Act: Inspiration

Round Bale Gardening

June 5, 2017

The jury is still out on my 2017 gardening season, but I can definitely attest to the fact that vegetables will grow in round hay bales. Our soil here in north central Texas is very alkaline with little actual topsoil. It’s amazing that anything grows, but bluebonnets and many other wild flowers do well. Mustang grapes and dewberries (a thorny vine blackberry) flourish. Plus there are wild plums, cactus, and mesquite pods that are edible.

This looks like my best gardening year ever, using raised “lasagna” or “keyhole garden” beds, cardboard/mulch/hay for potatoes, and the 4 X 6 round hay bales. I also have a small greenhouse that houses the malabar spinach, peppers, and a few winter tomatoes. The main considerations here are:

  1. Terrible soil
  2. Wildly variable temperatures . . . it can be 90 or 12 degrees from November to April . . .
  3. Temperatures can reach to the 100s in May already
  4. Inconsistant rainfall – floods or droughts are common

These are the conditions one must counter to ever successfully garden here. How do we address these concerns?

  1. Build your own soil with lasagna gardens, haybale gardens, or a meticulous composting regime.
  2. You have to be prepared to cover with insulating cloth when it gets cold.
  3. Then you make shade cloths for when it gets hot.
  4. Irrigation is required. The good news is that small raised beds do not require as much water as a garden in the ground.
  5. Finally . . . you plant and grow food whenever and whereever you can. You have to do a fall garden here too. One way is to shade and irrigate enough during the summer so plants come back and produce. The odd thing is that you have to plant seeds in August, when it is hot. Another complication is that nurseries mostly do not provide vegetable garden plants in August. That means I need to learn how to do it. Thus far I have failed miserably in starting plants!

A discussion of each growing method . . .

This potato method has been my most successful to date. We have been pulling out potatoes to eat and give away for a month now. Tricky thing in NC Texas is that once the plants have died, you have to make sure you dig them immediately before they rot. Not like back home where you can leave them in the ground for a long time. To create this garden I first laid down cardboard. Then my husband used the tractor to dump a couple loads of mulch on the cardboard. I placed the already sprouted, cut and dried seed potatoes eye-side-up in the mulch. Finally, covered them with about a foot of hay. Wound a soaker hose through it on top. Gathering the new potatoes is so easy!

I put up my first raised beds about five years ago. Many thanks to Dr. Deb Tolman, for her videos and inspiration. Originally built them as keyhole gardens placing a cylinder cage down in the middle. This is a layered bed where you alternate cardboard, mulch, manure, paper, leaves, grass clippings – whatever – and add earth worms. The intention is that you put your table scraps in that center cage and they nourish the garden bed. I never had enough to fill them, so it was an empty cage in the middle. I took them out the second year. It was immediately apparent, however, that I had discovered something that worked! Despite a couple of years of drought and grasshoppers, I was starting to harvest vegetables.

Two years ago I planted fruit trees in three of those raised beds. Plums, pears, peaches, persimmons, and pomegranates. That summer I broke my ankle, so they did not get watered, but still survived. Last year they were small enough that I planted vegetables amongst them. I harvested carrots for the first time and froze 50 quarts of tomatoes. You can see in the pictures how tall these trees are this year and they are starting to produce. Contrast them with the walnut tree I planted 3 years ago in the ground. Pitiful!

This year I added four more raised beds that have rotted logs at the bottom. I layered cardboard, logs, creekbed dirt, cardboard, and mulch on the top. These house the fig trees, artichokes, and corn. I have never managed to get any of these crops to crops to survive in many previous attempts. At this point they all look wonderful. Three of the beds are built with concrete blocks, and one with dirt bags.

I wanted even more raised beds this year, but didn’t have the time to build them. Nor did I want to spend that much money. Then a friend of mine sent me an article about hay bale gardening. Wow. These people were using square bales or straw bales. There were many testimonials on YouTube, plus through c99, I got a link from Bisbonian to his partner’s blog. This was the best source of information.


I went the 4 X 6 round hay bale route because there are so many rotting older round bales in the fields. On the advice of the folks at my favorite farm and garden store, I just put an ad in the classifieds for older round bales. With delivery and a good price, I ended up with 11 bales.

The most significant difference between the large bales and the smaller square bales is that the larger mass meant much higher temperatures during the conditioning process. To be able to get plants to grow in hay bales, you have to condition them with some sort of nitrogen fertilizer so they start composting. You can use commercial nitrogen fertilizer or urine (also nitrogen fertilizer). Water them every day, but apply nitrogen every other day. Taking the temperatures of the bales with a meat thermometer, some bales were over 185 degrees (the highest my thermometer would go). Large bales will get much hotter and take longer to cool down enough to plant. For square bales you only need to condition them for about 10 days. I put tomato plants in bales before they were cool enough and it burned them. After moving some and putting soil around others, nearly all survived. That was my first mistake. Fortunately the bales cooled down after about another week.

The second mistake I made also involved conditioning. I bought bales from two different farmers. The first group was only loosely wrapped with cheap plastic or not at all when I began the conditioning. They are the bales that got really hot. For the second group, I shrink wrapped them before I started to apply the nitrogen. It seemed like a good idea because it would hold the moisture in. Right? Wrong. The second group of bales did not compost like the first group. I kept the moisture in, but at the same time kept the oxygen out. Once I finally realized the bales were not composting, I pulled the plastic down a couple of feet and applied more nitrogen to the outer edges. Next time around I will allow more time for conditioning and cooling, and will not shrink wrap the bales until composting is well underway.

I have soaker hoses and timers on everything. Since it is already about 100 degrees in the open sun, I sewed burlap shades for most beds. My husband welded a 3 inch T at the top of 4 ft. rebar. I attached each shade at the corners to four of these rebar stakes with plastic wire ties. It was mid-May before I finished the shades. The benefit was profound. Everything had been burning up in the sun.

This is always the crucial time of year. Will the weather cooperate so I can harvest? The potato and onion crops will be fine. Getting some eggplant, squash and zucchini, and quite a few green beans. However, the cucumbers bloom and bloom yet don’t set fruit. I see many little watermelons, but no cantelope. There are small ears of corn. Will they get bigger? Tomatoes?

The advantages of 4X6 round bale gardening are:

  • Easy to get started
  • You can put them anywhere you have room
  • Sustainable (in our area)
  • Most plants grow well
  • Reshape for additional plantings

In another month or so I will do an update. I welcome advice and suggestions in the comments!

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, home gardening