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Unique gardening

Combining raised-bed, container gardening offers maintainable, efficient technique to green thumbs

Sarah Bixby explains the benefits of straw bale gardening to a group of green thumbs during a walking tour at Northern Michigan University's community garden, hosted by Peter White Public Library. Bixby noted that straw bale gardening, though a fairly new technique, combines container and raised-bed gardening methods. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

MARQUETTE — Gardening takes on many shapes from ground gardens, raised-bed gardens and container gardens. And then there are straw bale gardens, which is ideal for cooler climates especially for Upper Peninsula gardeners.

During a walking tour hosted by Peter White Public Library, expert gardener Sarah Bixby discussed the concept of straw bale gardening to an eager group of green thumbs and gardeners alike at the Northern Michigan University community garden, located off of Lincoln Street. Bixby also gave a tour of her own backyard with an abundant assortment of straw bales planted with royal burgundy beans, turnips, jalapenos and red beets.

Bixby noted that straw bale gardening is a technique she picked up about 10 years ago after her husband discovered the idea when they lived on a farm in Skandia. After coming to realize how much she enjoyed it and how easy it was to maintain her plants, she quickly adopted the gardening technique. With so many other gardeners in Marquette, Bixby thought this technique would be of interest and decided to give a talk.

“I love to turn people on to topics like this. Sustainability is kind of what I’ve been teaching and promoting for many years now, and these are some ways to bring that concept of sustainability right into your backyard and practice it,” Bixby said. “And I don’t know everything about it so I get to keep learning. It’s just a multitude of things to research and figure out about it.”

Straw bale gardening offers a longer growing period because the decomposing straw creates warmth and allows for a head start in the spring and a longer growing period in the fall. It’s suited for small spaces, no soil is needed, no tilling or cultivating is required and straw bale gardens are natural raised beds without the need of purchasing wood and nails.

Pumpkin vines spiral out of a straw bale at the community garden, located off of Lincoln Street. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

Although soil is not required, Bixby hinted that she uses compost to get started and then adds blood meal to the bales, which is a dry powder made of blood and serves as a nitrogen conditioner to help the plants grow.

“So these bales are dead material, that’s the carbon. And so in a garden, you have to have this somewhat precise balance of carbon and nitrogen. (When) you got your carbon, you got to really balance it out with nitrogen so that’s why you put a very high percentage of nitrogen (supplement) and the highest percentage you can get on the market is blood meal,” Bixby said.

The main challenge to straw bale gardening during the first year is water retention, Bixby said, explaining that compared to regular garden soil, straw tends to dry out more rapidly, so frequent watering is critical. Maintaining the balance of nitrogen and fertilizer is also important during the process.

Supplies to build a straw bale garden include:

≤ Older straw bales, ideally made from wheat, oats, rye or barley

≤ Fertilizer: preferably a general flower and vegetable mix

≤ Compost for initial planting

≤ Trowel or a stick

Though it seems like an unusual way to garden, straw bales are cost efficient and can last up to 10 years, Bixby said.

During the walking tour, attendees marveled Bixby’s straw bale gardens.

The include NMU junior Katie Cothran.

“I think a pivotable thing in this (day and) age is raised-bed gardening for more urban settings and I think these straw bales provide an easy, simple way to perform that, especially with limited space like college students, (people who live in) apartments, rentals and stuff. So that low expense where you don’t have to buy an $80 raised bed and start from scratch really helps,” Cothran said. “This has a potential to really be a pivotal part of the NMU community garden, not just our plot but if anyone else is interested.”

As a volunteer for NMU’s Student Leader Fellowship Program, Bixby hopes to continue teaching gardening to the younger generation and show them all the benefits there are to growing food from scratch.

“It’s so rewarding to pluck a tomato or a bean or a pea off the vine and we, humans, like to take care of things right? So this is a nice thing to care for,” she said. “You’re providing an essential need for food.”

Gardening is also “a hub of the community,” she added.

“If you can garden with people, it just creates partnerships that are so strong,” she said.

To build your own straw bale garden, read more about the step-by-step process at sympathink.com/straw-bale-gardening/.

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