Apologies up front for the formatting. For whatever reason, this blog has tremendous trouble working text around photos, so it is an exercise in futility to try to format it. I finally just gave up! Hope it is clear which photos go with what commentary.
My son and I tried this version of gardening two summers ago and I think we are going to do it again this year (although it’s getting late and the bales should already be ‘cooking’). It is simple, helps with keeping small critters from using your garden as a buffet and saves on back strain somewhat.
Hay bale gardening is really modified container gardening, with the bale (has to be straw, not hay, as hay is full of seeds that will sprout) serving as your very large container. The bale has to be ‘cooked,’ which is a process of soaking and fertilizing (if desired–not necessary) that takes several weeks, during which time the inside of the bale starts to compost. During this period, the bale becomes very hot inside (hence ‘cooking’) and you need to allow time for it to cool a bit before planting. Once ready, started plants can be placed directly into the bale with no soil. Seeds can be planted by creating shallow rows on top of the bale and adding an inch or two of soil.
Where to get Straw Bales
We found them at a farm supply store just outside the Minneapolis metro area. You can also check Craigslist or local papers. Just remember that you want straw, not hay.
Where to Plant a Straw Bale Garden
One fantastic thing about this method is that it can be done anywhere. You can set the bales right on top of your grass with no need to till up a garden patch. They do tend to get a little messy looking towards the end of the season and definitely lack ‘curb appeal,’ so it might be better to keep them in the backyard or out of the sight of fussy neighbors.
There are lots of straw types and lots of different methods for prepping your bales, but all will require a ‘cooking’ process to initiate internal composting. This can be accelerated by the use of fertilizer (which we did) or can be done organically using only water, which just takes a little longer. There are lots of sites devoted to this process and many state departments of agriculture also have info on how to get started. We won’t provide a lot of detail about here because 1.) I’m no expert at this and 2.) Mostly just want to share our experiences with this fun form of gardening.
As stated above, we decided to use fertilizer with a high nitrogen content to accelerate bale cooking it took about 10 days from placement in the garden to planting and I followed a plan we found on the Internet that is no longer available. What I remember is that fertilization was on a staggered schedule and watering (soaking, really) needed to happen every day. The bales are never supposed to dry out during this process.
Here is a photo of the bales soaking. We used a typical sprayer and hosed them down good every day and also laid soaker hoses over the tops of the bales that we ran at intervals throughout the day.
Once they were ready for planting, we dug little divets out of the bales and put started plants directly in them, making sure the roots were covered. Just like regular gardening, we planted more than we wanted and then thinned them back as they grew. In the back set of bales, we put a couple of inches of soil on top bales for planting seeds. We also planted some ground cover on the sides of the bales, thinking it would be purdy, but it really didn’t grow all that well.
During early growth, it worked just fine to leave the soaker hoses on the bales. It worked so well, in fact, that we had plenty of fungus growth in the bales! We sprayed the bales with a hydrogen peroxide/water solution and in time the fungus problem resolved.
Note also the straw grass coming up from seeds that were dormant in the bale. This is not a huge problem with straw, but can be overwhelming with hay!
As the plants grew, it became necessary to move the hoses off the bales, so here is our makeshift ‘redneck drip irrigation system,’ which consists of stringing heavy gauge wire between two fence poles (all available at local home store) and draping the soaker hose over the wire.
We had mixed results with our crop. Squash and cucumbers were unstoppable, eventually becoming so big and heavy the bales collapsed under them. We staked the tomatoes in cages placed over the fence posts at either end of the bale and they grew well, although the yield was better from tomatoes just in the regular garden. The carrots did not grow well at all, but peppers and some of the lettuces did great!
In all, I think it is a good option that provides lots of flexibility for location and garden size. Definitely helped with bunny damage, although the birds seemed to think we had opted for bales so there would be a soft place for their little tootsies as they decimated the tomatoes, so it didn’t help much there.
At the end of the season, we broke the bales down and allowed them to lie fallow on top of the garden over the winter. Our soil (which we had tested at the U of MN) was very low in nitrogen (another reason we decided to try bales) and our bales had been soaked in a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, so we thought this would be good for the soil. The following year, we tilled the straw into the soil and had a wonderfully productive traditional garden. This year will be bales again!