A few months ago on “You Can Grow It,” garden master Jim Duthie featured a local gardener who was trying a new technique to grow melons and pumpkins in his garden, without any soil. He also introduced us to a big church garden that provides tons of fresh food to people in need, as well as a wonderful opportunity for community service.

So today, Jim is following up on both of those stories to show us how that straw bale garden worked out, and to take a look at just how much produce that church garden raised for a local food bank.

Last spring I told you about Mike Williams, a Meridian gardener, who decided to try a different method of growing his pumpkins and watermelons. This technique, called straw bale gardening, was developed by a horticulturist named Joel Karsten who has written several books on the subject. It was the first time Mike had ever tried it.

“I’ve always tried to grow big watermelons and I tried to find a better way to do that, and so we’ll give it a try,” said Williams.

The idea behind straw bale gardening is pretty simple. Take a bale of straw, wet it thoroughly, and it soon begins to decompose into a rich, compostable planter. After a week or two, you can set vegetable plants directly in the top of the bale, or add a little dirt and plant some seeds, and the plants will grow right out of the straw bale. The decomposing straw keeps the roots moist and nourishes the plant as it grows. You don’t even need any soil. Just keep it watered.

So after a summer of growing, how did Mike’s pumpkins and watermelons do?

As you can see, the plants took off and produced several melons and pumpkins.

Mike also planted some in the ground, the traditional way, to see which would do better. He says that the pumpkins in the ground actually did much better than the ones in the straw bales, but the melons in the straw bales did a little better than those in the ground.

The bales also broke down over the season as expected, and a couple of them crumbled and fell apart. But they’ll make good compost.

Mike says that even though he didn’t get any really big melons or pumpkins like he had hoped for, the technique does work, so he plans to read up on it a little more this winter and then try again next spring.

Now to follow-up on another story I told you about last spring. At the Amity campus of the Cathedral of the Rockies, volunteers grow a huge garden. But it’s not for themselves. Instead, the produce grown here goes to feed hundreds of Idahoans in need.

Last May, as we all started planting our gardens, volunteers with the United Methodist Church started planting their garden too, although their garden is quite a bit bigger than most of ours.

“We have about 500 cabbage plants.”

“Different varieties of peppers, too, so like we have habaneros, red cayennes, Hungarian hot wax, jalapenos…”

This mission garden began in 2010, and has since produced more than 65 tons of produce, all being donated to the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

Garden director Dan Mattson says that the volunteers like knowing where the food is going.

“Not only do they like to get their hands dirty in the dirt and watch things grow, but knowing that we are taking this whole big pick-up load of stuff down to St. Vincent de Paul’s, and that it’s needed in this community and it’s food that is nourishing.”

Dan also says that this has been a bumper year for produce from the garden. He estimates that they’ll have harvested nearly 27,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables by the end of the season, from squash, to corn, to peppers to apples.

So far, nearly 20,000 pounds of produce has been delivered to the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry, which provides thousands of people with fresh food each month, as well as hundreds of meals each week. The produce grown at the Amity garden makes up a large part of what the food pantry is able to provide to those who need it.

And that’s not all. Even though the garden is winding down, there are more than 600 pumpkins in the pumpkin patch waiting for kids to come and pick at the annual pumpkins and ponies fall festival coming up soon. Kids can pick the pumpkins for free, as well as enjoy carriage rides and other fun events.

According to Mattson, the best part of the garden is still the opportunity it gives volunteers to provide service to those who need it. And, as Dan says, “that’s a good feeling. You know you did something right.”

The Cathedral of the Rockies Pumpkins and Ponies Festival will take place on Saturday, October 21st and runs from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., located at the corner of Amity and Maple Grove in southwest Boise. The event is free to the public.

And if you’d like more information on straw bale gardening, including step-by-step instructions to get started, here is a website and some books on the subject.

Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten

Straw Bale Gardening Gardening by Joel Karsten

Straw Bale Gardens Complete by Joel Karsten