Feb 12, 2012
Corn and other vegetables are growing in a straw bale garden.
AMY GRISAK PHOTO
Great Falls isn't the easiest place to garden. There are a few pockets of loamy soil in the area, but more likely than not, it's either sand or gumbo. These conditions discourage many aspiring gardeners, but thankfully there are ways to work around these conditions.Traditional gardening methods typically mean tilling an area in the backyard and planting in rows or blocks of crops. This isn't what Paul Wheaton, a permaculture guru in Missoula, likes to see.
"Every time you till the soil you lose 30 percent of the organic matter," he said.
His recommendation is permaculture, which, as he describes it, "is optimizing the symbiotic relationship between nature and people so I can be lazier. If you do a permaculture system, you don't have to do anything but harvest."
Wheaton points out that in most gardens the gardeners are a slave to the system.
"In order for this garden to work out there are always chores," he said.
The garden needs to be seeded, weeded, thinned and watered continually during the summer.
"Then you pay the neighbor boy $50 to kill the garden when you're on vacation," he half-joked.
His answer is to create a functioning ecosystem within the landscape. This is where hugelkultur makes a difference.
Wheaton said to understand hugelkultur think of the difference between cultivated raspberries and wild ones. If you don't water and care for the ones in the garden, they languish and don't produce much of anything.
Yet, the wild berries thrive even though no one turns on the water for them. They are surrounded by thick brush and organic matter that is constantly breaking down and feeding the ecosystem.
"This leads to the 'how and why.' Hugelkultur is emulating the concept of the nurse log," he said.
Hugelkultur is simply piling logs and wood debris anywhere from 2 to 6 feet high and covering it with topsoil. Plant all over it, including adding shrubs and trees. It's not an exact science, but before long you'll figure out what plants do the best in particular areas of the highly contoured beds.
Wheaton strongly recommended building the bed to the maximum height because it will shrink down, plus he said, "(Once established) you won't have to water all season."
The rotting logs and moisture team with life and hold onto the moisture like a sponge. In addition, the composting process bumps up the heat a bit, resulting in up to four weeks longer growing on either end of the season.
The contours and uneven lines of a hugelkultur garden help mitigate the wind problem, Wheaton said. He suggested situating the garden perpendicularly to the prevailing winds so they go up and over the structure.
"This is only for the gardening extreme. You need to be able to move past your neighbors," Wheaton said, recognizing that botanical peer pressure is an issue.
It's hard to be the oddball with the big stack of dirt covered logs in the backyard, he said.
For brand-new gardeners or those whose neighbors will go into apoplexy if they create high-mounded gardens in the backyard, there are other options.
"When a person is just getting started, square foot gardening is just awesome," Wheaton said. "It is kindergarten. It's such a great way."
Square Foot Gardening is the system created by Mel Bartholomew, the author of "All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space," where raised beds are filled with a growing medium of peat moss, vermiculite and compost that provides excellent nutrition and allowing for intensive planting.
In this method, a grid is placed on the garden so you know what to plant in each square.
For example, according to Bartholomew's book, gardeners should plant 16 carrots per square, 4 lettuce plants, 1 cabbage and so on. Square foot gardening allows anyone with any soil condition to grow what they want.
These types of gardens also can be elevated on legs, or even an old table, as long as they have a plywood bottom with drain holes to allow people with physical limitations to garden at a comfortable level.
Once it's built, square foot gardening needs very little care outside of watering, harvesting as needed and planting to replace spent vegetables. Weeding is practical nil.
Gardeners often turn to straw to use as mulch, but a garden can be planted directly in the bale, as long as it's properly conditioned.
Laurie Korpi, a Master Gardener and employee at Forde Nursery and Landscape in Great Falls, said she and her husband have a very small yard with many gardening limitations.
"It is the worst gumbo in the world," she said. "The next thing I want to try are the straw bales."
With straw bale gardening, it doesn't matter if the soil is awful, or even if you're setting the bale on concrete. Everything you do depends on the straw. But the critical part of the straw bale gardening process is the initial conditioning, which can take 10 to 16 days.
To prepare the straw for planting, you don't break the bale apart. You will plant directly into it. Conditioning it basically means you're jump-starting the decomposition process so the plants have a viable medium in which to grow.
Start by watering the bale for the first three days. For the next three days, add a half-cup of high nitrogen (34-0-0) fertilizer or blood meal and water every day. Step down the fertilizer to a quarter of a cup for the next 3 days. To round it out, water daily until the straw is no longer hot from the composting.
When it's adequately cooled, you can plant directly into the bale. If you're planting seeds, sprinkle several inches of compost on top of the bale to create a bed for them.
It's important to keep the straw bale well watered throughout the season. It will dry out surprisingly quickly. And be sure to feed the plants since the frequent watering drains out the nutrients as well. You can use a water soluble fertilizer, or if you'd prefer to lean toward natural fertilizers, use fish emulsion or compost tea.