Hay bale gardening, or straw bale gardening—as it should be called—is a great way to make your growing season easy and plentiful. They’re an alternative to using raised beds and they’re great for growing vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and strawberries with little to no effort on your part. Hay bales are a wonderful growing medium; though corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes aren’t a great choice for straw bales.
Before you start your straw bale garden it’s important to choose a location. Pick a sunny spot that’s near a water source or within reach of your hose. Once you start your garden it will be impossible to move due to the weight, so choose carefully.
Next, you’ll want to source your straw bale. Your local garden centers may carry straw bales, but be sure that they haven’t been treated with any chemicals and that they’re straw and not hay bales. Hay bales contain seeds that will germinate once you condition the bale, and you don’t want that. You want straw, which is the stalk of the wheat plant. Hay is generally sold as livestock feed, so ask before you buy to be sure you’re getting straw.
After you source your bales and have a location, put down some newspaper or cardboard under your bale. This prevents weeds from growing up into the bale, so make sure it sticks out a few inches around the sides of the bale. Then it’s time to condition your bale. Once you’re done conditioning the bales you won’t be able to move it anymore, so be sure about that placement!
Conditioning the bale is next. Conditioning basically turns the bale into a compost pile. You’ll begin by watering the bale. They have to stay wet, so do this once a day. This starts the decomposition process that heats up the bale. After day 4 sprinkle the top of the bale with fertilizer, such as a cup of ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) or half a cup of urea (46-0-0). Your local garden centers can help you find these. Do this for three days. After that, cut the amounts in half and do it for 2 more days. Each day water the fertilizer into the bale to ensure it penetrates all the way through. On the 10th day stop adding fertilizer, but keep up with the watering process.
On day 11 you’ll want to check the bale’s temperature. If it feels about the same as your hand it’s safe for planting seedlings. If not, continue watering and check it the next day. You want to make sure it’s not hot enough to cook tender young plants.
Once the bale is conditioned you can use a small shovel or trowel to dig a hole in the top of the bale. If you are using container plants dig a hole slightly larger than the pot your plant came in. Then remove the pot, being careful not to damage the plant root, and place it in the hole you just made. Do not remove the potting soil around the plant. That should go in the hole along with the plant. Push the straw around the base of the plant to help secure it.
And that’s it! You have your straw bale garden. The most important thing you’ll need to remember once your garden is going is that it will need to be kept constantly moist. This can be accomplished through thoroughly soaked waterings every day or through the use of a soaker hose and drip irrigation. Whichever way you choose the microbes in the straw need that moisture to survive and help your plants to grow, so be sure to help them by keeping your hay bale moist.
Once your bale is done for the year you can take it apart and throw it into the compost pile so you can return the nutrients in it to the soil. It’s the perfect way to garden without waste. Give it a try this summer! You’ll love the results.