Category: Straw Bale Construction

Using Hay Bales for Gardening

Using Hay Bales for Gardening

Header photo by Ruth Temple

Introduction to hay bale gardening

To plant a traditional garden you need space, good soil, and effort – weeding, fertilising, watering, and other back-breaking tasks. However, hay bale gardening provides a more straightforward way of cultivating and managing a garden even if you’re short on space or in the event of a drought.

As the name suggests, a hay bale garden uses bales of straw or hay as opposed to soil for cultivation. Using hay bales for gardening is an especially effective alternative to traditional gardens if you lack adequate space, or you have difficult ground to cultivate. This guide details the benefits and the step-by-step process of setting up a hay bale garden.

Benefits of straw bale gardens

Straw bale garden

1. No Soil Needed

Hay bale gardens are perfect for gardeners with no space or poor soil for cultivation. Hay forms an ideal alternative to soil. Since the straw bale makes a natural pot for your plants, you can plant anywhere you have room for your bale.

2. No Fertilizer Required

Gardeners don’t need to add fertilizer to their hay bale gardens since the dried grass is rich in nutrients which promote a good yield. Remember, hay comprises of dry grass. This means your bales can trigger the conversion of soil minerals and sunlight into dense nutrition for plant growth.

RocAnamor House - Strawbale planting in back

3. Longer cultivation period

As the straw bale decomposes, it gives off warmth which gives gardeners a head start as spring sets in and a slightly longer cultivation period into fall. Therefore, using hay bales for gardening provides an extra month for cultivation.

4. Little maintenance required

Hay retains more water than soil due to the small size and compactness of grass. Since hay is sponge-like, you only need to water the hay garden once every day.

5. Raised cultivation beds

Straw bale garden wide angle B Chudnow's garden

Raised beds are perfect for gardeners with back problems who cannot stoop for long. Straw bales are an excellent natural raised container for cultivation. Unlike traditional raised soil beds, hay bales are ready made and don’t require carpentry skills to assemble.

6. Appropriate for small spaces

Do you have inadequate space for your garden? If so, a hay bale garden is perfect for you. Even with a flat roof area or a balcony, a bale or two can support enough vegetables for a small family.

7. No soil-borne infections and less weeding required

Since hay bales are less likely to carry weed seeds compared to ordinary garden soil, hay bale gardeners don’t need to worry about excessive weeding. Any weed that does manage to sprout can be easily pulled out since hay is relatively loose. There also is a reduced soil-borne disease risk.

How to Build a Hay Bale Garden Step-by-Step

Step 1: Condition your hay bales

Use nitrogen and water to condition your hay bales. Fertilizer rich in ammonium nitrate and water should be introduced within ten days to encourage insects, bacteria, and fungi to break down your bale into fresh compost. During this time, the bale temperature rises to 140F; therefore, water serves to minimize any risk for fire.

On the first, third, fifth, seventh, and ninth days add half a cup of nitrogen to the bales. Spray the bale with water so the nitrogen will soak into the bales.

On the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth day, soak the bales only with water.

On the tenth day, add potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen in the ratio 1:13:13, and water to the hay. If you don’t want to do the calculations yourself, look for  Greenleaf, Jobe, or Spectrum fertilizers which are already mixed using this ratio.

Step 2: Plant your seedlings

Squash Seedling

Your bales are ready for planting. You can plant on the sides or top or both. The spacing guidelines are similar to those used while planting in soil. For example, a single bale can hold two tomato plants, three cauliflower plants, two pumpkin plants, or three broccoli plants. Taller plants must have staking systems.

You can plant your bale from seeds or seedlings. However, planting from seeds requires three inches of topsoil or potting soil on the bale.  You can get a jump on the growing season by starting your seeds indoors under LED grow lights (you can find a guide to the best grow lights for indoor planting here). Once your seedlings are large enough to transplant drive a trowel into your hay to open the bale slightly and plant your seedlings in the spaces created.

