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Old bales of hay in the garden

 
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Hi, I had a bunch of old bales of orchard horse hay that I couldn't use up in a timely manner. Occasionally through the years, I noticed if we left a bale out over the winter, by spring it was nicely composted. Not completely, so I'd just rake it into the soil. So in November we took about 20 bales to the garden and just sat them in there and popped the strings. It's Jan, and they are molding in the middle but I really don't see much else happening. Now I'm worried I'm going to have a bunch of moldy hay to deal with in a couple of months.  Do you have any suggestions of what I could do to get this stuff to break down more quickly? I've looked up lime, but not sure it is the right way to go, some composters say it steals the nitrogen that's needed to compost. So would I use fertilizer that has nitrogen? and lime? In hindsight, I should've just laid down some flakes across the garden instead of the the entire bale.  I feel I might've created a big mess.  If you have any ideas, I'd really appreciate it.  Thank you!
 
pollinator
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Old hay is great stuff to have.

Do some reading on the Ruth Stout method of gardening. Short version; lay down a thick layer of hay in the spring. Plant through it. Come back in autumn and harvest. We had our best and easiest crop of potatoes every using this method, just by laying old hay down directly on to turf, and putting the seed potatoes under the hay.
 
marsha val
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So you layered flakes of hay and planted under the flakes?  
Aside from potatoes, could one also plant seeds? Like Zucchini/Squash or peppers, tomatoes, etc?
Thanks!


 
pollinator
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I have successfully grown zucchini directly in hay bales. It took a good bit more watering than just in the ground but that was our way of dealing with a conundrum similar to yours. We just planted into the old bales, grew in them for a year, and then either loosely spread the much more rotted bale in the fall or, in one location, buried a small row of bales under a layer of used potting soil we got from a neighbor and a layer of wood chips to make a small mound garden that hosted a variety of flowers and root vegetables quite well the following year
 
marsha val
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Did you use seeds or plants?  How did your zucchini taste? Thanks!
 
pollinator
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marsha val wrote:Hi, I had a bunch of old bales of orchard horse hay that I couldn't use up in a timely manner. Occasionally through the years, I noticed if we left a bale out over the winter, by spring it was nicely composted. Not completely, so I'd just rake it into the soil. So in November we took about 20 bales to the garden and just sat them in there and popped the strings. It's Jan, and they are molding in the middle but I really don't see much else happening. Now I'm worried I'm going to have a bunch of moldy hay to deal with in a couple of months.  Do you have any suggestions of what I could do to get this stuff to break down more quickly? I've looked up lime, but not sure it is the right way to go, some composters say it steals the nitrogen that's needed to compost. So would I use fertilizer that has nitrogen? and lime? In hindsight, I should've just laid down some flakes across the garden instead of the the entire bale.  I feel I might've created a big mess.  If you have any ideas, I'd really appreciate it.  Thank you!



So, I would say the mold is a great sign! This means you have some sort of fungus hard at work, breaking the bale down. Do the bales already cover the entire area of the garden you wish to plant?

If not, now would be a good time to spread them out so you have a good layer of mulch at least 8 inches deep.

Another great thing you could do would be to make compost teas to irrigate the hay with. This will help break them down as well; in addition to improving overall soil fertility.

If they don't break down into compost by planting time, no worries, it will make great mulch. You can even plant directly in the bales if you add a little soil to get it started.

Sounds like you are already off to a great start, and hope you have a great season!
 
marsha val
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Oh wow. Yes, LOTS of mold inbetween the flakes. The bales are sitting one after the other in a continuous row with about 8" between the rows. It doesn't cover the garden completely. There's some area left open.  

OK,  I'll spread this out to cover every square inch.  I do think it needs that to make it less dense.  Should I move flakes or just not worry and toss with a pitch fork?  This will disturb the fungus/mold on the inside - Is that ok?  At what point will this fungus/mold die off?

I'm brand new to this idea, it's def a learning experience and I don't know what to expect.  This is sounding very interesting though!
 
Hamilton Betchman
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marsha val wrote:Oh wow. Yes, LOTS of mold inbetween the flakes. The bales are sitting one after the other in a continuous row with about 8" between the rows. It doesn't cover the garden completely. There's some area left open.  

OK,  I'll spread this out to cover every square inch.  I do think it needs that to make it less dense.  Should I move flakes or just not worry and toss with a pitch fork?  This will disturb the fungus/mold on the inside - Is that ok?  At what point will this fungus/mold die off?

I'm brand new to this idea, it's def a learning experience and I don't know what to expect.  This is sounding very interesting though!



I am by no means an expert, but I will offer what I can.

If these gaps are your walking paths, then you are good to go. The more you disturb the bales, the more you break up all the work of that mycelium, bacterial slime, and any other mechanisms at work. If you have a ton of uncovered space left, the uncovered soil would be very thankful for some mulch.

