Hay Bale Gardening
In the past few weeks the Pamlico County Cooperative Extension office has had
numerous calls about the process for growing vegetables in hay bales. To help folks
get off to the best start here are the procedures for successively establishing a hay bale
garden. (Procedures taken from University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agriculture
Sciences, Clay County Extension Service http://clay.ifas.ufl.edu/documents/MG/
1. Acquire a tightly tied wheat-straw bale (ONLY use wheat straw, no
2. Place the bale in an area that receives full sunlight or at least 6 hours of direct sunlight at least two weeks ahead of your scheduled planting date.
3. Do not remove the twine holding the bale together and take steps to secure the bale in position (stakes or rebar driven into or around the bale to anchor in position).
4. Water the bale thoroughly for three days.
5. On day 4, add 2 cups of dolomitic limestone (Ag lime or pelletized lime should
suffice) and ½ cup of ammonium sulfate evenly over the bale and water it in.
6. On days 5-9, add an additional ½ cup of ammonium sulfate to the bale and water
the bale thoroughly. Do not add any more lime. This water and fertilizer regime
will help the bale begin to decompose. The nitrogen is required by the organisms
that breakdown the wheat straw so that they can process the large amount of
carbon in the bale.
7. On day 10, add a cup of a complete fertilizer (8-8-8 or 10-10-10) to the bale and
water it in.
8. Day 11 is planting day. It would probably be beneficial when planting your
transplants to create a pocket in the bale and add potting soil to the planting hole.
The potting soil will help retain extra moisture as the small transplant begins to
grow and the bale continues to rot.
A hay bale may support 2 tomato plants, 3-4 pepper plants, and a couple of cucumbers or squash plants. Transplants are recommended over seeding. The bale must be monitored daily for moisture and watered when the growing area around the plants begins to dry (often requires daily watering). Once plants begin to grow, they should be fertilized
either with a water-soluble product (according to directions) or with a ½ cup of a
complete fertilizer (8-8-8 or 10-10-10) once or twice during the growing season.
Hay bale gardening has a number of benefits and a few restrictions. First, hay bales
provide a convenient method to raise the grade of your growing area and reduce the loss
of plants to excessive water. Hay bales also provide a near disease free growing media
for your plants if you have difficulty with soil borne diseases. In addition, hay bales are
great for limited spaces and are easily located on the property.
The downside to hay bale gardening is the constant need to monitor your plants for
moisture. If you plan a trip longer than a few days, you will need someone to water your
plants. With such a large exposed surface area, hay bales will dry out quickly as weather warms and precipitation decreases. You will also need to anchor the bales well or stake
tall growing plants as they grow to prevent them from falling over.
If this process for preparing the bale appears to time consuming or you would prefer to
add less fertilizer to the system, then consider purchasing bales in late summer or early
fall and leaving them out during the winter. The bales will begin to break down naturally
and should require less fertilizer to sustain your plants. Place bales in the desired
growing area or an area that you will not need to constantly move them, and leave them
exposed to the elements. A little nitrogen will help the bales begin to decompose. This
method may attract unwanted guest (mice, snakes, etc.) and exposed twine holding the
bale together may deteriorate.
Hay bale gardening is an interesting experiment and worth the investment for those
who have difficulties growing in wet areas. However, proper preparation and routine
watering is essential for success. Hopefully these few tips will get your plants off to a
strong start. If you have any questions regarding hay bale gardening or other gardening
questions contact Daniel Simpson at the Pamlico County Cooperative Extension office
for assistance (252) 745- 4121 or Daniel_simpson@ncsu.edu.
Submitted by: Daniel Simpson
Agricultural Extension Agent, Horticulture