Step 3: Water the bales

Girl Scout's straw bale vegetable garden

Do not overdo this. Watering your hay bale garden once every day is enough. Especially, remember to water the bales each day during conditioning since bales might dry out faster than soil.

Step 4: Harvest

A row of straw bale tomatoes in my garden. Five different kinds of tomatoes.

Harvesting from your hay bale garden is similar to soil gardening. If you planted potatoes, pull back your hay gently, and harvest your new potatoes. Close the open spaces and let your potatoes continue growing.

Step 5: Repeat the above steps

When you are done, compost your hay bales and start your hay gardening cycle once more. During the second planting round, you can plant on top of the hay bales to allow the decomposing hay bales to provide beneficial nutrients to your seeds.

Best Hay Bay Gardening Books

If you want more detailed instructions about using hay bales for gardening, we’ve found the following books to be the best resources:

Straw Bale Gardens Complete
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9 Straw Bale House Frequently Asked Questions

9 Straw Bale House Frequently Asked Questions

Photo above By Øyvind HolmstadOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

With the ever growing interest in sustainable home construction, we get plenty of questions about building straw bale houses. Today, we will cover the most frequently asked straw bale house questions. We hope our answers to these common questions will enhance your understanding of straw bale building.

1. What is a straw bale house made of?

In the simplest terms, a straw bale house is a house that uses bales of straw as a main construction material. We go further in-depth about the basics of straw bale houses in this article.

2. How much does a straw bale house cost?

The cost of a straw bale house will vary depending on where you live. However, the average cost is $2,700 per square meter. The minimum cost for a similar size of a custom designed house is $2,800. Remember that these prices are just estimates. Therefore, we recommend that you get a quote from your contractor for the set price.

3. Why should I build and live in a straw bale house?

There are numerous benefits of straw bale houses. These houses are natural and have no impact on your health or the environment. Their construction materials are locally and readily available. A straw bale house is physically appealing and attractive. Such a house will have a high energy rating. Owing to their high quality, straw bale houses last longer. If maintained well, these houses can last up to 100 years. We cover more straw bale house pros and cons in this article.

Straw Bale House.jpg
By Colin Rose – originally posted to Flickr as Straw Bale House, CC BY 2.0, Link

4. Is it possible to design and build a multi-storey straw house?

Yes. The ability to build a viable multi-story building is dependent on several factors, such as its design and the area of construction. For instance, if you wish to build in a seismic-free area, you should not worry about the height of your house even though bale construction is considerably heavy. Therefore, if you are building in earthquake-free zones, you can have a story straw bale building.

Straw bale wall.JPG
By Trociny-atakujoOwn work, CC0, Link

5. How thick is a straw bale wall?

The standard thickness of a completed straw bale house wall is at least 18 inches thick.

6. How long does it take to build a straw bale house?

The time needed to build a straw bale house is highly subjective and ranges anywhere from 4 to 10 months. If you have a custom made house, the contractor might spend even longer. It can often take between 1 and 1.5 years to get ready for the construction process. This time is needed to complete the plan and design drawings as well as submit all the necessary information to the council for approval. The contractor will also require a few months’ notice to plan for the construction.

7. What is the main difference between straw bale and cob construction?

Straw bale construction ensures better insulation as straw bales are effective in holding in heat and keeping the interior of your house cool or warm depending on the time of the year.

On the other hand, cob construction acts as a thermal mass as cobs absorb radiant cooling or heat and then releases it slowly while cooling off. Further, cob construction requires considerably more time to complete as opposed to straw bale building. This article provides a good overview of the considerations.

8. Is it possible to fix electrics, gas, and plumbing into the walls?

Yes. Contractors can run conduits in straw bale walls. However, it is advisable to use internal stud walls to make it easier for installation or repair.

9. Do straw bale houses rot?

If your straw bale home is constructed properly, it won’t rot. The bales are porous enough to breath out the humidity in the air. If you live in an especially humid area, lime-based plasters work best to keep moisture at bay.

Have you learned something new? We hope that you found this article helpful. Do not hesitate to post your feedback in the comments section below.

