Tomatoes, in Hay Bales?

by Don Clarke
(Zebulon, North Carolina)

I just moved to the triangle area of North Carolina, from Central California, and I have seen something out here that perplexes me to no end. Some of the personal gardens have tomatoes plants grown in hay bales,(Plants are two to a bale). I was wondering if this would be for the water retaining quality or would it be for the nutrients that they might possibly derive from the decomposing hay through the season. And would these plants have to be fed with other nutrients through the season? You see now why I'm questioning the practice. I didn't snoop in their garden as I don't want to get a load of buck shot in my hind quarters but it did seem that their plants produced, but it really didn't seem to do anything in as grand a manner to warrant the added cost and trouble. But I also thought that it might be a way to have hay mulch for the garden at the end of the year. Possibilities, but all conjecture on my part. can you help me?

Answer: If the hay stays moist, it will decompose. This not only releases available Nitrogen to the plants growing in the hay bale, but it also supports a great number of beneficial micro-organisms. One gardening technique, called lasagna gardening, involves laying down layers of hay, compost, straw, and/or manure. In much the same fashion, the layers provide a lot of air space, encourage beneficial micro-organisms, and release available nutrients to the plants.

Good, organic compost is made in a similar fashion. Two parts brown material (usually straw and/or leaves) to one part green material (usually hay and/or grass clippings) is the suggested ratio. Kept in piles at least 4x4x4 feet and kept moist, a large population of beneficial micro-organisms decompose the raw materials into rich humus and make other nutrients available for plants.

This gardening technique has an additional benefit. Very few weeds grow in a garden put together this way. The few weeds that DO grow pull out very easily. The hay bales make the whole garden raised, which makes weeding just a little bit easier. At the end of the gardening season, you are left with an excellent base with which to start the garden the following season.

Compared to the cost of manure or compost (assuming you don't have a free source), using hay bales in this way can be an affordable option for establishing a small, productive garden. Hope this answers your question Don, and Happy Growing!

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