November 30, 2012

by Chip Stelpflug, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by
Charla Borchers Leon, Victoria County Master Gardener
Gardeners' Dirt
Hay can be placed as mulch or top cover in a garden bed or as filler for exposed or idle space to help protect plants or prevent weeds from taking over the area.
Butternut squash, Roma tomatoes and basil are shown successfully growing from the hay bale garden through summer into early fall. Notice the fruit of the vining squash (lower right) and upright tomato plants (middle left); egg plant is another option for fall hay bale gardening.
This planted hay bale garden is placed up against a fence with wiring for support and protection.
Hey, hey, hay!

You just have to appreciate the English language and its many phonetic challenges to most everyone - except Texans. You all know what I am saying when I yell, "Hey there!" So, hey there! Listen up. I'm talking about hay and its multiple uses in and around the garden.

But first, let me put that "hey" to rest. Hey, good to be writing for you again. Hey, I hope your gardening efforts have rewarded your family with a bountiful harvest of welcomed vegetables and fruits.

The cold snap has finally arrived in the Victoria area - and with it, the need to once again do some planning and work inside planted and idle areas in your garden. So, I'll be suggesting some ideas of the many uses of hay.

Some gardeners bought hay bales for a Halloween decoration or hay ride and if those bales are idle, assuming you don't have livestock to feed those bales of hay, I have some suggestions for garden uses.


Hay bales make excellent mulch. If your soil continues to hard pack between plantings, I suggest some leftover hay tilled or turned into those beds. The nutrients and organic matter hay provides will mix with your existing soils and help amend those hard-packed areas.

Top cover

Use loosened hay placed around seedlings and over the exposed areas of your furrows and bedding planters. This provides an inexpensive alternative to heavier bark-type toppings when it comes time to plant.

Weed barriers

You can officially jot down, note and even use a permanent marker to record this statement. I hate to weed. So, anything I can use to prevent, limit and eliminate this chore, count me in.

Use six inches or more of hay placed on top of the beds and around plants to prevent and control weeds during your garden's wintering.

Moisture retention

Using hay as a topping will save time with your plants' watering requirements. The need for moisture will lesson with a good layer of hay. As the hay settles, it will hold moisture and prevent the top of the ground from crusting.

And, while addressing moisture, let me remind you to keep ample moisture available to those idle beds, as well. The organic and natural enzymes do their best work with suitable moisture.

Hay bale gardening

Probably the most fun and surprising harvesting results have come from experiments in my garden.

•Use the whole bale.

I tried hay bale gardening, my favorite use for the whole bale of hay. I read about this gardening technique and had the room to try it, so I thought, "What is there to lose?" If it did not work out, I would have an abundant supply of top cover compost.

Well, the result was - and is - an overwhelming success story. My experiment resulted in an incredible harvest of Roma tomatoes, basil, and my hardy butternut squash plants provided fruit up until the cold snap several weeks ago.

Like with any other intended gardening location, preparing the hay bale before planting is necessary.

•Season the bale.

With a ratio of one cup per bale, spread straight numbered fertilizer (e.g., 10-10-10 or 13-13-13) over the bale. Water in, and wait two weeks. Apply 1 inch of compost over the whole bale. Water and wait another two weeks.

•Plant in the bale.

To plant transplants in the bale, dig a hole and add the soil of the plant or potting soil to the hole. Best results will likely come from planting vining or fruiting vegetables in added potting soil. Place plants in the holes allowing for recommended space between them. Care for them as you would if they were planted in a regular garden.

Place your hay bale next to a fence or wiring for support. Watch your plants grow, and before you know it, you will be harvesting from your hay bale garden.

Works well in both growing seasons

The hay bale gardening technique works well in both spring through summer and fall into winter growing seasons because of its unique design.

Because your plants' roots are deeper inside the bale, cold snaps are less stressful to the plants. The bale itself can support cages or cover supports in case of a frost.

In summer, plants enjoy similar benefits - deeper roots and less stress from the August through September heat. Watering requirements are less often because of the wicking effect the hay bale provides and also because it is impossible to over water due to the excess water draining, thus almost eliminating the possibility of drowning the roots.

If any of you readers are on the fence as to starting a garden because of space or lack of available soil then hay bale gardening might be for you.

So, there you have it. Hay and its multiple uses. Garden well and enjoy the bounty.
•  Season bale with 1 cup of fertilizer.

•  Use straight numbered (10-10-10; 13-13-13) product.

•  Water and wait two weeks.

•  Spread 1 inch of compost over whole bale.

•  Water and wait another two weeks.

•  Dig holes and add potting soil.

•  Plant transplants.

•  Place bale near fence or wiring for support.

•  Provide recommended care for chosen plants.

• Works well in both growing seasons

• Bale supports cages or cover supports in cold

• Less stress and watering requirements in heat

• Requires small amount of space; less available soil

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901; or vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.