DeKalb resident Joyce Marten calls her tenth-of-an-acre Straw Bale garden her latest “experiment.” She says, “I try different things, different plants. It’s the same way I cook. It’s like ‘Aw Jeez, who wants to eat the same thing all the time,’ so I’m always looking for recipes.”
Marten cultivates more than 25 kinds of vegetables and a variety of herbs on her relatively small bit of land. Her grandfather introduced her to gardening when she was ten, but she got serious about it in 1975. “The now-settling down flower children wanted to do canning, feeding themselves, and gardening, and that sort of thing. Channel 11 had the program, Victory Garden. I would listen to Victory Garden avidly, and it would always be one thing behind me, so I would have planted my potatoes, then he would be planting potatoes, and it would be like ‘Oh, I did it all wrong! You do it this way, okay, next year I’ll do it that way.’”
“I had a garden in Malta on 38, right after Nelson Rd. across from the golf course. When we moved into the lot, the back third was plowed up for a garden. What we wanted was that garden. And it was such great soil. Black, Illinois, precious, good soil. You threw the seeds in and jumped away and they grew by themselves. Later, I found out that it was a half-acre community garden three times the size of my current garden. I did it all myself.”
And she learned. “I started reading Organic Gardening magazine by Rodale. That’s mostly where I learned from. It was like, ‘Oh now I know how to grow the cauliflower right!’ Usually I learned by doing something and killing a plant and deciding, well, I won’t do that again!‘”
This year, Marten laid down straw bales: “When I start with Spring planting, I put straw down, depending on how much I have, down the row that I was going to walk on and then when plants grow up, it keeps the weeds out. I put as much straw down as I can afford,” about 30 bales worth. For the garden itself, she put down double that amount, a total of 63 bales.
She gets the straw from all over the place: “There were two farmers on my way home from Rockford. On Rockford and Mulford, on 72. One guy had a shed with straw in it, and it was there for years. The bales were just decaying and falling apart, so I only got strawberries out of that. All the rest is loose stuff. I’ve gotten three different truckloads of stuff. That’s what I put on the ground. I went to the Farm Bureau and asked them if they had any list of farmers who sold straw. The guy in Rockford, we pre-ordered it and bought 60 bales from him.” Marten paid $3 a bale. Two dollars for the loose stuff.
When asked how many inches of soil she puts on top of her straw bales, she says, “You’re supposed to put on about an inch or so of Miracle Grow, so you have a nice bed. I don’t know how much I put on. I just sort of (makes a pouring motion). You’re supposed to not use any regular soil because my whole reason for using the straw bales was to keep the plants out of the soil where the blight splashes up on the leaves, especially when it rains.”
So far this year, she hasn’t had to water her bales much, but she expects it will be dry in July and August, at which point she will use soakers fed by rain water harvested and contained in her 2,500 gallon underground cistern. That harvested water saves her water bill from being prohibitively high.
Trial and error gardening, learning from books and gardening shows, magazines, and especially experience, all of this has helped Joyce Marten to cultivate her art as a gardener. As Ms. Marten will tell anyone who is interested in learning to garden, “There’s always something that doesn’t do well,” and that’s okay. When that happens to her, she remains undaunted. It’s part of what makes gardening for her fun.