In the past few years we’ve been experimenting with growing food crops in a variety of ways to determine how to squeeze as much organic food out of our small farm with a minimal of cost and effort. By a huge margin, our biggest successes have been using raised beds filled with our own farm compost.
Thanks to our 2 horses and a small flock of chickens, two materials that we have in abundance here on our small farm is locally-grown hay and compost:
We try to farm with a minimum of outside inputs that consume resources in their production and distribution, so building raised beds using old bales of hay that are too dusty to feed our horses makes a perfect solution to building “temporary” planting beds that last one season.
Bales + Compost = instant Mini-Farm with no digging in our horrible rocky soil required!
A couple of tractor buckets full of our most aged, best quality compost and beds are ready to plant…plus, my hubby gets some quality time with his beloved tractor.
We used to scramble each year to get rid of old bales of hay to make room in our barn for the season’s new hay…now, the more we have left over, the more food we can grow that year.
Cucumbers, melons, squash, beans, pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, kale, swiss chard, all of these love the deep rich soil of the raised beds:
Using companion “square foot planting“, you can get two or three crops out of a single raised bed this size — for example, cucumbers and summer squash planted along with later maturing crops such as broccoli or kale.
Probably the best crop of all for bale beds are potatoes, which are traditionally planted by digging a 3” trench for the potato spuds, then adding soil over the plants as they grow through the season.
To grow potatoes in a raised bale bed, lay potato eyes about 12″ apart at the bottom of the bed, and cover with 3″ or so of soil/compost. When the plant foliage is about 12″ high, add another layer of soil or compost around the potato stems. The new potatoes form along the stem above where your eyes were planted.
At the end of the season, the bale beds are easy to dismantle with the tractor, and the whole thing gets mixed back into the compost pile to make next year’s garden fertilizer:
Here is this year’s mini-farm all ready to plant! We harvested bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, kale, broccoli, lettuce, spinach, celery root, swiss chard, plus a variety of culinary herbs in this one area.
Because I like my gardens to be beautiful as well as functional, I “disguise” our raised beds with lots of flowering plants — they not only add color but the flowers attract pollinating bees and beneficial insects that control vegetable pests:
As the season progresses, you can hardly tell that our pondside gardens are an intensive agricultural operation that feeds us well into winter….
Hints and Tips for Bale Beds:
Try not to saturate the bales when you irrigate the beds – the moisture will cause the hay or straw to begin decomposing, and you don’t want them to collapse during the season. During seasons with lots of rain (such as 2013!), the bales do start to break down and sag a little, but they should stay intact until harvest.
If you build a raised bed over existing grass or weeds, cover the ground at the base of the bed with a thick layer of cardboard or sheets of newspaper before adding your soil/compost. The cardboard layer kills the grass and prevents it from growing up into your compost layer and competing with your plants.
You can use straw or hay bales, whatever you can source locally. Straw is better — hay generally contains plant seeds that may sprout from compost it is made from, but both hay and straw make excellent compost additions.
In the spring and early summer, look for free ads such as Craigslist for local farms looking to sell or give away old hay bales.
Also check with local farms for compost to fill beds — many farmers offer bulk compost for free or very little cost compared to buying by the bag.
Left: These bale beds contain tomato plants underplanted with parsley and cilantro, mulched with dried ferns sourced on-site. This bed cost us only a few dollars total to build, plant and grow…