Can I plant vegetables in a bale of hay?

Because you asked Lisa Stewart, Extension County Director, Webster County

If you think that growing vegetables is too much work, then you might want to consider growing vegetables in hay bales. Hay bales provide a well-aerated disease-free growing medium that is perfect for growing vegetables with no tillage required. Plus, hay bales are elevated off the ground which makes them perfect for disabled gardeners or gardeners who have trouble bending down. Getting Started- Wheat straw, mixed grass or Bermuda grass hay bales will all work just fine for growing vegetables. The hay or straw should not have been treated with herbicides, as some hay field and crop herbicides can affect the growth of vegetables. Older hay bales that have begun to rot tend to work best for this type of gardening. Fall decorating hay works great! To help this process, it’s best to leave them out all winter before planting into them in the spring. Placing the Bales- Decide on a location for the bales. Place them where you intend to use them, as they get very heavy when wet. For tomatoes or other vegetables, the site should receive at least six hours of sun per day during the growing season. A hay baler cuts the hay when baling, and one side will be uniformly cut. Place the bales on their narrow side, with the “cut side” on top. Bales can be placed in many shapes to fit almost any space. Place the bales on the ground, most weeds will not grow up thru the bale and this will allow the roots of your plants to eventually grow into the soil, which will increase fertilizer and water efficiency. Conditioning the Bales- The next step is to condition the bales. What is conditioning? When wet, hay bales will begin a natural composting process in which they start to decompose. Mother Nature does a great job of conditioning the bales if you get them placed several months in advance of the growing season. This will cut down on the amount of fertilizer needed to condition the bale. Mother Nature Conditioning- Place the bales in the proper site at least two months before the growing season. Sprinkle the top of each bale with 1 cup of Ammonia Nitrate plus ½ cup of 13-13-13 (commonly known as 13-13-13) plus ¼ cup of 0-0-60 (Potassium or Potash). Mother Nature will carry these fertilizers into the bale and will speed up the process of composting so that the bales will be ready at planting time. You could also use manure or other natural fertilizers in place of the inorganic fertilizers. The amount to use will need to be adjusted accordingly. Dry Bale Conditioning- If you started the conditioning process late, this is the method to use. You will need at least two-three weeks to condition the bales for planting. If you do not condition the bale properly, and plant too early, your results may not be satisfactory. Day 1: Evenly sprinkle ½ cup of Ammonia Nitrate across the top of each bale. Thoroughly water this fertilizer into the bale and soak the bale of hay with water until it is water logged. Day 2: Water the bale again until it is completely saturated. Day 3: Evenly sprinkle ½ cup of Ammonia Nitrate per bale and water the fertilizer into the bale. Day 4 & 5: Water the bale again each day until it is completely saturated. Day 6: Evenly sprinkle ½ cup of Ammonia Nitrate per bale and water the fertilizer into the bale. Also, if you put your hand into the interior of the bale, it should be warm. Day 7-8: Water the bale again each day until it is completely saturated. Day 9: Apply 1 cup of 13-13-13 (commonly known as Triple 13) plus ¼ cup of 0-0-60 (Potassium or Potash) water this fertilizer into the bale. Day 10-13: Water the bale each day until it is completely saturated. Day 14: Check the bale to see if it is ready by putting your hand into the interior of the bale to see if it feels hot! This is the last step in the conditioning process. If the interior of the bale is above 125 degrees wait a few more days until the bale feels cooler on the inside. What now exists inside the bale is a dark nutrient- and micronutrient- rich composted organic matter that is slightly warmer than surrounding air and soil temperature as it is still composting. It is weed and disease free, and has good particle structure that holds plenty of moisture but drains excess water easily. It is a plant seedling heaven!! Planting- After your bales have been placed and conditioned, it is time to plant! You can grow almost anything in a straw bale that you can grow in the ground. You may find that some plants are easier than others. Root vegetables like carrots, potatoes and onions can be grown but have some difficulty. Plants like corn tend to be too top heavy. You can plant seedlings or seeds in the bales. Most seedlings can be planted directly into the bale by pulling the bale apart and placing the plant down into the composted material and firming the bale material back around the plant. If you want to plant seeds like beans, place a small layer of compost mixed with soil on the top of the bale, like icing on a cake, and plant the seeds directly into the soil and gently water the planted mixture being careful not to wash the soil off of the seeds. Tomatoes love growing in the bales of hay. Each bale will support two tomato plants. Use tomato stakes, to support the plants. Cages do not support the plants well enough. Adding Additional Fertilizer- Just like in the garden, some vegetables, like tomatoes, require adding additional nitrogen when they start to fruit. Calcium nitrate is the suggested source of additional nitrogen. For tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons of Calcium Nitrate every two weeks after the plants begin to set small fruit. This column is made up of questions presented to the Webster County Extension Service. Please get in touch in person or by phone (258.3971) or e-mail (lisas@ext.msstate.edu) if you have questions you would like to see discussed here.