Straw Bale Landscape Wall Construction

Do you live in a loud neighborhood? Are you tired of looking at the same style wood fence around every home in your neighborhood? Building a straw bale landscape wall instead of a typical privacy fence around your garden may be a better choice. The straw bales not only provide privacy but also superior sound proofing. If you live on a busy street, near a loud school, or near the highway, you’ll find the sound proofing qualities of a straw bale wall amazing. In addition to the privacy and sound proofing, straw bale landscape walls are beautiful. They are more elegant and original than any conventional landscape wall be it wood, stone or concrete block. The natural undulations and curves make straw bale walls more comfortable for the human experience as well. It may sound strange, but straw bale walls can actually help calm the people in your home. Studies have shown the calming effects of straw bale walls on horses and humans alike. It seems the natural beauty of straw bale walls is more than just pleasing to the eyes.

Straw bale landscape walls can be any height; although the taller they are, the harder they are to build and the more room they take up on the property. This is because buttress walls must be used to support the walls from wind loads and physical loads applied against them. (Click here for more information on Buttress Walls) These perpendicular loads, if not protected against, can bring a wall down in a flash. A common height for a straw bale landscape wall is about 6 feet 8 inches tall. Smaller walls, roughly three feet tall, can be created easily with no perpendicular supports. If you’re looking for a simple accent for a backyard garden, the lower wall may be the way to go; however, if you want privacy and soundproofing, you’re better off with a wall that is taller than you are. Otherwise, the sound and sights will still meet your eyes and ears above the top of the wall.

The easiest and most “Green” permitable foundation system for under your landscape wall is a rubble trench foundation. (For more on Rubble Trench Foundations click here) To get started, dig a 2 foot wide trench deep enough to get below the frost line. The trench should be at least two feet deep no matter how shallow the frost line is. For example, in Portland, and most of Western Oregon for that matter, the frost line is very shallow at roughly 7-10 inches deep. Nonetheless, renting a backhoe is a good idea since your trench will bottom out at 2 feet deep. Place a 3 inch perforated pipe in the bottom of the trench if your soils are high in clay or otherwise don’t drain well. You don’t want water filling up the space beneath the wall. Make sure the drain line “daylights” for proper draining. This means it needs to end somewhere above grade so that any water it collects can drain out and away from the wall. Be sure to wrap the pipe in landscape cloth or a “drain sock” to limit any fine dirt material from entering the pipe and blocking the flow.

Now get ready to move some rock! Fill the trench with rounded drain rock up to the last 4 to 6 inches below grade. The cool thing about drain rock is that you don’t have to compact it for it to be stable. This eliminates a step of labor and also ensures that you don’t crush your drainpipe with overly aggressive compaction. It’s a good idea to soak the trench with water as you add the rock. This helps everything settle into position. Before you can add the bales, you’ll need to create a bond beam, or a concrete cap that serves several purposes. The first purpose is to secure the top of the trench so that the loose drain rock cannot shift under the weight of the straw bale wall. The second purpose is to provide lift for the bales above grade. You don’t want the bales sitting at grade level as moisture, grass, and other debris can contaminate the base of the wall. Finally, the bond beam provides an anchoring point for your bale toe ups. Toe ups are the wood at the bottom of the wall that once again lift the bales up, this time off of the concrete which can otherwise wick water into the bales. Toe ups also provide a nailing surface for a later step in the process.

To set the bond beam, place form boards above the lip of the trench so that the finished surface will be level and roughly 6 inches above grade. If you live on a sloping site, you can choose to slope the wall with the topography or build it level and include steps that add a bale height at a time. This is similar to residential foundation construction on steep terrain. When the forms are complete, place anchor bolts appropriately to hold down the toe ups. Keep in mind that the toe ups will be 4×4 pressure treated wood and you are required to have a bolt within the first foot of every board and also every 6 feet along that board. Because the layout can be confusing, especially for someone not well versed in construction, you may choose to install bolts after the concrete has been poured and finished. These bolts would be drilled into the dried concrete and can thus be easier to layout and install. Consider using wedge bolts or Simpson EZ-Anchors.

Install the toe ups on top of the foundation so that their outer edge fits flush to the outer edges of the bond beam on either side. It’s important to note here that the 2 foot wide trench is based on using three string bales, which are roughly 2 feet wide. If you plan to use two string bales, which are 18 inches wide, you’ll need to adjust your trench width accordingly. Three string bales are a little more stable for straight wall construction and are more readily available in the Portland area. With the toe ups in place, you can start stacking your bales. Remember to stack them like Legos, alternating the joint location from row to row. Consider the pattern of a brick wall, that’s what you are trying to achieve with the stacking pattern for the bales. Once your bales are stacked to the desired height, place a pond liner over the top of the wall. The liner should only extend over the top course of bales, so the sheet should be roughly 4″ wider than the bales on either a 2 or 3 string bale wall. This simply helps protect the bales from rain.

Finally, pull wire mesh over the wall. Attach it to the toe up on one side of the wall and stretch it up and over the wall to the other side. Attach it to the toe ups on the other side of the wall. I prefer to use strong mesh here. My personal favorite is either 16 or 14 gauge welded wire mesh in a 2″ x 2″ grid. With the mesh in place, use a baling needle (plans for making your own needle are available from us. Send us an email at info@strawbale.com to order a set.) and poly baling twine to sew the mesh through the bales. Now, you’re ready to plaster, but that’s another story for another day.

17 Responses to Straw Bale Landscape Wall Construction

  1. KT Wed, August 19, 2009 at 11:49 pm #

    Hi,

    Nice article, but if you are going to say: “Studies have shown the calming effects of straw bale walls on horses and humans alike.” then I think you should add a reference to the study in the footnotes (or a hyperlink).

