven and 10 feet deep. My “soil” is not conducive to growing vegetables or fruit trees, and is nutrient deficient.

For a veggie garden, I built myself a walled container 25 feet wide by 100 feet long, and two feet deep.

Currently it sits empty because I don’t have $4,000 to $6,000 to buy soil. Nor do I have a truck to transport the dirt. I need 168 yards to fill the garden area. Do you have any suggestions on how I might be able to grow something in my soil?

A: Your garden space sounds like the perfect location to try straw bale gardening. Straw bale gardening starts with a bale of straw that is “conditioned” and then vegetable plants are planted into the bales with a little soil in each hole that is “dug” into the bale. You can grow most garden vegetables this way. One bale can support two to three tomato plants, or four pepper plants.

The advantages to this type of gardening is that you can create raised beds inexpensively and you don’t have to have good soil. You can even place the bales on concreate or asphalt paving. The bales can also be moved around and can be composted or used as mulch after the garden season is over.

To get started with straw bale gardening, you want to purchase either oak or wheat straw. Look for bales that are held together tightly with baling twine, you don’t want them to fall apart too quickly. Next, place the bales in a location that will get at least six hours of sunlight or more each day. Bales are best placed on their sides for ease of planting, cut side up.

Once the bales are placed, you’ll need to “condition” them. For the first three days, wet the bales thoroughly. Then on days four-six, sprinkle the top of each bale with a cup of ammonium sulfate (21,-0-0) or a half cup of urea (46-0-0). Be sure to water the fertilizer in after each application. Two cups of blood meal or alfalfa meal per bale can also be used for this step.

Because straw is high in carbon, the addition of nitrogen fertilizer is an important step. It feeds the bacterial growth and speeds up the decomposition.

On days seven-nine, cut the amount of fertilizer in half. Take care not to water excessively, which could lead to runoff and leaching of the nitrogen out of the bale.

The bales will get hot and steam. This is part of the conditioning process.

On day 10, stop adding fertilizer, but keep the bales moist.

On day 11, feel the top of the bale for heat. If it’s still hot, check every day until the bale cools down to about 99°F or lower, still keeping bales moist.

Once the bales cool down, they’re ready to plant. That usually takes at least three weeks after conditioning.

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To plant, use transplants or seeds. Dig a hole in the top of the bale and place the plant or seed and some good quality potting soil into the hole with the plant.

Water regularly and don’t let the bales dry out.

Fertilize with a complete fertilizer at least every couple of weeks.

The Shasta Master Gardeners Program can be reached by phone at 530-242-2219 or email The gardener office is staffed by volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners' questions using information based on scientific research.