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Bale Gardening - A Great Alternative to Conventional Gardening

Richard Zondag - President, J. W. Jung Seed Co

My impetus for trying bale gardening came from questions I received on it at a couple of seminars I did in the spring of 2013. Some attendees had good luck and although I tried it many years ago with poor luck, I now had some references to follow that made a big difference. The area I chose was just inside the area I exercise my daughter’s two dogs. It had a chain link fence to train the climbing vegetable on as well as a structure to lean the bales against. My bale garden was quite successful even though I didn’t start until late May when I had some time to spend on it. It was very successful and I now have a year of experience behind me, so now I can improve on the success I had this year.

First, the process I missed when I tried bale gardening before was to condition the bales before planting. It took about two to two and a half weeks to accomplish. It starts by placing the bales on their side so the pointed straw sides are pointed up. This means that the long smooth side is against the fence. It took about 12 bales for the area I wanted to cover and I placed 12 bales about 6 feet away from the fence for vegetable that didn’t climb. The process of conditioning was to water the bales thoroughly two days. This soaked the bales and now they were ready to have the nitrogen that would start the “internal composting” that allowed the nutrients to be available. This was done by sprinkling a half cup of urea on the top of the bale and watering it in. I did this for three days. Then I sprinkled a quarter cup of urea on the bales and watered it in for 3 days. This is all the fertilizer I used until after the bales were planted. The result of this conditioning was the bales were quite hot on the inside. It took about three days for them to cool off enough so the plants would not be injured.

Watering Bale Gardens

I wanted to make the maintenance of the bales as easy as possible, so I set up an automatic watering system. The watering system I used was a device that can purchased from most garden centers and attaches to a hose or water bib. It can be set to water once, twice or more a day and the amount of time can be set from five minutes to whatever you want to water. My setting was once a day for 5 minutes. The hoses coming out of the watering regulator went to the center of the bales and a soaker hose was attached that leaked the water out slowly for the time set. The hose and soaker hose were still in great shape to use next year, so even though it cost a little to install, I hope to get a few years out of the system. I also put a splitter in the line so I could attach a hose for hand watering if necessary.

Fertilizing Bale Gardens

The initial nitrogen added to the bale to condition it was only enough to compost the straw, so more fertilizer was needed to get the growth necessary. You can add this fertilizer by using compost tea, soluble plant food or garden fertilizer. I used a cup of 8-8-8 when I planted the bales and then a weekly feeding with a well balanced soluble plant food. The growth from the bales was outstanding and even though I had a late start I received a bounty of produce.

Planting Bale Gardens

The method of planting depended on whether I was using started seedlings or seeds. If I used plants, I just used a trowel to open a slit in the straw and then placed the seedling at the depth it would be planted in the ground. When planting seeds, if the seeds were large like cucumbers or melons, I just parted the straw and put the seeds a couple inches deep. With smaller seeds like carrots and beets that if sown on the surface would filter down in the bale and may not germinate, so the areas I grew the seed crops, I first took some compost and peat based potting soil and mixed them together about 1/3 compost and 2/3 potting soil. I then placed this mixture on the top of the straw so I had a nice level planting surface. I spread the seed in a bed type arrangement so seedlings would sprout all over the bale and I put another inch of the mix over the seed and watered it to get good germination. Next year, I may place row cover material over the area to help with germination. With the tomato, eggplant and pepper plants, I used the new grafted plants to see how they would perform in this system compared to another method I used. I will further describe what happened when I review my results by vegetable.

Some of the problems I generally had were half way through the summer, the bales that were not against the fence started to tip as the composting must have gone faster on one side than the other. My solution was to put fence post on one side of the bales and place 2x4’ on the posts to support the side that was tipping. This helped, but some of vegetables reacted to this. Again this will be described with the vegetable that was affected. I did water occasionally by hand if the bales seemed to be drier than I thought they should be, but in most cases, little extra watering was necessary.

Vegetables planted in the bales were:

  1. Tomato Plants – I used the new grafted tomatoes that we are selling in the catalog and garden centers to see how they would perform. The main instruction with these plants is not to plant the graft in the ground, so they can’t be planted too deep. The graft is only an inch or so above the root system. The other major cultural instruction is they should not be allowed to touch the ground as they would root and interfere with the disease resistance gained by the root system. This is how I did the tomato plants, the bale was parted with a trowel just deep enough to insert the root system with the graft above the ground. The tomatoes were planted near the chain link fence, so as they grew they could be trained on the fence. This would be done by using twist ties to hold the vines to the fence as it grew. Remember that you need to tie the vines loosely so the vine has room to grow in diameter as it matures. Tomatoes were a resounding success in this system as the vines grew up and over the 4’ fence. They produced abundant tomatoes. I did have to prune the suckers as the vine grew in order to keep the vines under control. These tomatoes produced fruit through the season and right up to the time they froze. Our cellar is full of canned tomatoes and tomato sauces that we made with Mrs. Wages tomato mixes. We made pasta sauce, tomato paste, salsa and a couple others.

  2. Pepper plants – We also used the grafted pepper plants. They also produced a lot of fruit. Next year I am going to stake the plant on poles or twist tie them to the fence as they became so heavy with fruit that they tipped over or were hidden when they leaned against the fences. The combination of the bale garden and grafted plants more than doubled the peppers that were produced. We did both green bell peppers and jalapeño hot peppers. Next year I may acidify the area around the plants as peppers like a little sour soil.

