How To Make A Hay Bale Garden

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Straw and hay bale gardens could be the answer to all of your gardening woes. Trust me, they are more than just a passing fad.

For one thing, the technique of using straw bales to grow crops is a technique that has been around since the 60s….but it is really starting to grow in popularity. It’s easy to see why. Just look at these common issues that can be overcome by using a straw bale:

  • Rocky areas
  • Uneven ground
  • Poor soil
  • Bad back

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Image by Modern Farmer.com

The cost is lower than building a raised bed or using grow bags, plus they enter into the circle of life, being biodegradable! You can use them for compost the following year. Other benefits of using straw bales for gardening include:

  • More oxygen available to roots of plants
  • Unlimited water supply to the plants (thanks to the excellent water holding capacity of the bales)
  • Nutrients are fed to the plants via the straw
  • Heat from the decomposition of the straw speeds up plant growth and lengthens harvest duration
  • There is no weeding required (unless you use hay – more about this below)
  • The potential for 25% more fruit and vegetables than if you planted into the ground (due to the additional heat/oxygen etc)

Sounds good right? If you are like me, you are wondering why you didn’t know about this sooner!

Fortunately you can get started quickly and easily. Just follow the steps laid out below.

What Kind Of Bale Should You Choose?

Ideally you should look for wheat, oats, rye or barley straw – which are the leftovers from harvesting grain. This means that very few seeds remain in the bales. Hay bales on the other hand still have the seed heads, so you are likely to find weeds growing in your bales. Hay bales do provide a nitrogen rich environment for your growing plants, but they will require more effort to upkeep. With straw bales you will need to do little more than add nitrogen (and I hear that human urine works well!).

Try to avoid corn and linseed bales as they decompose very slowly due to the oil residue from their crop, and are very coarse.

Where To Buy The Bales

Bales can be purchased from your local garden center, but it is usually cheaper to go directly to a farm. Going directly to the source will also allow you to find out if the straw has been grown organically. Fall is usually the best time to go bale shopping – plus this gives you time to prepare for springtime planting.

Why not check out the StrawBale Market to see if there are any farmers near you with bales for sale.

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Image by Quarto Knows

The Cost Of Bales

The price of straw bales varies depending on your location, but they can be sourced for as little as $1. This can go up to as much as $15, so be sure to shop around. Although even at the higher price range it is still less than building a raised gardening bed.

Positioning The Bales

Think very carefully about where you want your bale garden to live. They may be easy to kick around when you first purchase them, but once you fill them with water and plants they become extremely heavy – so where you place them should be considered their permanent home.

Things to think about:

  • The hours of direct sunlight – exact needs vary based on the plants you choose
  • Any support for tall plants
  • Disguises for the edges of the straw bales (they are not the prettiest! You can plant flowers around the edge or use small fences)
  • Protecting the underside of bales from rodents, by laying down wire netting first
  • Also consider using landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from growing up through the bales
  • Decide which direction you want to lay the bales down

Which Direction Should You Lay The Bales?

 

There are divided opinions about which way to lay the bales.

    1. You can have the string running around each one – not touching the ground (in case it decomposes). This way the ends are sticking up – and you can part the straw to plant inside. However water will pour out of the bale more easily.
    2. Alternatively you can place them so that the string is on the ground (opt for plastic or wire if this is the case). This means that the stalks are horizontal, and less water will be wasted.


Conditioning The Bales

Before you start planting, you will need to condition the straw bales – this will take at least two weeks so be prepared.

All that conditioning entails is wetting and fertilizing the bales to begin the decomposition process inside. You will need to put nitrogen rich fertilizer onto the bale every couple of days and then saturate the straw with water. On the days when you don’t use fertilizer, still water the bales thoroughly.

Phosphorus and potassium should also be added on around the 10th day. After two weeks you should feel that the bales are hot and moist when you poke your finger inside. If you see mushrooms sprouting out then celebrate, they won’t do any harm to the plants and are a great sign that everything is progressing as it should.

At this point you can erect any trellises that you will need.

May

Image by Cappers Farm.com

Fertilization

The Washington State University has the following advice for fertilizing the bales:

Adequate nutrient supply is critical for plants growing in bales. Make sure that plants have a sufficient supply of the major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium throughout the season. Nitrogen deficiency is very common in straw bale beds because the microbes are using much of the available nitrogen to break down the bale, and nutrients are lost from leaching. If the oldest leaves begin to turn yellow before their physiological maturity, this is an indication that nitrogen may be limiting. Purpling is a symptom of phosphorus deficiency, while leaf margin necrosis (brown leaf edges) is a symptom of potassium deficiency.

Planting In The Bales

When the bale is ready to be planted you can use seeds or plants – herbs, plants and vegetables are great choices. If you are using seeds begin by placing a couple of inches of top soil on the bale and soak it well. The seeds will grow roots down inside the bale. Make a space in the bale for each plant if you are going for seedling, and use sterile potting mix to pack in the plants. You can plant in the sides as well as the top of the bale.

Continue to fertilize and water regularly, you may need to water twice a day initially. Once they begin to decompose you will find that the bales need less regular watering. A soaker hose is one way that many people choose to keep their bales hydrated.

Then you can simply sit back and enjoy your harvest throughout the season!

If you would like any more guidance, check out the video below for a fantastic tutorial.

What Happens Next?

You can expect to get one or two good growing seasons from a straw bale garden, and once they have passed their prime they can be used for mulch and compost.

So there you have it, simple and effective! I for one am excited to give it a try. Most gardens can get going with 2 or 3 bales.

What do you think? Have you ever tried hay bale gardening? We would love to hear from you!

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Comments

  1. Great article! If anyone is looking for more information please let them know they can visit our website at http://www.StrawBaleGardens.com we have a great newsletter and webinars and awesome pictures, all free stuff! If they are looking for the ultimate guide to growing in bales, they can get a copy of “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” my latest book, also available on our website.

  2. what a geat idea, I have barn loft with plenty of hay bales to try this with, excited. great sunny location but really rocky soil as in granite boulders within few inches of surface as this could be the answer.

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