by Debbie Roland, Master Gardener, Compost Specialist
Have you ever thought about raising a plant or two in a bale of hay? Well, you can and it’s easy and fun, and avoids some West Texas problems like bad soil, weeds, lack of water and limited space, and is great for people who can’t get down on the ground or bend over but still want to garden. You can have just one bale or stack them several high.
Joel Karsten developed this process after watching what happened at his farm when they lost a hay bale on the way to the barn. Before you knew it there would be plants growing from the bales themselves. The hay was decomposing and becoming the planting mix that was growing great plants. He started experimenting with how to speed up the decomposition process in these bales so that he could use them as planters. The process takes 5 minutes a day for twelve days, then you are ready to plant.
You start with a bale of straw hay. The strings holding the bale together will go on the sides of the bale when it is sitting on the ground. You will condition your bale for 12 days. The goal of this process is to get your bale to compost (or rot) internally to a stage at which it will support root growth.
Sprinkle ½ cup of 20-0-0 nitrogen rich fertilizer on the top of the bale for the first 6 days. If you have leftover fertilizer laying around, just use it but be careful that it doesn’t have a herbicide or weed killer in it. Then water it in using warm water.
On Day 2 you will water only. Then alternately repeat this process on the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th days.
On the 7th, 8th and 9th days you will fertilize each day but only use ¼ of a cup of fertilizer, still watering it in each day.
On the 10th and last day of conditioning you will use a 10-10-10 fertilizer (again, anything close to those numbers will work) because we are adding the phosphorus and potassium to the bale at this point, water in.
On Day 11 don’t do anything, just let the bale rest.
Day 12 will give you a slightly composted rich bale that is warmer than air since it is still “cooking”. It will be weed-free, starting to get worms and have bacteria that has good structure and holds moisture. The inside of the bale will look like pepper which is the beginning of the composting process. It will continue to cook and the heat will be used as if you are growing your plants in a greenhouse.
If you would like to add a soaker hose to the top of the bale this is the time. When you are ready to plant, move the hose to the side a little and dig a hole for your plant. The bales are packed VERY tightly. You may have better luck using a round shovel, jamming it into the hay to make an opening. then pull out enough hay to make a hole for the plant and the potting soil. Pliers may help pull out the hay. By the way you are going to be very surprised how warm it is inside the bale.
Open a hole that is big enough to get the roots of your transplant in plus about 2”. Just like any other plant, don’t make the hole deeper than the top of your soil in your transplant. Insert the plant and fill the remainder of the hole with your potting soil.
If you are using seeds, dig down about 1”, add a layer of your potting soil, then your seeds and then more soil.