Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Growing food in straw bales: Thank you, Ruth Stout

Everything old is new again.

A headline in the April 16, 2013 Pioneer Press caught my eye: New garden technique grows plants in straw bales. The story introduced readers to Minnesota native and Ohio gardener Joel Karsten who is promoting a wonderful and smart technique of growing vegetables in straw bales. He lines them up vertically, waters and fertilizes them, and offers instructions.

If I were still gardening, I would use this method in a minute.

New? Not so fast.

Ruth Stout was on to  "no-till gardening"  by 1961 when she published Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent (1961). How can you not love a book with "indolent" in the title?

She followed up with The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of Year-Round Mulching (1971), and How to have a green thumb without an aching back (1974).

I found her books in the late 60s when I my San Francisco house overflowed with plants and I had a well-developed case of gardening envy. By the time I bought my tiny Baltimore house (800 square feet on three levels) with its tiny yard (26x92 feet) I was ready for straw, and began regularly carting two bales at a time in my Honda hatchback.

That garden had a motto, for flowers with scent, herbs, and tiny vegetables, "Start with wretched excess and scale up!" During its six-year run, it benefited enormously from her methods. While it may have been something of an eyesore to my more conventional gardening neighbors, straw mulch turned Maryland clay into fertile ground in less than two years.

Thanks, Ruth.

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