Hay Bale Gardening: The Ultimate Guide

Much less weeds, no fertilizers and significantly less watering. What a simple, but life-changing concept.

Toiling away in the heat of summer to produce a beneficial crop out of your garden can seem more like torture than an enjoyable hobby.  The idealistic image of kneeling in prepared soil planting a few seeds in the cool of the day can be a far cry from reality.  The reality of gardening often looks like busting your can day after day whilst sweating profusely just to obtain a few sickly tomatoes.  Am I right?  And that’s only if you have enough ground to plant a viable garden.  

The majority of Americans live in suburbia with a postage-sized plot of land, hardly large enough to grow a salad to feed yourself, much less a family. What if we told you there was a simpler way to plot, cultivate and manage your garden, even in a drought?!  

The solution is hay bale gardening.  

haybale gardenYour life will never be the same again.  And the best part is, anyone can do it!  Hay bale gardening uses bales of hay in place of soil.  Plants can be planted directly on top or the side.  This is especially useful if you do not have space for a huge garden, or if you have difficult soil, or gravel, to work with.  Keep reading to find out how it can make your gardening dreams come true below.

Why Hay Bale Gardening Is Best – Hay vs. Straw

hay or straw

So, hay bale gardening differentiates from straw bale gardening in several ways.  Hay bales are grasses that have been dried and baled together.  Straw bales are stalks of plants, typically corn that are dried and baled together in various shapes and sizes.  The most important detail is that you don’t have to worry about seeds in hay bales.  That’s a huge plus.  One of the major benefits of hay bales is the ability to grow potatoes!  Typically potatoes need a large plot of land, and specific soil conditions, however, hay bales provide a truly effective and simplistic growing solution with minimal effort!  You can even grow potatoes over a parking lot on paved areas!  Just be sure to set the bales in an area that receives a minimum of 6-8 hours of direct sunlight a day.  Three more reasons hay is better than straw is below:

  1. Hay is natural, while straw comes from gmo plants such as soy and corn.
  2. No fertilizer is needed for hay bales because the grass is dried and rich with nutrients ready to grow that bumper crop!  Because hay is comprised of dried grasses, it has the ability to convert sunlight and soil minerals into dense nutrition, making grass the healthiest plant on the planet.  The compost from within the bale of hay is far superior in nutrition than straw.haybaleimage
  3. Hay requires less maintenance. Hay retains much more water than straw because the grass is smaller and more compact than stalks of straw.  Where hay is like a sponge, straw is more like a metal scrubbie. This means that instead of watering 2 or 3 times a day with straw, you only water once per day with hay.

The Process

Step 1: Buying the Bales
To begin your garden, grab your bales of hay.  You can easily find these on craigslist, or from a local farmer. Here’s what a quick search on Craigslist found. $5 a bale isn’t bad at all. Make sure to call up the seller and make sure it’s hay and not straw.. that is unless you want to go the straw route, which works too.

The best bales are ones tightly bound with synthetic twine.  These are less likely to fall apart during the sowing and reaping season.  Once acquired, arrange in your yard, or in pallets, or however you choose to make your garden grow!

haybale fertilizingStep One: Conditioning 

  1. First step is to condition your bales with water and nitrogen treatment.  Purchase 42-0-0 fertilizer, or some nitrogen.  Miracle Gro, Flurin, and Hibiscus are all brands that utilize ammonium nitrate.  You will use this to slowly introduce the process to the bales over a 10 day period that will have the fungi, bacteria and insects breaking down the bales into fresh, virgin compost to feed the plants. You can even pee on them- completing the circle of life!  During this process, the temperature of the bale will rise up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is why it is imperative to keep the hay wet to eliminate risk of fire. When the conditioning process is complete, the temperature will decrease from hot to warm.  This is when you are ready to plant!haybale conditioning
    1. Days 1,3,5,7,9: Add ½ C. nitrogen to bales and spray with water so nitrogen will soak the hay
    2. Days 2,4,6,8: Soak the bale with water only
    3. Day 10: Pour 1 cup of fertilizer with a nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium ratio of 13-13-1 on the bales with water.  This is necessary for the plants to grow.  The numbers measure how much of these nutrients are in the fertilizer by weight.  You can find this on the fertilizer’s label.  Fertilizers that use this ratio are Spectrum, Jobe, Once-A-Year Plant Fertilizer, and Greenleaf.

Step Two: Planting

haybale planting

  1. Plant your vegetable seeds over the entire bale, on the top, sides, everywhere!  Use the same spacing guidelines you would to grow plants in the ground.  In general, one bale handles roughly three broccoli plants, three cauliflower plants, two pumpkin hills, or two tomato plants.  For taller plants, such as corn and sunflowers, you may need to use a tall staking system to give support in standing upright.  Tomato plants especially require additional support, more so than traditional methods.  If planting from seedlings, you do not need to put potting soil on top of the bale.  Plant by driving trowel into the bale, forcing the bale slightly open.  Plant the seedling in the space made.  If planting from seed, put three inches of potting soil or top soil on top of bales.  Plant seeds in the soil.  If planting potatoes, cut the potatoes in two or more sections with at least two eyes on each section.  Place the cut pieces into the hay bale 4 to 6 inches deep spaced 6 to 12 inches apart.  Close the hay over the cut potatoes.  Generally speaking, you will be able to get four potato plants in one bale.

haybale wateringStep Three: Water

  1. Water once a day.  You can’t over water the bales.  Because the bales do not retain water as soil does, they dry out quickly.  Be sure to keep bales wet for entire ten days.

Step Four: Harvest!haybale crop

  1. Harvest time!  Pick your luscious vegetables and enjoy!  For potatoes, check for new potato growth once plants bloom.  Just gently pull back hay and harvest new young potatoes you may find. Close the hay and allow potatoes to continue to grow and check again in fall once foliage dies.

Step Five: Repeat

circle of life

  1. Compost pile when you are done, and start the cycle again!  If this is your second round of planting, continue to plant on top and the decomposing bales will feed your hungry little seeds!