McGregor couple’s garden a place for experimentation
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
To many, growing garden plants in straw bales seems to defy logic. Don’t plants need soil to grow? However, looking at David and Carolyn Scott’s garden, located in the yard of their McGregor home, you’ll quickly find that’s not the case.
A row of tomato plants, tall enough to reach over a person’s head, rise out of several bales. Next to them, vegetables like egg plant, squash, zucchini and Brussels sprouts have also shot up out of their own straw bases.
You can grow pretty much anything but corn, said David, explaining that it grows too tall and could be knocked over by the wind.
The idea for this new venture came from a book—“Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten—Carolyn picked up from the McGregor Public Library, thinking it would interest her husband.
“I should’ve known he was going to want to do it,” Carolyn said with an affectionate smile.
The prep work began in April, when the bales were conditioned for 10 to 14 days with water and fertilizer, which caused the center to deteriorate. In May, they were ready for planting.
“The roots grow into that deteriorated area,” explained David. “That’s what the plants thrive on.”
So far, the experiment has worked well.
“Once they’re started, you just let them go,” David said. “You can see how the tomatoes are doing. I’ve never seen so many on a plant. This is the tallest they’ve ever gotten.”
He even had to construct special heavy duty cages to keep the plants upright.
The Scotts said straw bale gardening requires little to no weeding. With the amount of rain so far this summer, the plants also haven’t needed much watering. For the times watering is needed, David has hooked a soaker hose (which allows water to seep through it) up to a regular garden hose, then runs it along the top of the bales, down the middle. This process, he explained, is more direct and less messy than traditional watering methods.
“It just waters the roots,” he said. “It doesn’t sprinkle all over the garden, so then you’re not standing in mud.”
The bales have broken down a bit throughout the summer, and most are shorter than they were originally, but David said that’s normal.
For David and Carolyn, straw bale gardening is just the latest gardening experiment they’ve tried.
“We’re always trying new things,” Carolyn said of the garden, which the couple started 10 years ago.
“It started out that I couldn’t figure out how to plant a garden on a slope,” David said, pointing to the yard’s uneven ground.
His solution was to create three rectangular terraces on the slope using wooden boards, allowing the plants to grow on level ground.
With the addition of the bales, David had to rework the garden’s layout a bit this year.
“The bales have to be headed south so the plants don’t shade one another,” he said.
Three years ago, after getting the idea from a friend, the two began growing potatoes in straw. Unlike their recent straw bale gardening, this doesn’t involve a whole bale, but rather a layer of straw placed atop the potatoes. Underneath the straw bed, a moist environment is created, which helps the potatoes grow. No dirt is necessary.
“You hardly have to dig,” Carolyn said of extracting the potatoes.
“See how clean they are?” said David, displaying a recently uncovered potato, free of dirt, in the palm of his hand. “You just brush the straw aside and take as many as you want for dinner that night. The rest keep growing.”
Walking around the Scotts’ garden, you’ll find that very little goes to waste. Shredded paper surrounds the base of some plants, preventing the growth of weeds. In some areas, sawdust from David’s wood shop covers the ground. The straw will not be removed at season’s end.
“If you leave the straw in the winter, by spring, it will have composted down nicely,” Carolyn said.
David said they have no current plans to try anything new next year; they’re content to learn more about straw bale gardening and enjoy the final product.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch how the plants have grown,” David said.
“It’s easy and fun,” Carolyn said, adding that she encourages others to give it a try.
She also encourages others to expand their palates and try different vegetables. Having lived all over the country—from Alaska to Cape Cod to Texas—while David was with the military, Carolyn said the garden is a reflection of those experiences.
“We’ve lived in so many places and been exposed to so many different things,” she said.