The soil beneath the bales is benefiting already, so it's all give and take.

To me it seems like composting the bales quicker will result in more carbon release and nutrient loss than if it were evenly mulching the entire area you plan to grow.

That is to be said, you will likely benefit more from mulching now, than you would from spreading compost on top just before planting, if that makes sense to you?

Do you have grass or weeds growing in the uncovered areas? If so, you would benefit from turning the sod or covering with some sort of paper without ink or gloss before mulching.

You may want to research sheet mulching and "Bulletproof Sheet Mulching," which I found in: Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd Edition.

I also recommend checking out Ruth Stout's, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the Famous Year-Round Mulch Method.

Finally, I recommend you check out Bryant Redhawk's soil series, https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil  if you want to learn more about mycelium and all those other great tiny critters that go to work in the soil.

 
s. lowe
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marsha val wrote:Did you use seeds or plants?  How did your zucchini taste? Thanks!


the summer squash were all transplants, but that has more to do with timing for our climate and concern about active composting of the hay bale burning the seedlings. We did plant corn seeds just for fun and they all sprouted fine but didn't grow well (I think because of their shallowish roots not finding good purchase in the hay). The squash tasted fine.
I think you are on the right path to spread it out thickly now and then planting directly into that mulch layer, either seeds or starts. The only time I would worry about the mold would be while actively moving it, not so great to breathe in. As far as damaging fungi, it's inevitable when you break it up that you will do some damage but it's resilient stuff and the choice meal that is rotty hay will quickly attract new microbeasties to replace any that die off in the move
 
Michael Cox
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As a general principle, mulch is better laid down deeply over a smaller area, than thinly over your whole garden. I would aim for about 6 to 8 inches just chuck the flakes down. No need to fluff them up. Roots don't need air as such so i don't think fluffing will do anything useful.
 
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If you have the ability to watch a short video Ruth Stout (and "her method") was featured in before she died, here's the link:

Ruth Stout no work method: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GNU8IJzRHZk

Those bales of hay are like having "garden silver" (with composted manure or worm castings being "garden gold").  :)
 
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Further to some messages above, growing in bales seems like another good use. Presumably even after a growing season there will still be a substantial amount of the bale remaining to use as mulch. I learnt about it from this episode of The Survival Podcast, an interview with Joel Karsten.

Also to second people's suggestions of Ruth Stout, her book 'The No-Work Garden Book' is a fun read.
 
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Al William wrote:Further to some messages above, growing in bales seems like another good use. Presumably even after a growing season there will still be a substantial amount of the bale remaining to use as mulch. I learnt about it from this episode of The Survival Podcast, an interview with Joel Karsten.

Also to second people's suggestions of Ruth Stout, her book 'The No-Work Garden Book' is a fun read.



One caveat to growing in straw bales is that the technique is water intensive. If you have a lot of rainfall, maybe OK. If you live in an arid area or in an area where you have to pump a well to water the bales in the preparatory stage, not so good.
 
master pollinator
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I would get a bunch of used coffee grounds from any gas station, cafe, school, deli, restaurant, Starbucks, whatever, spread it as thickly as possible over the bales and use a sharp stick to stab some of the coffee grounds down into the bales.  Then I would leave it alone.  Next year, it will turn into really beautiful soil.  If you want to plant in it in spring, tear open some holes in the bales wherever you want to put a plant, fill the hole with compost, and plant in it.  I make new beds this way and they work great.
 
marsha val
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Wow, this is all such great advice. Not feeling so regretful anymore, but inspired to see what I can make from this.

I think I will thin part of it out using starting with the bales on the outer row, taking using 2 or 3 flakes and fill in the ground that is still exposed. Whatever I have leftover, I'll just let it remain and see what happens. Maybe I will try planting right in it, like some have said.

I covered this one particular area mainly because it is the part of the garden with the worst soil.  I've amended it several times but it's never seems to be enough, but it is getting better. Been gardening in this garden for about 12 years.

Tomorrow I'll take a pic of it and upload. Thanks so much everyone!
 
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One thing to consider is, the grass seed in old hay bays is likely still viable, so you may end up with grass in your beds.

Agree with what everyone has said, it is a fantastic mulch and will surely build the soil, but the grass seeds will enjoy that great soil too. Composting it first, to a point where it gets hot enough to kill off the seeds, is one approach to minimize that risk.  Solarizing is another.

I have heard other folks say that if you lay it thick enough, and keep adding to it, you can keep the grass seed from sprouting, say 8” deep, but I don’t have personal experience as to how effective that is.
 
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id spread it all out top get as much ground contact as possible so it will compost faster. then like was mentioned plant under it come spring.
 
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