Last week I visited friends in Huntington, New York, where we enjoyed a vegetarian potluck while listening to the gentle waves of Long Island Sound lapping on the shore of a small private beach. “Do you know anything about straw bale gardens?” asked the woman sitting next to me, artist and facilitator Elizabeth Yaari, in her charming British accent. No, I admitted, I’d never heard the term. “Let me show you,” she said, and led me to her garden, a few blocks away. Here is the view from her deck:
We spent a few happy hours touring the garden and talking in Elizabeth’s kitchen, where she introduced me to the book, Straw Bale Gardening, by the inventor and founder of this method, Joel Karsten. A Minnesota native, Karsten — inspired by his farm boyhood, motivated by the desire to grow vegetables, and unable to grow anything in the heavy clay soil that surrounded his first house — spent years developing the straw bale methodology. Considered a breakthrough way to growing vegetables anywhere, it involves getting and stacking straw bales, pounding in posts, stringing fencing wire to make a trellis, installing soaker hoses, topping with sterile planting mix, applying fertilizer, and finally seeding or planting seedlings. But then, he claims, there is little to do all season long besides watering and enjoying the harvest.
The results, as illustrated in the book, look spectacular, made even more attractive by Pam Powell’s drawings showing suggested layouts and plants for five-, ten-, fifteen, and twenty-bale gardens.
It’s a bit of work to get going, but Karsten promises high yields, no weeding, and an extra-long growing season. There’s lots more information on his site, strawbalegardens.com. This could be an ideal, low-cost way for people who use wheelchairs or have back issues to create raised beds.
The Yaari garden is nearing the end of its season, but Elizabeth, an artist and Bibliodrama facilitator, is still harvesting fennel, potatoes, herbs, late-season peas, and purple-skinned tomatoes. Don’t judge a tomato by the color of its skin: Elizabeth is most proud of her Indigo Rose tomatoes, a new variety that is purported to have great health benefits as well as intriguing color. Her project for next spring: planting straw bales in a large wheelbarrow or cart that, as the light changes and shadows lengthen, can be wheeled into the sunniest spot on the property — or even down the block so neighbors can participate.