  3. Eggplants – I used the grafted eggplant variety Epic (formerly Dusky). The plants were very productive, but staking is also necessary to make sure the fruits mature and are visible. A bamboo stake or tying to the fence if one is available would do.

  4. Vine Crops – Vine crops planted in the bales next to the fence were Cucumbers Sweeter Yet Hyb and Summer Dance Hyb. Both of these are slicing cucumbers that grow long slim cucumbers when on a fence or trellis. Needless to say all our friends had as many cucumbers as they wanted. I also tried the Watermelon Sugar Baby, a small 6 to 8# melon. I used twist ties in the area where the melons were produced to help support the weight, but they did well also. Be sure you harvest them before they get too ripe, which is what happened to a couple of them. I also planted Perfect Pick Hyb zucchini seeds on the bale row not on the fence. It produced an abundance of fruits which is what happens with zucchini. At the end of the row of bales not on the fence I planted a hill of Dick’s Pick Butternut Squash. The vines did grow out into the lawn, and produced 8 to 10 fruits that were great in the fall when winter squashes are harvested. Needless to say, vine crops were a great success.

  5. Sweet Potatoes. – I planted several sweet potato vines in the bales that were not on the fence, but they were planted so late, that the number of sweet potatoes was not the greatest. Next year I plan to start conditioning the bales in early April so they get in earlier. I think I also needed to use more fertility in the area where the sweet potato vines were planted.

  6. Irish or Common Potatoes. – I also had a late start with the these potatoes and planted the pieces about half way down in the bales. I didn’t expect too many potatoes, but I was surprised when I cleaned up the bales to find many potatoes deep in the bales. They were very productive and had many very large potatoes on the Kennebecs I planted. Others did well also. A lot of potatoes ended up near the bottom of the bales, so they weren’t found until I cleaned up the bale area. Next year I will be cleaning up the bales earlier in the fall to make sure I find all the potatoes. I am going to plant them earlier next year and expect them to produce a lot of potatoes. I will be looking for early small potatoes by mid to late summer.

  7. Cabbage Plants. – Cabbage plants planted in the bales did great. I used a large variety call Megaton and we harvested a couple of really great heads. I think early cabbage with smaller heads would work a little better, but this variety did well and was very good.

  8. Broccoli/ Brussel Sprouts – We planted three or four plants of Packman Broccoli. The main heads were very large and matured fast. Then every couple weeks, we were able to cut side shoots to have a nice meal or to freeze for the winter. We did treat the broccoli with Thuricide to control cabbage loopers and were very pleased with the results. Broccoli was one of the easiest of the plants to grow on the bales. Brussels Sprout plants need to be staked or tied to the fence. The ones I planted were not staked, and they sprawled on the ground. Although the sprouts formed nicely, they would have been better if they were stalked or attached to the fence.

  9. Peas/Beans – we planted a couple varieties of peas on the bales behind the cabbages and broccoli. The vines found the fence and the vines grew up the fence very nicely. I prefer the snow peas and snap peas, but I think any of the peas would have adapted to this kind of culture. I didn’t plant pole beans, but next year I am going to plant some to see how they work. I think beside the pole beans I am going to try the yard long beans.

  10. Carrots – I really overdid it with carrots. In an attempt to produce a great crop of carrots and use the bales to the maximum, I covered most of the unfenced bales with the compost/potting soil mix so I could put carrots over most of the surface. I felt the ones that were under the shade of the sweet potatoes or other crops just would be a bit smaller. I did spread seed over most of the surfaces to see how many carrots I could produce. A number of different varieties were planted to see which would be best for bale production. Although we had a great production of carrots many did not have long straight roots like you like to see. I think the bent and forked carrots that were produced grew that way because the roots were damaged when the bales started to tip. Although I tried to thin the number of seedlings, many clumps were found, but it didn’t seem to reduce the size of the carrots. The carrots were late to develop as in August the roots were still quite thin and small. But, by the time I cleaned up the bales, I had over a bushel of carrots. Some were quite large and are referred to as dicers. There were a lot of nice straight carrots. I have them stored in the basement refrigerator. If they last, we will not have to purchase any carrots until spring. They were certainly just as nice as the ones I have grown in my garden previously. Another success.

  11. Onions - Now for one that I need to work on. Even though I planted a couple bunches of onions, I did not get the growth I had hoped. I’m not sure if the nutrient level was too low or if the amount of water didn’t allow them to grow, the onions planted did not produce what I had expected.

Other observation on the bales, they did produce some black mushrooms by mid-summer. These are there because the straw is being composted by micro-organisms that have mushrooms that are their fruiting structures. The mushrooms eventually disappear or can be removed. They neither improve nor hurt the vegetables growing out of the bales. During the season, I am going to use more fertility during and at the end of the season I will clean up the bales much earlier as I found some frozen potatoes near the bottom of the bales.

One vegetable I don’t think will work is sweet corn. I think the stalks would not be able to stand without support. I didn’t try lettuce, but am going to give it a try. If any of you are experienced bale gardeners, any advice would be appreciated.

Overall, I had very good success with my first attempt at bale gardening, but I am hoping to do a better job next year. My hope is to get started earlier next spring. I investigated this method on the internet and found many interesting ideas. One of the most useful was an article by UVW Extension Specialist, John Jett, called Straw Bale Gardening.

Happy Gardening!

Richard Zondag
President, J. W. Jung Seed Co.

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