Chatfield gardener Therese Opat wanders through the St. Mary's Catholic Church straw bale garden grown by the youth group as a project to contribute produce to Channel One Food Shelf in Rochester.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
Chatfield gardener Therese Opat wanders through the St. Mary's Catholic Church straw bale garden grown by the youth group as a project to contribute produce to Channel One Food Shelf in Rochester. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/BLUFF COUNTRY READER
What's Strange about it isn't that there's no dirt in Jean's munching garden.

Oh no, it's the curiosity that people have for her blooms and those of Therese, Hilda and St. Mary's.

One certainly couldn't say that the neighborhood doesn't "carrot all."

"Everyone wonders if it's as easy as it looks," said Therese Opat, touring Chatfield resident Jean Strange's garden just a half block away from St. Mary's Catholic Church and right across the street from where Hilda Nolte lives at Lakewood Apartments. "But when we started, it was just bales and a lot of interest from the neighborhood, people who wondered what was going on, so soon, they had their own gardens."

Opat and her friends - the congregation at St. Mary's, Strange, and Nolte - all have straw bale gardens growing in their yards, thanks to a community education class that Opat and her husband, Matt, took in Rochester earlier this year. That class was led by Joel Karsten, who discovered that it's easy to get the fruits of the vine, seed and sprout to grow out of a simple straw bale if the right actions were taken.

The Opats, who enjoyed Karsten's class, shared his book, "Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding" published in March 2013 by Cool Springs Press, with churchyard neighbors. These neighbors saw that the parish garden, cultivated by the youth group to grow produce for the Channel One food shelf, was not planted in the ground...it was growing above it instead. The thriving produce included two kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, three varieties of peppers and more.

According to Karsten's biography on his website, "Joel Karsten is a graduate from the University of Minnesota, earning a bachelor of science degree in horticulture science. He worked in the 'green' industry after graduation while he ran his own landscape design and installation company in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. He now owns a manufacturing and distribution business but is still a passionate vegetable gardener, often trying new varieties of anything he can fit into the 20 straw bales he has on his limited residential lot in Roseville."

Karsten's website explained the basics of how straw bale gardening works, noting, "Straw bale gardening is simply a different type of container gardening. The main difference is that the container is actually the straw bale itself, held together with two or three strings, and the outside crust of the bale serves as the container. Once the straw inside the bale begins to decompose, the straw becomes 'conditioned' and ready to plant. The step-by-step process of conditioning creates an extraordinarily productive, warm, moist and nutrient-rich rooting environment for young seedlings. Getting the straw bales conditioned is an essential part of the process, and should be started approximately two weeks prior to the target planting date in your area. This planting date varies greatly depending on where you are in the world, but this gardening technique works anywhere in the world for seasonal spring/summer or for winter gardens."

At the church's garden, Therese spoke on the subject of cultivating a straw bale garden, relating that it begins with a bale of straw that has fertilizer put into it, followed by watering deeply and often. The process creates heat within the bale and causes the decomposition necessary to convert the inside of the bale to soil, after which potting soil may be added. Meanwhile, seedlings can be started in the house or greenhouse and planted into the bales once the two-week fertilization process is complete.

"You can grow something on top, or you can plant things on all sides. It's way, way easier than planting in the ground, especially if you get a ground cover to plant alongside the vegetables," Therese said. "There are very few weeds in the straw bales, and if you find some, they're very easy to pull out because the bale has been cooked up so hot that it kills off all the weed seeds. You just take a straw bale, give it a high potency fertilizer every other day, add water, get it cooking really hot and start your seeds. We planted radishes, and they came out so huge."

Nolte's bale, situated just outside the doorway on the south side of the Lakewood Apartments, is bursting with a "tomato tree" and petunias.

She stated, "My tomato tree is doing so well, thanks to Jean."

Strange's yard has hidden vegetables growing all around, from the morning glory-strewn trellises with carrots, watermelon, strawberries - blooming in August, no less - to the potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce and cantaloupe, basil and radishes rounding out her vegetable repertoire.

Strange's garden is a work in progress, she said, but loves being able to eat in the garden. "I eat the orange cherry tomatoes in the morning, then I come out in the evening and eat the yellow ones at night, have some strawberries now and then...mine's a munching garden," she continued.

"This all started because of potatoes," Strange said. "I had some potatoes in the basement with long spindly sprouts on them, and I saw that they were growing a garden at the church, so I came looking at the church for straw, and now it's a work in progress."

Therese and Matt's bale garden is on a hillside, the bales strategically lined from east to west down the hill so that when the wind blows or there's a heavy rain, their pumpkin patch doesn't roll away downhill.

It's a curiosity that adults visit and explore once they realize that the pumpkins the children are drawn to are not moored to the earth. Best yet, at the end of the growing season, the decomposed bales are simply raked flat across the ground and become fertilizer for the surrounding landscape.

Therese said, "It's fun because it's something different, and on this hill, we have clay, rock and very little dirt, so it's hard to get a good garden to grow."

Using a hay bale is a good answer. One can produce as much in a smaller area as one can grow in a bigger garden.

"We have pumpkins, squash, mini pumpkins. A lot of people stop by and ask what we're doing on the hillside. We like to tell them about it because they're curious and it's fun to share," Therese concluded.

For more information about straw bale gardening, log onto Karsten's website at www.strawbalegardens.com or the "Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden" Facebook page.