Straw bale growing eases back aches

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Betsey Thomson

The Well-Tended Garden by Betsey Thomson

The body has spoken. This is the year that my outdoor gardens are being reduced to the borders around the house and garage. What is left in my perennial island will be relocated to fill in foundation beds. Oh well, mowing will be easier without having to edge along the bricks lining those long curves, and I surely won’t miss weeding the grass that crawled between those bricks.

I started clearing the beds last fall as plants became dormant, and I only have a few stragglers to contend with. Of course, there are some hyacinth and other bulbs to relocate.  After they bloomed in the spring I didn’t want to chance cutting into them, so I marked their exact location. Many plants have already been transferred to my West Virginia gardens, where there are plenty of great grandchildren more than willing to help garden, especially if there are homemade cookies around.

Dividing and conquering wasn’t as easy as I thought. Daylilies form huge clumps, big snarls of roots intertwining like a mess of worms. I finally managed to separate clumps of roots from plants such as lilies, asters, yarrow and lady’s mantle with a garden fork. I separate them in the shade, where I keep a container of ‘muddy’ water handy to store the best looking clumps because fibrous roots can dry out rather quickly.

I felt no guilt about disrupting the hostas, which the deer pruned severely. I’m leery about planting hostas in West Virginia because low to the ground gardeningplants attract unwanted slithering critters, the unfriendly, poisonous type.  Think I’ll plant hostas, in containers for safety’s sake.

The blueberries were a disaster this year.  There was a lot of winter damage then the blossoms shriveled up and fell before developing fruit. The nut and fruit trees seem very happy. Two weeks ago the chestnut tree was full of hanging catkins. It’s always the last tree to bloom and has a strong odor that resembles bleach. The horse chestnut, no relation to the edible one, was filled with dark pink blossoms reaching to the sun. Butternut and black walnut trees suffered some damage but seem to be recovering nicely. I planted one some 20 years ago and now there are black walnuts everywhere, thanks to the squirrels. Even an old pear tree that my father planted back in 1920 blossomed heavily back in April.

My next vegetable garden will be grown in straw bales. Straw bale growing is easy, it works and sure ends the back breaking chores associated with ground level veggie patches.  Next month I’ll explain that. I’m not going to give up gardening by any means, I’ll just keep baking cookies and teaching the ‘youngins’ how to garden.

Betsey Thomson is a University of Rhode Island lifetime master gardener. Contact her at


  1. I’m not absolutely ceraitn about that, but I imagine spring is best because they’re young and tender still. I expect they would just be tough and stringy later on in the year, but if you try them and find otherwise, do let me know!

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