Top 5 Straw Bale House Plans

Top 5 Straw Bale House Plans

While there are a number of building planners who specialise in straw bale construction these days, one of the appealing features of this type of construction is the DIY nature of straw bale construction. Even so, it’s always a good idea to have a tested building plan. Luckily there are plenty of straw bale house plans available online. In this article, we provide the top five straw bale house plans you can find on the internet today. (Note: It’s always wise to have a certified professional approve any plans before you begin your straw bale construction.)

1. Compound 480 square feet straw bale house plan

The basic idea behind the design of this floor plan is to construct numerous, small, free standing units to form a larger compound. These units should be raised one at a time as per the building code requirements. To displace 79 and 142 square feet on the inside and outside respectively, the units must measure, 7.5 by 10.5 inches and 10.5 by 13.5 inches. The necessity of a building permit for the construction of these units is dependent upon the relevant enforcement code.

This compound plan is preferred since it allows you to build a single unit at a time thereby limiting your exposure to stress, money, and time while gaining a wealth of experience necessary for progressive unit construction. With this plan, you complete one unit, re-evaluate the construction, and start the next with enhanced skills and confidence. Later on, you can roof the central patio, and even expand your home to 975 square feet. This plan should be enclosed by low walls. These measures result in a parking space and three semi-private gardens.

2. Round 612 square feet straw bale house plan

This plan is similar to the octagon plan found further down the linked page. It displaces 612 square feet on the inside and has a radius of 14 inches. However, this plan allows for a radius of between 15 and 20 inches. A tentative per-square-foot-cost is set at $30. Therefore, the complete 612 square feet version could cost an average of $18,000.

This plan allows for easy expansion through the construction of another round unit either to the west or east. Entry doors should be to the east or west, bedrooms and baths to the north, and public spaces to the south.

This plan is relatively easy to construct and affordable.

3. Green 660 square feet straw house floor plan

This floor plan yields a single bath and two bedrooms. It is based on a 4-foot bale module. It is easy to build owing to its rectangular shape. This plan can be load-bearing, and its gable or shed roof rests on the short western or eastern walls. The structure has sufficient load-bearing strength since it has a single west wall door with no east wall doors or windows. The south or north walls are an additional support source.

With an estimated $20 per-square-foot-cost, this house could cost a total of $12,000 inclusive of utility, land, and labor expenses. Logically, expansion of this design can occur to the west door; thereby opening into an office, work room, studio, or garage. An expansion to the north door will allow you a larger master bedroom with ample access to the existing bath.

4. Eye 670 square feet floor plan

This uniquely shaped floor plan is suitable for a single bath and two to three bedrooms. The concept of this plan was triggered by the fact that round houses achieve higher efficiency with the addition of west-east corners to realize the shape of the eye. This plan has four straight walls which have two square corners and two southern and northern curved walls.

This plan shape has a vital south-facing solar exposure and northern angles to the back for winter shade area elimination which is commonly achievable with long west/east rectangular footprints.

5. Courtyard 705 square feet straw bale house plan

This design evolves from the circle and eye designs. Typically, the diamond design is a break from the standard rectangle and lacks the eye’s round walls. In addition to its novelty, this plan is preferred for its reduced winter shade zone. With this plan, your bedrooms will be at each corner as opposed to the usual design in which bedrooms are grouped. You must go through public areas before accessing these bedrooms. Its bath is triangular and has adequate room for a shower although a tub cannot be fitted.

This plan is recommended if you do not mind its complexity, but you prefer its design and novelty.

Whichever straw house plan you choose, you have the assurance you’ll be living in a one-of-a-kind, eco-friendly, low-impact home that is unique to you.

Further Reading

Looking to learn more about building a straw bale house? Consider these resources an important step in your journey:

Strawbale Home Plans
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Introduction to Straw Bale Houses

Introduction to Straw Bale Houses

It may seem counter-intuitive to live in a house made of straw, but straw bale house construction has many advantages over standard building methods. Not the least of which is straw bale houses are an eco-friendly way to build and live.

