Hay Bale Gardening Techniques

There has been a recent move in gardening to plant in hay bales. I have used bales on and off for about 10 years. One year when I was having trouble getting my garden tilled I heard that some people used hay bales to plant in and being one to try the new and unusual decided I should give it a try. And to my surprise the bales were a success and they had a unique look. Foggy background
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valerie Everett

I prefer straw bales as they contain less seed and last longer but straw is more expensive so my choice for the garden depends on the best buy I can get or which crop I am growing. For squash plants and gourds I use hay bales. For my tomatoes and peppers I use straw.

Hay Bale Gardening method

So, if your soil is poor or you want to use the raised bed method but are short on soil,  you may want to consider growing your crops in hay. First get bales that still have the string tightly around the bale. This gives you control in moving the bale.

And if you know where you want your garden position the bales. The bales get heavy when wet so you will simplify preparing the garden if you select your garden area when you purchase the bales. If possible let your bales set outside during the winter. This gets the bales wet throughout.

If you are just getting your bales, give the bales a thorough soaking, and let them begin to break down before you plant your vegetables. If the weather is warm, soak them several times during the day for four days.

On the fifth day, apply your choice of liquid fertilizer to the top of each bale. I use liquid compost I have made. Manure tea works well too. Repeat this for three or four more days depending on the crop you will grow. (Gourds and heavy feeders get four days on added fertilizer) When you are done soaking the bales allow one or two days for the bales to set.

Next apply a 50-50 mix of topsoil and manure on the top of each bail or your own compost soil mix. The soil is about 4 inches thick on top of the bale. This will hold the moisture in the bale, add nutrients to the bale during the season and is a place to plant seeds. Bale of straw
Creative Commons License photo credit: Average Jane

Moisten the bales with a fine water spray. You are now ready to plant your bale garden. Pull apart the bale by hand to make a hole to put your plant. I also add some soil if I am planting a transplant. Each bale should hold two tomato plants, four pepper plants or two squash plants. Cucumber and lettuce are spaced differently. I use the square foot gardening spacing guide. An example would be six to eight cucumbers, three yellow squash or 12-15 bean seeds per bale. And lettuce would be spaced 6 inches apart.

Annual herbs like basil, cilantro and parsley grow well in bales. I tend to mix them in with other vegetables. Watermelon and cantaloupe can also be planted in bales but I like to have a stronger fertilizer mix for these heavy feeders so plant them in a straw bale square.

Root crops don’t so as well in bales. Their roots are crowded but I have found they thrive in containers and are so easy to harvest – just tap the container to loosen the soil and dump the container. And grow potatoes in loose straw for a great crop.

Hay bale gardening is easy and the garden area has a unique look. I also use a square bale garden formation for heavy feeding plants, lay out the bales for an interesting garden and have mossed the sides of the bales for a very artistic flower garden. hay bale gardening a versatile form of gardening.


  • Buy your bales off season for a better price. Sometimes in late spring they will be free for the hauling.
  • Plant flowers around the base for a fun look to your bale garden.
  • Stack the bales two high if you want a garden that is easy on the back.
  • Straw bales have less seeds in the bale but cost twice as much
  • Bales should last two years.
  • When you are done using the bales, compost them for more soil for another gardening year.
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