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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Straw-bale experiment a bountiful success

Diane and Bruce Moriarty grew an incredibly productive garden in straw bales this season. The couple plan to expand the garden next year, using 50 bales instead of 40. (Susan Mulvihill)

Bruce and Diane Moriarty are sold on straw-bale gardening.

Back in May, I wrote about their foray into this unusual method in which plants are grown within straw bales. It turns out their garden was a roaring success.

After reading “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten last winter, they purchased 40 straw bales with dreams of creating their own bountiful garden.

I checked back with them recently to find out how their experiment went.

“I would consider it a very large success,” Bruce said. “I would never have expected to need a machete to get through the tomato rows.”

In addition to robust tomato plants, the zucchini, snow peas, winter squash and pumpkins thrived in the bales. They had more produce than they could keep up with but were more than happy to share it with a local senior home, new neighbors and their church.

When I interviewed them in the spring, the Moriartys admitted they were novice gardeners with little experience. What happened with the straw bale garden was impressive: Diane started many plants from seed and both did a lot of canning, something they hadn’t done before.

“Everything Joel Karsten said in his book was true,” Bruce said. “We didn’t have to do any weeding at all, which was great.”

Both reported the garden was insect-free for the most part. Diane enjoyed being able to just walk outside to pick a handful of lettuce or other veggies while preparing meals.

Next year, Bruce intends to add another row to their garden and purchase 50 bales of straw.

After I wrote about their garden plans in the spring, I received some emails from readers telling me they were having trouble locating straw bales.

“I recommend they talk to their local farmers or local feed store folks this fall,” Bruce said. “Consider prepaying for the bales now to ensure you’ll get them in the spring. Don’t wait until March or April.”

In addition to the straw bales, the Moriartys’ other expenses included lumber and wire for the trellis system demonstrated in Karsten’s book, as well as soaker hoses, fittings and a timer for watering.

“All of the materials we used are available at local stores,” Bruce said. “It’s not cheap to start from scratch but we’ll only need to buy straw bales from here on out.”

What did they learn as the garden season progressed? Diane listed some key points: “When Karsten said to plant one tomato per bale, he meant it,” she said. “Plant as close to the drip line as possible, rather than next to the edges of the bale because some plants fell over. Also, I would put more soil over any seeds you plant. I felt we didn’t have enough soil covering some of our seeds.”

“Don’t choose crops that might take up a lot of room, like corn,” Bruce added. “I figure I can buy that locally. I spaced the rows of bales 36 inches apart but recommend increasing it to as much as 48 inches for best results. And definitely use warm water to condition the bales (part of the preparation for planting) because it makes a big difference.”

To those considering straw bale gardening in 2015, “Be brave and try it,” Diane said. “Be prepared because you’re going to have produce like never before and it’d be a shame to waste it,” Bruce added.

Susan Mulvihill can be reached at, or visit and susansinthegarden.