Bales of hope

Melissa Carter

I think my neighbors have been worrying about me. That’s because every day, they see me watering the straw bales in our front yard. 

I take my metal garden pail and sprinkle water evenly atop tied straw bale squares I have placed in various places in front of our house. But what they don’t realize as they offer blank stares is these bales will provide Katie and me with the best garden we’ve ever had. Maybe.

My dad was an avid gardener. He grew massive gardens when I was a kid and we loved having homegrown fruits and vegetables on our table. But back then, I grumbled at being subjected to forced labor that caused a sore back and bug bites.

So I didn’t attempt to grow anything myself until I was well into adulthood, after Dad passed away and was unable to offer me solid advice on the topic. It wasn’t until then that I finally understood the satisfaction from growing something successfully — although this satisfaction in gardening has alluded me so far.

I first attempted container gardening at an apartment. Of course, I only had a screened porch without much direct sunlight, so it really became a zen dirt garden. I had a balcony at a subsequent townhouse and thought throwing dirt and some seeds in a pot would be enough. It was enough to grow a few weeds, but that was about it.

So when Katie and I bought a house, I thought I would finally have the opportunity to build a real garden. But after several trips to Home Depot for tools, the rocks and trees in my back yard won and I only produced two tomatoes that were the size of marbles. I had to find another solution.

I was meeting a friend at a coffee shop recently and had some time to kill, so I perused the offerings at a nearby bookstore and found myself in the Gardening section. I was considering buying “Vegetable Gardening for Dummies” when another book caught my eye: “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karston.

In it, Karston explains that straw bales can serve as self-contained piles of compost, allowing plants to grow inside them. But in order for the bales to be able to sustain flowers or vegetables, they first have to be treated with water and fertilizer to begin the process of internal composting.

There is one single patch of grass in our front yard that gets nothing but sunshine and it is landscaped with several bushes, small trees and flowers. But this precious land is my last hope to get a garden going and so it now includes straw bales placed among the other foliage.

It is also the most visible area of our home to the outside world. So as I “condition” these bales as instructed in the book, my neighbors watch with suspicion as I confidently pour water on my straw. And on the days I do it in my pajamas, I’m sure they are proud I moved in.

In the next week I will be applying a little soil to the top of each bale and transferring seedlings to this new garden. By summer, I hope my new plants will explain the unconventional techniques that have been on public display.

If this project fails, I must accept my defeat and the reality that I did not inherit my father’s green thumb and will simply rely on the farmer’s market up the street. Of course, I could always just ask the neighbors if I can borrow their yard.

I’m sure at this point my amateur lawn antics have drummed up enough sympathy that they might oblige. 


Melissa Carter is also a writer for Huffington Post. She broke ground as the first out lesbian radio personality on a major station in Atlanta and was one of the few out morning show personalities in the country. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCarter