A fun technique to try in your vegetable plot is “bale” gardening. Using straw or hay bales to grow plants in is a great option for people who have limited mobility, for those whose garden soil is poor, and for those who have little space to garden. It’s an easy and low-cost way to create raised beds. They provide the perfect place to grow sweet potatoes, vining melons, and plenty of other vegetables.
The first item needed for this endeavor is the straw or hay bale. The difference between hay bales and straw bales derives from what they are made of. Hay bales are comprised primarily of grasses. These grasses still have seeds attached. Straw bales are comprised of only the stalks of plants, such as grain plants. As a rule the stalks do not have seeds attached, although some seeds or grains may remain due to the inability of machinery to remove them all. Therefore, straw bales are preferred over hay since straw contains less seed than hay. Pine straw bales do not work well.
The straw or hay bale should be tight and held together with two to three strands of twine, preferably made from a biodegrad¬able material such as sisal, but synthetic materials can also be used. Biodegradable twines should be positioned parallel to the ground to avoid their hastened decomposition.
Place the bales in a location that is easily accessible and in an area that receives a minimum of six hours of full sun. Bales can be arranged based on space, type of production, and mobility needs. You can also design the place¬ment of the bales for an attractive appearance. In any case, ease of maintenance should be considered when designing the garden.
Next, the bales must be conditioned. Fresh straw bales must be watered and allowed to decompose for at least one to two weeks before planting. This is important because if seed or seedlings are planted into a fresh bale, the microbes in the bale will use any nutrients present to breakdown (or decompose) the straw depriving the growing seedlings of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and other essential elements. Decomposition is an exothermic process meaning that substantial heat is released as the fresh straw is broken down. The heat can damage seed or seedlings placed directly into a fresh bale. Thus, old or pre-conditioned bales are necessary for bale gardening.
To speed up the conditioning process you can apply a nitrogen rich fertilizer. The fertilizer will cause the middle of the bale to decompose and heat up. Repeat the fertilizer applications at regular intervals until a substantial temperature change (or spike) is no longer detected several inches deep in the bale. Generally, a bale is ready to be planted when the temperature remains fairly constant at a depth of about three to four inches.
There are many published ways to condition a bale for vegetable gardening, take your pick. The idea is to accelerate the decomposition of the bale in order to create a perfect growing environment for the plant roots. One recipe for bale conditioning is available from the UF/IFAS Clay County Extension Office. It’s online at http://clay.ifas.ufl.edu/documents/MG/Haybale_garden.pdf.
There are two ways to plant the conditioned ‘bale bed.’ One way is to make pockets or holes about three to four inches deep by gently loosening and carefully removing a small amount of the straw. The number of pockets can vary depending on what you plan to grow. The other method is adding or spreading two to three inches of soil materials on the top of each bale also called a flat straw/hay bale bed. For both methods, the growing medium can be compost or potting media.
Once a growing season is over, remove the old bale and start a new one. It’s that easy.