by Graham Sturgeon, co-editor
MARGARET TABER of Lennon stands in her unique garden, which is planted in straw instead of dirt. Her husband, John, came up with the idea for the garden, and the couple made the transition last year. This season’s yield has been comparable to years past when gardening in dirt, and the unique gardening method makes maintaining the space much easier for the couple, who are each in their 70s. (Independent Photo/Graham Sturgeon)
John and Margaret Taber of Lennon have been gardening for most of their lives and are using their knowledge and experience to make the job easier as they enter their 50th year of marriage. Two years ago, John approached Margaret about switching from their traditional dirt garden to one planted in straw. Margaret bought a book on straw gardening and John researched the benefits and necessary steps required to condition the straw for planting, and the couple took the plunge into straw gardening in 2015.
The results from last year’s garden were not the greatest, but this year’s crops are healthy and plentiful, with Margaret already producing more than 30 quarts of tomatoes. The Tabers’ yield includes summer and winter squash, peppers of several varieties, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, potatoes, beats, and kohlrabi, among others, most of which can be planted in straw.
The Tabers’ motivation for gardening was Margaret’s love of canning, though they also enjoy spending time outside together creating their unique space. The couple has lived in the village since 1976, and their gardens have taken many forms over the years. In their younger years, John and Margaret had a large garden that consumed much of their back yard. These days, John and Margaret, who are 74 and 70, respectively, have downsized a bit to a 20-foot by 24-foot garden, and their switch to using straw has made the process easier.
The benefits of using straw are plentiful. In addition to producing a relatively similar yield, the garden can be planted anywhere. Luckily, the Tabers have plenty of space to grow, but those who lack green space may be interested to know that a straw garden can be planted pretty much anywhere, even in the middle of a parking lot. The straw also reduces weed growth, and having a raised garden reduces how far the gardener has to bend over, which is easier on the back. Another advantage is that planting root vegetables in straw makes harvesting easier and cleaner. Instead of digging potatoes and carrots out of the ground and cleaning them off for consumption, straw gardeners need only break open the straw to find their goods. Another benefit is that crops can be planted earlier in the season, since they will not be buried in the often frozen spring ground. Margaret also appreciates the new method because she knows what is going into her food, which is not always the case when planting in dirt.
While Margaret does most of the routine maintenance on the garden, John takes the initiative when it comes to planning and designing the area, as well as conditioning the bales. He makes a detailed plot map with measurements, and he then uses water and fertilizer to condition the straw bales for planting. The process takes 20 days, with water being applied every day and fertilizer every other day.
He uses traditional manure fertilizer, so no unique or expensive materials are needed. Not every plant can be seated in straw, however, as long-stemmed plants such as tomatoes do better in dirt, though the couple reports there is virtually no difference to the quality of their produce compared to past years.
So, while this year’s growing season may be nearing its end, it is not too early to start planning for next year. A straw garden is actually doable for even rooftop gardeners and there is no need to be limited by a lack of yard space.