    I’d like to read this study to see if strawbales will work on my kids 😉

    cheers,
    -kt

  2. Andrew
    Andrew Thu, August 20, 2009 at 7:00 am #

    That’s awesome! I’d read that study too! You’re right. I read the report some 10 years ago and I could not find it for the reference on this article. Perhaps I should reword the way I wrote that.

  3. Dennis Fri, November 22, 2013 at 11:15 am #

    Would be nice if there was a video giving a demonstration of this on a small wall. do you have a workshop on walls like this in the future??

    I would like to build a wall like this at my house here in Nevada.

  4. Andrew Morrison Sat, November 23, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Hi Dennis. I don’t have any landscape wall workshops coming up. I have 8 straw bale workshops that cover everything you would need to know to build a wall and more, but they are carried out on homes, not just walls.

  5. Sandy Sun, July 5, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

    Andrew – I have a question. I live in the country, and moved out here to get privacy and peace. Instead, I have a neighbor who gave their son a bit of property right by my property line, and consequently right by my house (which is near the property line). He’s a nice guy, but they like to blast music by their pool every night, loudly, and often past 3am.

    I’d like to try and put something up that will ease my pain, but won’t be a huge expense, or too “in your face” to my neighbor. How would you suggest doing this with a straw bale? Could/should I just buy a bunch of bales and stack them up, or what? Again, I’m hoping to avoid a major project (I’ve got plenty already). Thanks in advance!

  6. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, July 5, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    Hi Sandy. That’s a bummer of a situation for sure. I think the best thing would be to talk to them and come up with a way to be better neighbors. That kind of noise at that hour is totally unreasonable. Other than that, a landscape wall could work, but if you don’t “do it right,” it won’t last very long. Stacking straw and leaving it will only work for a few years and the bales will rot in time. You would be better off creating the foundation and plastering the finished product. Of course, that’s a lot more work. Thus, the idea of a neighborly conversation would remain my first choice. 🙂

  7. Brian Sun, February 7, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    Greetings!

    If I were to build an 8′ tall straw bail wall could I not build a poured re-enforced concrete footer that came up 6″ from the ground and had rebar uprights that the bails could be “impaled” and of course use a heavy metal lathe on the outside with pinning?

    Regards,

  8. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Mon, February 8, 2016 at 8:53 am #

    You could, but you’d be better off not using the rebar impalers and simply using 4×4 toe ups with 20 penny nails to hold the bales. Less chance of rot in the bales and they provide nailing for your mesh. You wouldn’t need to pin either, just sew the walls. The big issue is going to be the out of plane stability of an 8′ tall wall. You may need to include buttress walls as that is a tall span without support against high wind loads. Another option is to make it a serpentine wall so it is self supporting.

  9. Virginia Thu, February 11, 2016 at 1:22 am #

    Hey Andrew-
    I live south of Albuquerque, where some walls around here are over 100 years old and are eithe Adobe or straw bales covered in finishing material (plaster or stucco).

    I was wondering of I could use rail road ties for the toe ups, which is also a common material around here. My wall would be about 200 ft. Long with a gated opening, but only 6 ft. ( due to permitting regulations).
    I would be interested in attending a “weekend workshop” for wall building. You have said in your articles it would be best to build something before a bale house to practice on, and this is what I think I want to do, as I sometimes get road noise.

  10. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Wed, February 17, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

    You could certainly use rail road ties for the toe ups. Be sure to support your long stretches of straight wall sin some way: either serpentine walls or buttress walls.

  11. Virginia Sun, May 22, 2016 at 12:50 am #

    What would you suggest for buttressed walls? I am not to sure I understand exac5lt what you are suggesting.

    The walls would primarily run straight parallel to the street on the outside edge of the property.

  12. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Sun, May 22, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    Depending on the height of the wall, you may need a buttress (i.e. a wall section running perpendicular to the main wall) to help it withstand high winds and earthquakes. For most standard height (6′) walls, I doubt you would need it.

  13. clint fisher Fri, September 2, 2016 at 5:56 am #

    Hi Andrew, Great info on all these pages, so thanks. Im planning to build a 140m by 3m high wall, from straw bale, purely for traffic noise attenuation , any suggestions would be great. I find the buttress wall explanation a tad confusing, I quite often need visual to understand, Does your DVD have a lesson on Landscape wall building and buttress building? is there any diagrams available? and what is a serpentine wall?. Once again fantastic articles. Cheers.

  14. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Mon, September 5, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    Hi Clint. Thanks for the positive feedback! Much appreciated. I don’t have a lot of photos of landscape wall construction, so not much to share on that front. Sorry. I focus almost 100% on home construction so don’t have a lot of “other” projects to share. Landscape walls are not in the DVD either as that is focused on home construction too. I think I have some diagrams on this website somewhere. Perhaps you have already found them…?

    A serpentine wall is one that curves along its length. This allows it to be self supporting and eliminates the need for buttressing the wall. A buttress is just a wall built perpendicular to the main wall (as part of the entire wall assembly) that stops the main wall from tipping over under large wind loads.

    Hope that helps!

  15. clint fisher Sat, September 10, 2016 at 12:05 am #

    Fantastic. Thanks Andrew.

  16. Denise Smith Sat, May 27, 2017 at 9:24 am #

    Do you know of any persons/companies for hire to build a hay fence in the Lebanon Oregon area?

  17. Andrew Morrison
    Andrew Morrison Tue, May 30, 2017 at 7:45 am #

    Hi Denise. I don’t have a contact in that area. One small but important detail is that it is a STRAW fence, not HAY. 🙂 Good luck.

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