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Straw bales a ripe medium for soil-free vegetable garden

Sun., May 25, 2014, midnight

Last summer, Spokane Valley resident Bruce Moriarty first heard about straw bale gardening from a friend who was using that method and had trouble keeping up with all of the produce he was getting.

It was too late in the year for Moriarty to create his own straw bale garden, but this year he decided to dive right in by getting 40 bales of straw.

“I’m a guy who over-engineers and overdoes things, but I wanted to give it a try,” he said.

Straw bale gardening isn’t brand new, but a recently published book on it captured the attention of Moriarty and his wife, Diane.

In “Straw Bale Gardens” (Cool Springs Press, 144 pp., $19.99), the subtitle is likely why: “The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and With No Weeding.”

Author Joel Karsten explains how it works: “You plant your garden directly in bales of straw. Add some water, fertilizer and sunshine (not necessarily in that order), and your garden will explode with beautiful, wholesome produce. No tilling, no cultivating, no weeding. It really works.”

The concept is appealing. As the bales decompose, the temperature inside them rises. While all kinds of vegetables can be grown in the bales, think what that will do for heat-loving crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and cucumbers.

The Moriartys purchased their bales from a farmer in Greenacres for $3 apiece. They arranged them in three long, U-shaped rows with the cut side up – so the straw more easily absorbs water and nutrients – and with the baling twine running around the sides of the bales.

Soaker hoses attached to a water timer lie over the tops of the bales to provide water throughout the growing season.

It helps that Diane Moriarty works in the plumbing department at a local Home Depot. “Setting up the watering system for the garden was a snap for her,” Bruce Moriarty said.

On May 1, the couple began conditioning the bales to prepare them for planting. This process involves watering and fertilizing the bales over the course of 12 days.

Karsten recommends using warm water to help with decomposition of the bale, which can be tricky for some. The Moriartys screwed an adapter into their laundry room faucet to accomplish this.

During the conditioning process, the bales are drenched with water daily and fertilized every other day. The Moriartys used lawn fertilizer, which is high in nitrogen, and made sure it didn’t contain any weed killers.

In “Straw Bale Gardens,” Karsten suggests organic alternatives of blood meal, fish fertilizer, feather meal or organic fertilizers high in nitrogen. Fertilizer high in phosphorus and potassium is used on the 10th day.

Diane Moriarty started their vegetable and herb plants from seed. Veggie crops include broccoli, cabbage, eggplants, cucumbers, melons, lettuce, squash, beans, peas, carrots, potatoes and pumpkins. They’ll also plant flowers on the outside bales so their neighbors will have something pretty to look at – not that a productive vegetable garden isn’t a work of art in itself.

Once each bale is planted, they’ll set up trellises to support plants that grow more than a foot above the bales.

At the end of the season, the decomposed bales go into the compost pile to provide nutrients for next year’s garden.

Bruce Moriarty feels there will be important advantages to growing vegetables in straw bales:

“I won’t have to kneel down to harvest the produce, there will be virtually no weeding involved, there won’t be a need for crop rotation, and we’re going to get larger and better produce because of the added warmth in the root area,” he said.

As they embarked on their project, the Moriartys sought help from Diane’s co-workers and from the WSU-Spokane County Master Gardeners, who are also growing a straw bale garden this season.

They added that Karsten’s book has helped them learn about the process since they haven’t had much experience growing vegetables.

“It’s very thorough and well-written, has a lot of photos in it and good explanations,” Bruce Moriarty said. “It’s designed for someone who has never done any gardening. If I can follow it and grow a garden, anybody can.”

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via email at her blog at susansinthegarden. or her Facebook page at susansinthegarden for more gardening information.


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