How to Grow Strawberries in Hay Bales
Firm, tightly tied hay or straw bales make a quick and easy-to-use organic raised bed for growing strawberries. Gardening in bales allows you to transform rocky, uneven or clay soil — or even a paved parking spot — into fertile growing space. Though growing in a bale is most often recommended for annuals, it’s possible to grow strawberries in them for two years, especially if you live in a more northern climate. Make sure your strawberry bed is near a water source, since you’ll be watering often.
Place a layer of black plastic on the ground where you’d like your strawberry bed. Select a location in full sun. Place bales on top of the plastic, end to end tightly, in rows with the twines facing up. Straw bales work well because they have fewer seeds in them, which results in fewer weed problems, but Bermuda grass, fescue or rye grass hay are also suitable, according to the University of Mississippi Extension, as they also compost readily.
Soak the bales with water beginning about 10 days before all danger of frost has passed in your area. Soaking may require as much as 15 gallons of water per bale. Water the bales daily for three days to keep them damp, thereby encouraging the decomposition process.
Sprinkle half a cup of blood meal on each bale and water it in each day for days four through six, thereby encouraging composting microorganisms to warm the bales to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. This heating occurs even without the blood meal, but a bit of fertilizer accelerates the process.
Sprinkle each bale with a quarter cup of blood meal and water it in during days seven through nine.
Water the bales on the 10th day. Check the temperature of the bales on the 11th day. If they are no longer heating and all danger of frost has passed, then you may begin planting.
Transplant your strawberries into the bales, four to six plants per bale. Use a trowel to create a crack in the hay or straw and insert each plant into the bale so the crown is even with the surface of the bale.
Keep the bales moist, watering daily or as needed. As the bales continue to decompose, they hold more water and retain it for a longer period. If weeds or grasses begin to grow from the bales, simply trim them to keep them short.
Remove all the blossoms from the strawberry plants for the first few months after planting in order to encourage the plants to build up a food reserve. Then in about July, leave the blossoms undisturbed and allow fruit to develop. Expect to harvest your first strawberries within a month.
Apply a 3-inch layer of winter mulch on top of the strawberry plants after frost has stopped growth but before a heavy freeze. Wheat straw makes good mulch.
Remove the mulch in the spring once the plants start poking through. Fertilize with about 2 oz. of urea per bale. Water as needed to keep the bales moist throughout the growing season.
Ann Wolters has been a writer, consultant and writing coach since 2008. Her work has appeared in "The Saint Paul Almanac" and in magazines such as "Inventing Tomorrow" and "Frontiers." She earned a Master of Arts in English as a second language from the University of Minnesota.