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article imageNifty Tips and Tricks: Hay Bale Gardening

By Debra Myers     Jun 29, 2007 in Environment
Hay or straw bale gardening is another great way have your garden if you have limited space, terrible soil, a bad back or those who are confined to a wheel chair! So much time is saved by not having to weed or hoe or even water as often as well.
What an excellent medium for growing vegetables in! This project was first researched by Dr. N. L. Mansour, who had retired from Oregon State University. Rose Marie Nichols McGee, from Nichols Gardening Nursery designed the one in the uppermost photo in 2004, "to promote Plant A Row For The Hungry, a project of the Garden Writers Association."
Rick Abrahamson, from the University of Minnesota Extension says, "Hay bales provide a well-aerated, disease free growing medium that is perfect for growing vegetables. Plus, hay bales are elevated off the ground which makes them perfect for disabled gardeners or gardeners who have trouble bending down."
The best bales to buy, are wheat straw bales, but straw or hay bales will do. The reason that wheat straw bales are suggested is because they are the freest of weed seeds or perennial seeds. Even better, are bales that have already begun to rot. These bales can last for two planting seasons, and it's better if they have synthetic twine.
Stack the bales, "with the strings wrapping horizontally and the straws set vertically", says Rose McGee. You can chose the height, whether you want 1, 2 or more bales high. You can create a border for your yard, a centerpiece for your yard...there are many options open to you!
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Once you have your bales placed where you want them, the next step is to soak them thoroughly. You will want to do this about 10 days before beginning to plant anything in them. The bales will heat up when wet, and the heat will potentially harm any seeds or plants. If the weather is warm, you will need to water the bales more than once. After 5 to 7 days, the bales will cool down and you can begin to plant.
Fertilizing can be done before or after you apply a layer of topsoil, compost or potting soil.
Now, you can plant your seeds, or transplants. If you are using transplants, take a trowel and dig a hole down through and into the bale, and place the plant in to its first set of leaves. It's suggested not to plant more than 2 tomato plants per bale or 3 pepper plants. If needed, you can hollow the hole out more to accommodate the plant's roots/stems, and add a bit of topsoil to the hole as you plant. Water as needed, using a drip method and an occasional good drenching, and watch your plants grow!
Rose McGee offers this thought: "If you are concerned about how attractive they will appear, sow some white alyssum and tuck in a few marigolds around the base. Sow nasturtiums on the corners of the bales. Make your planting colorful, with Bright Lights Swiss Chard, Merlot Lettuce, Emerald Oak Lettuce and perhaps a cucumber such as Fanfare or Lemon spilling a few fruits over the side. An adjacent bale can have the same skirting of alyssum and marigolds, a repeat of the nasturtiums but could feature a pepper and a tomato plant along with some basil and parsley. No one will complain about your aesthetics but they may hope to be invited to dinner."
I found this to be one of the best gardening "how tos" I've seen in a while, especially since so many of us have limited space to plant a garden in. This medium is so versatile, and will accept any kind of plants. Plus, many times you can get hay bales for little to nothing, more so the more rotted they've become!
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