This year I grew my garden in old, dusty hay bales that had no use…or so I thought!! Somehow, somewhere I came across the concept earlier this year and I can’t believe I hadn’t discovered it earlier. Growing a garden on our land has always been a challenge, it’s very hard, mostly clay soil. It holds moisture very well, but that’s about the extent of it’s positive qualities. Since we produce around 1500 small square hay bales every year for our horses and for sale, we always have quite a few left over that are either dusty or moldy from being on the bottom of the stack or had a little too much moisture in them at baling time. These obviously can’t be fed so before these would just go in the garbage pile to decompose.
Well, this year I set 40 out in groups of two in a line 10 bales long.
I then started watering the bales to begin the conditioning process.
This gets the bales to start breaking down and heating up inside. After a couple days I added nitrogen fertilizer on top and watered again each day. I didn’t really keep track of how much and how often I put the fertilizer on, probably every other day and sprinkled a good amount on each bale. I started this when the weather was still considerably cool and we got some additional snow in the midst of the process, so I don’t think they heated as quickly as they could have, but after about a little more than a week I noticed quite a bit of warmth when I would put my hand down in the bale.
Since I had so many bales set out, I dedicated quite a few to potatoes. I planted three per bale.
All I did was shove them as far as I could down into the bale, almost to the ground in some cases. I figured this would give them lots of space to come up, since you can’t hill them in a bale!
I then filled the hole with potting soil. I don’t think I’d do this again since it now seems completely unnecessary, and I feel like it might have contributed to more grass seed sprouting. I think I might have slightly jumped the gun in planting the potatoes because I had a few that never germinated. I think this could be attributed to putting the bale being too hot and killing the seed. This is one thing to be careful of, make sure that your bales have reached their highest temperatures and are on their way down before you plant your seeds.
I also planted beets, turnips, cabbage, carrots, kale, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, spaghetti squash, and tomatoes.
For all the small seeds, I just sprinkled a bit of potting soil on top of the bale and sprinkled the seeds into it. The soil helped to hold the seeds slightly from falling too far down into the bale. I think next year I will try it without any additional soil and see how it goes. I feel like to some extent, the soil encouraged the grass seeds in the bale to grow more than on the bales that didn’t have any soil on them. Before I tried this, I read many things suggesting to never use hay bales because of the seeds that will sprout. I feel that the additional nutrients that come from alfalfa and grass breaking down outweighs the grass that grows in some bales. It also didn’t really seem to affect the vegetables where the grass did come up. So in short, don’t let the idea of grass sprouting out of your bales deter you from using hay!
I also came across information that said tomatoes don’t typically produce too well in bales because they put all their energy into growing foliage and not the tomatoes. I didn’t particularly find this true. While a few of the plants grew quite impressive foliage, it wasn’t too much different from previous year’s plants. And, the plants yielded really great amounts of fruit. My Roma tomato plants did really well, I will definitely put them in bales next year.
You can see the strings in that last picture, I had to put in some support for the plants because they eventually get tall enough that they will fall over. I just put a metal stake on either end of the row and strung bale twine across to give support to the bales on the one side. I would have put it on both sides but there was a wall on the other side if they decided to go that way.
Overall? So happy! We had quite a severe drought this summer and I still had a spectacular yield of almost everything. The only thing that didn’t do too well were the onions, I feel like I needed to water them more than they got. For watering, I laid drip hose on each row of bales so that I only had to turn the tap on for half an hour to gently water everything.
This is such an easy method of growing a garden. Very little weeding, a raised surface, and an incredibly fertile place for plants to grow. It would work anywhere you want to set the bales, even on concrete!