A couple of weeks ago, one of my wonderful neighbours made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: spoiled hay for my garden. He looks after a much bigger farm up the road, but grazes a few cows on the property beside us. And there was a whole lot of spoiled hay at the main farm.

According to one of my favourite gardening gurus, Ruth Stout, spoiled hay is the best kind of mulch there is. I’ve wanted to try for ages, but where to find it has been a question that never quite got answered – until now.

In my garden, I usually use mown kikuyu as my mulch. It breaks down fast, retains moisture, protects my soils, and it’s something we usually have a lot of. We leave it in a big pile for a few days to begin decomposing and die off, then we put it out on the garden.

spoiled hay vs kikuyu mulch
Spoiled hay alongside mown kikuyu mulch in the garlic

But September was ridiculously dry. We received just under 40mm of rain all month. That’s 25% of the average September rainfall. So far, October hasn’t been much better. Less rain means less grass growth. There’s not a lot of kikuyu to be mown in our usual harvesting spots.

This is a problem when it’s spring. There’s a lot of wind, not much rain, and you have bare soils open to the elements.

Enter my neighbour’s offer. He had 6 bales of spoiled hay. Would I like some?

Of course I’d like some! Spoiled hay is already breaking down. It’s full of both nitrogen and carbon. I’ve never had a clue on where to begin sourcing it, but then it just fell into my lap at exactly the time I needed it. Yes, yes I want that spoiled hay!

So we arranged to borrow a trailer, and made our way up the road to our neighbour’s big farm to collect it.

I thought we were getting half a dozen square bales. But as we headed down the drive, we saw a tractor coming up alongside us loaded up with one really huge bale. Our neighbour waved at us from the driver’s seat. Turns out I was getting a much more generous amount of spoiled hay than I had anticipated.

The bale was loaded on with a tractor, and strapped in. Easily, this thing weighed half-a-tonne, and it was wet.

We drove it back home along the country roads, holding up traffic as I carefully navigated our way around the corners with such a heavy load. Going down a steep part of the drive was a bit scary, but we got it home safely. I was grateful – not for the first time – that we upgraded from the Suzuki Swift before we bought this place.

Then, just the small issue of getting it off again.

We don’t own a tractor, so we had to do it by hand. Thankfully, the lack of rain worked in our favour and we could drive it onto the grass. Richard parked it slightly up-hill, to give us a bit of help pushing it off from gravity. It took both of us working together with everything we had to push it off, and where it fell is where it lays. Until I use a substantial portion of it, it’s not going anywhere.

Richard on top of the spoiled hay

I wish it was possible to convey smells through the internet, because I can’t talk about my spoiled hay without mentioning the smell. Silage – that sweet, tangy, slightly-repulsive smell that also lingers throughout rural New Zealand in summer. That’s what the bale smells like. And now, my garden also smells like that.

It’s important to wear a mask while working with this stuff. It’s full of mould and spores. You know you’re breathing it because you can smell it. Thankfully, masks are something we have an abundance of in 2020. The mask means I have to work with it before the heat of the day sets in, so it’s taking a while to get through.

3 wheelbarrows used
10 wheelbarrows used

The hay in the bale is constructed in a spiral, but given we can’t move it, we just began tearing into it. Layer by layer we’ve been deconstructing it, and lugging it to the garden. Three wheelbarrows of mulch onto the garden barely made a dent in the mulch-ball. By the eighth wheelbarrow, it was starting to look less round.

I mulched the strawberry beds, and re-mulched the half of the garlic I hadn’t finished yet. The newly-planted zucchini and the second garlic bed got a good layer. As did the potatoes. More than 10 loads later I had found every inch of bare soil that I could, and added a thick layer of the stuff. Then I gave everything some liquid-fertiliser for good luck.

roxy in the strawberries

I mulched everything I could, and still, I have more than half of my ball of spoiled-hay. I’m sure I’ll find more uses for it as the summer months roll on. For now, I’m just very grateful to have it.