Home & Garden

Straw: A no-dig gardening alternative

Rosalind Bell had been trying for years to get rid of her grass. The Tacoma playwright and gardener would put cardboard down on her North End front yard, then lose momentum and worry what her neighbors thought of the mess. She had a big corner lot that really needed turning into a vegetable-and-herb bed, but no budget for formal landscaping, and didn’t want a lot of hard digging herself.

Then Bell discovered straw. Resurrecting a 60-year-old no-dig gardening method, she discovered that straw wasn’t just cheap – it was hardscaping, compost and soil all at once. And the neighbors loved it.

“I was looking around on the Internet, and I came up with the Ruth Stout method,” says Bell. The rather eccentric Stout, who herself was looking for a way of feeding the soil that didn’t involve heavy work, pioneered her “No Dig/No Work” method in the 1950s. Throwing straw down over anything, Stout maintained, created a garden that fed her family completely and needed no extra water in more than 35 years. But she was also an advocate of gardening naked and rejecting conformity, and her method fell into relative obscurity.

Bell liked the idea of no work. Her research led her on to permaculture, which blends variety with organic sustainability, and to Japanese agriculture reformist Masanobu Fukuoka, who championed no-till farming with excellent yields.

In April, Bell made her move. Layering the rest of the grass with cardboard, she scattered some fresh sheep manure sourced from a local farmer and began hauling truckloads of straw bales. Stacking the bales side by side, she created walls beside the cedar chip paths and threw the rest of the straw onto the manured beds. Then she planted, tossing seed potatoes into the straw, pushing tomato starts into the tops of the walls and scattering a little soil here and there for seeds. The whole thing took a week.

A warm summer and lots of watering later, the result is something Bell’s neighbor Malaika Clelland admits is “kind of neat.” Dill, tarragon and medicinal herbs wave in the breeze. Tomatoes, basil, peppers, dahlias and strawberries flourish in the heat generated by the bale walls. White clover and poppy-seed cover crops peek up out of the soil, and the potatoes are multiplying. In keeping with permaculture methods Bell manages her pests by “trying to find natural predators,” but even with a few holes, her collards are the size of small bushes, and she has plenty of tomatoes to share with the neighbors.

Which is no surprise, when you look at the science. Straw decomposes quickly, adding nutrients and generating heat in bulk. Linda Chalker Scott, associate professor of horticulture at the Washington State University Extension in Puyallup, points to some Dutch studies in the 1970s showing that cucumbers and tomatoes planted directly in straw produced better than with other methods. “It seems to be a rational approach, with the types of microbes in composting straw,” says Scott. “And anecdotally, people like it.”

Bell loves it. “I was thrilled,” she says. “This is so different as a yard. I didn’t want an eyesore, I wanted it to be lovely.” With one last section of curbside to fill in, Bell is already planning to straw bale her whole backyard as well.

The farm-like look and fresh straw smell has also won Bell many new friends, as neighbors and passers-by stop, fascinated. “People give me advice, talk to me,” Bell says. “I’ve formed friendships, given and been given plants. I call it my ‘Serendipity Garden’ – it brings out the beauty of spirit in everyone.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568