How To Set Up An Affordable Hay Bale Garden

by Tracy Godsey
How to Set Up an Affordable Hay Bale Garden photo

Hay bale gardening can provide many of the same labor-saving benefits of raised bed gardening, but with a cheaper price tag. We explore how to set up and care for a hay bale garden.

Raised bed gardens are a great solution for growing plants if you can’t bend easily, your dirt is poor, or you don’t even have soil.

But if the cost of construction supplies like wood and nails won’t leave much room in your budget for important gardening supplies like seeds and plants, consider using a hay bale garden instead.

Hay bale gardens provide several advantages

  • There is no need to rotate crops, since each season you start with new hay bales.
  • The plants grow in a complete organic environment. Organic soil-free potting media will help hold nutrients and water more efficiently for faster growth.
  • Hay bales create an environment similar to gardening hills in soil. The plants will have good drainage.
  • Weeding time is minimized.

How to select hay bales good for gardening

Select bales of hay or straw from fields that have not been treated with herbicides that contain clopyralid or picloram, such as tordon, surmount or garzon. These weed killers will stay in the bales and can affect the growth of the plants.

Straw bales typically have fewer weed seeds than hay bales, since the straw comes from cereal grains that have been harvested. The best bales come from wheat, rice or barley straw. These types of bales have good drainage. If you must choose hay bales, choose Bermuda, fescue, ryegrass or a grass native to your area. Select rectangular bales that are firm and tied tightly.

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How to set up your hay bale garden

Place the bales in a sunny location. Most plants need at least six hours of sunlight each day. Plants such as tomatoes that do not receive this much sun will not produce as much fruit. Once the garden is in place, you will not be able to move the bales.

The surface where you put your garden should be a place that can accept runoff. If you are gardening on concrete or on a rooftop, you will need to provide a place for the runoff water to go. You can place the bales on a tarp. This will divert the water to other areas so that it is not concentrated directly in one spot.

Place the bales so that the bindings are facing upward and the grain of the straw or hay is parallel to the ground. Do not cut the bindings.

Completely soak the bales with water from a garden hose once or twice every day for three days. If you are gardening on a rooftop, be aware that a 50-pound bale will hold 125 pounds of water. Make sure the surface you are gardening on will hold this weight. (See Reduce Your Water Bill with Rain Barrels.)

On the fourth day, add two cups of dolomite lime and 1/2 cup ammonium sulfate to the bale. Mix this fertilizer into the top of the bale by scratching it into the grain of the hay or straw fibers with a gardening fork and water it in by once again saturating the bale.

Add fertilizer to the bale for the next five days. If you are gardening organically, use a manure tea as your fertilizer. If not, use 1/2 cup ammonium sulfate. The ammonium sulfate or manure tea will activate microbes that decompose the bale in the center of the hay.

On day 10, add 1/2 cup of a balanced 8-8-8 fertilizer or one cup of a 10-10-10 fertilizer. The numbers on the package represent the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the fertilizer. Add another 1/2 cup of this fertilizer once per month as your plants grow. Never fertilize the bales more than once per month after they have been planted.

The bales should be ready to plant on day 11. Create a top cap of soil for the bale garden by mixing bagged potting soil and bagged, composted manure from your local garden center. Spread this over the top of the bales in a four-inch layer. Manure must be composted to eliminate weed seeds.

Time to plant your haybale garden

Plant vegetable transplants by pushing aside the top cap and pulling the straw fibers open. Place the root ball of the plant directly into the straw fibers. Then push the fibers closed around the root ball and move the top cap back in place. A bale of hay is large enough for two tomato plants or four pepper plants, but you may plant any type of vegetable in your garden. Spring gardens may be planted just after the last yearly frost date in your region. A fall garden may be planted by midsummer.

Check the bales daily once they are planted to see if they need watering. Even if the outside of the bales are moist, the inside must remain as damp as a rag that has been wrung out.

When the season ends, simply remove the bales.


  • Nagel, D. & Potter, W. (2005). Gardening in the Bale. Mississippi State University Extension Service.
  • Wade, Dr. Gary. & Zerba, Raymond. (January 26, 2010). Hay Bale Gardening. University of Florida IFAS Extension.
  • Hoade, Linda. (November 20, 2010). Straw Bale Garden. Penn State University.

Reviewed February 2023

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