View from the North West - Strawbale House Build in Redmond Western Australia

What is a straw bale house?

As the name suggests, a straw bale house is built using bales of straw as the primary building material. These bales can either be load-bearing or be used in filling timber frames. Although these houses were a temporary invention among the 19th-century farmers who relied on wheat crop waste as the only construction material, straw bale houses have been tested and confirmed to be comfortable, warm, and durable. For this reason, these homes are seeing a resurgence in popularity.

If you’re still not convinced a straw bale house is for you, read on to learn the top advantages of straw house living. We’ll also outline a few disadvantages to keep in mind if you choose to build with straw.

Why should you build and live in a straw bale house?

1. Affordable

The cost of building a straw bale house is roughly the same as that of putting up a traditional timber-frame house. Find your local straw bale house constructor to calculate and compare the costs associated with building either house type.

2. Well insulated

Straw bale houses are known for their excellent insulation. The quality of insulation is dependent on several factors such as building design, type and quality of plaster used, the mesh manner between the roof insulation and the bales, and how you stack your bales. If a straw bale house is built correctly, it provides a 40 to 60 R-value. Choose thicker bales for higher R-values.

Straw Bale House Construction

3. More fire retardant compared to conventional timber-frame houses

Wondering how straw can be fire retardant? Numerous studies have been conducted to test the flammability of straw bale houses.  Fire resistance is achieved because the bales are tightly packed. Oxygen barely enters between the straws thereby limiting any chance of triggering combustion. While straw bales can burn in certain circumstances such as during construction, it is undeniable that their flame retardant nature is a desirable feature.

4. Straw bales are readily available

Straw bales come from agricultural waste products. Once the rice, barley, rye, oats, or wheat has been harvested, the stalks can be baled giving the straw a new life. The bales are renewable each year, and their harvest requires little effort. The process of harvesting and construction further presents little harm to the environment. Since they are easy and light to transport, you are likely to save on associated fuel and transportation costs.

5. Fast and Easy stacking of bales

You will be amazed how fast your house can be constructed using straw bales. Straw bale house construction easy to learn, even for novice builders. With the supervision of a single knowledgeable trainer, the building process becomes easy and fast. This feature not only makes straw bales a popular building material but also implies that you can save on the construction costs as family members and volunteer crews can help in raising the walls.

6. Straw bales make beautiful walls

Because straw bales do not need to conform to right angles, they lend themselves to unique and organic architectural designs. The added thickness of the wall will give you deep windows, bookcases, and niches and your home will feel more at one with nature.

Lehmverputztes Strohballenhaus.jpg
By EwigLernender – my own digital foto, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

7. Straw bales are biodegradable

Unlike traditional building materials, straw bales are 100% biodegradable. Additionally, your straw bale house can last up to a century if you maintain it properly. Every structure undergoes eventual replacement at some point. When such a time comes, you can plough the straw bales back into the earth. Therefore, disposal is convenient as opposed to other construction materials such as fibreglass.

The disadvantages of constructing straw bale houses

Despite their benefits, straw bale houses do come with some challenges. Among the top disadvantages of either building or living in a straw bale house include:

  • Since straw bales are not conventional construction materials, you or the contractor needs to learn new building techniques. These are not necessarily difficult but are very different from standard practices.
  • If your local building codes do not include provisions for straw bale construction, there can be challenges associated with planning approval. You might need local engineers and architects who have worked with natural materials to help in gaining this approval.
  • You must keep your walls dry to avoid the detrimental effects of moisture on straw. Preventing moisture from your roof from entering the bales is essential.
  • Straw bale houses are not recommended for areas experiencing extreme rain and humidity.
  • Since straw bale walls require between 18 and 20 inches, most of your square footage will be taken up by the wall thickness.
  • If straw bales are not locally available, you may have additional shipping costs and the added challenge of making sure they aren’t damaged during transport.

These challenges aside, straw bale houses are a affordable, environmentally-friendly, and unique alternative to standard building practices. It is a home you can build for yourself that will stand the test of time without harming the environment around it.