Published on 06/02/97

Hay Bales Take Stoop Out of Gardening

Have you ever tried gardening in a bale of hay? It's not just a novelty. It really works.

One day I broke my shovel in my rock-hard soil in Athens. "That's it!" I said. "There has to be a better way!" That's when I discovered hay bale gardening and became a true believer. Here's how it works.

Start with a bale of hay or wheat straw. Pine straw won't work. Bales that have been sitting out in the weather will give you a head-start, because they need to rot before you plant. Fresh bales will require 10 days of pretreatment.

Place the bales in full sun where they can stay all summer, because once they start to rot, they're not very mobile.

Don't remove the wire or cord -- you don't want the bales to fall apart. I've found that a stake at both ends will help hold twine-bound bales together when the twine rots.

Once the bale's in place, saturate it with water and keep it wet, watering it once or twice a day for the next three days.

On the fourth day, apply a half-cup of ammonium nitrate to the top of the bale. Water it in well. Repeat this on the fifth and sixth days.

Ammonium nitrate acts as the energy source for microbes to feed on the straw and cause it to rot. If you stick your hand a few inches inside the bale, it should feel very warm. That's the heat generated by microbes having a feeding frenzy.

On day seven, cut back the ammonium nitrate to one-fourth cup per bale, watered in thoroughly. Repeat this on days eight and nine.

On the 10th day, apply 1 cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer per bale and water it in thoroughly.

By day 11, the bale should be ready for planting. Mix topsoil and rotted cow manure for a 50-50 mix. Put about 4 inches of this mixture on top of each bale and moisten it lightly with a fine water spray.

Transplant tomatoes and peppers right into the bale. Use your hand to pull apart the bale and insert their roots. Each bale should accommodate two tomato or four pepper plants.

Seed other vegetables, such as cucumbers, squash, beans, cantaloupe and watermelon, into the soil mix on top. Three yellow squash, six to eight cucumber or 12-15 bean seeds per bale is about the limit.

Don't plant corn, okra or other tall vegetables in hay bales. They can't get firmly anchored and will fall over.

Over the summer, the bales may need an application of light 10- 10-10 once a month, depending on the crop. A liquid feed, such as 15-30-15 soluble fertilizer applied once a week, will also give excellent results.

You can grow many annual or perennial flowers in hay bales, too. Combine an upright flower such as salvia on top with a trailing annual such as petunia weeping over the sides. It's a striking display and a great conversation piece, too.

Once the gardening season is over, use the hay bales again for the next crop. Or recycle them in the compost pile. Or use them as mulch. Nothing goes to waste.

Hay bale gardening is great for apartment dwellers, too. A half- dozen bales on the back patio can keep the family in produce all summer.

They also add a new dimension to raised bed gardening. They can provide no-stoop gardening for the elderly or people with physical disabilities.

The technique will fascinate school children. Teachers can assign teams and have them treat bales with fertilizer before the school year ends. Let the bales rot all summer, then plant them when school resumes.

Gary Wade is a Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.