By Diane Lockspeiser
Reading an article online recently, I was surprised to see our Delaware County listed as one of the top counties in the country for percentage of farmland being used for organic crops. I was surprised, that is, until I saw the main crop listed – hay. Yes, we certainly have lots of that! The first few times that I bought bales of mulching hay from local farmers, I was concerned that they might have been sprayed with chemicals, so I asked. Each farmer looked at me as if I had two heads or something. I stopped asking.
I use the hay for animal bedding, but I also use it for my very ambitious garden, which is still a work in progress. Having gardened for most of my life on the north shore of Long Island, I thought that I was used to working with rocky soil and hills. Hah! It soon became obvious that the ground here is a whole other force to be reckoned with. I have heard the saying “two rocks to every dirt” and it does often seem that way. To make matters worse, in my ambitious ignorance the first year we moved here I ordered six fruit trees, four nut trees, twelve fruit bushes and six grapevines. They all needed substantial holes that were difficult and exhausting to dig. I had no energy left to dig a garden.
Fortunately, I had read several articles about hay bale gardening. No digging. No building frames for raised beds in order to have raised beds. Weeding is usually minimal and easy. Many people have more involved methods involving inoculant sprays and taking temperatures. I have kept it simple: Lay down a rectangular hay bale, cut four-inch square pockets into the top of it, fill the pockets with manure or compost, plant a seedling into each pocket and top with some more manure or compost. With string beans, I just stick the seeds straight into the bale and top them off with manure or compost. They grow like crazy.
One zucchini plant will take over a whole bale by itself. Greens and herbs do well in groups, the number of which depends on their size. I’ve also had success with tomatoes, cucumbers, fava beans, and various flowers. Root crops like potatoes or carrots grow well in the hay bale, but are more prone to the crop being nibbled on by critters. The bales also seem to encourage slugs and snails, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for them and deal with them however you prefer. I usually just send them flying. My throwing arm is getting pretty good! Also, realize that perennial plants will not survive our winters in a bale.
I get two years usage out of the hay bales, and then I’m left with beautiful soil to use. As I gradually build permanent beds in my garden, the bales have provided an easy transition for some of the plants that I grow. There are some, like