Tecumseh gardeners find great success, easy tending by planting garden in straw bales

Tecumseh resident Robin Mustion grew up making wonderful memories helping tend and harvest large gardens that her grandparents, parents and other family members grew over the years. She’s carried the torch to develop her own gardens. Mustion said she’s tried a variety of planting methods, but her straw bale garden this year has been exceptionally successful. She says the humble planting medium is perfect for those looking for easy tending, and the bales elevate the plants a few feet off the ground, making them easily accessible to gardeners who may struggle to squat, hoe, till and bend. “You can do it from a chair!” she says.

Robin and Rich Mustion have had great success with their straw bale garden. This section of garden features four square straw bales arranged in a U-shape. Robin said the couple decided to put down an old carpet underneath the bales to eliminate weeds. In this photo, cucumbers are planted in the left bale, peppers are in the back row and cabbage and zucchini occupy the right bales. The bales are all set up on a soaker hose system that makes watering easy, the Mustions say.

Mustion planted three cucumber plants in one bale, shown here. The vines have sprawled out across the bale and vined down onto the straw beneath the bales.

A green soaker hose runs close to the root system of this zucchini plant. The soaker hose system the Mustions use allows the plants to be easily watered without getting the leaves and upper portions of the plant wet, helping eliminate different fungal diseases.

In these two bales, the Mustions planted squash, left, cabbage, center, and climbing green beans. Earlier in the spring, sugar snap peas also grew in this area on the fence behind the squash. The rugs help create pathways to the bales that don't have to be weeded.

This pumpkin patch area of the garden was planted under a layer of old composted straw from the Mustions’ 2017 straw bale garden, which was destroyed after historic rains that spring. A strawberry patch is planted just to the right of the pumpkin patch.

This large cabbage has done extremely well growing in the Mustions’ straw bales. It’s situated between zucchini and pepper plants.

Robin says one of her favorite things to grow is peppers. These plants are loaded down with brightly colored vegetables. Herbs are growing in the galvanized stock tanks in the background.

Editor’s note: Square bale gardeners use a 10- to 12-day “conditioning process” to apply high-nitrogen fertilizer to straw bales, which helps decompose the interior of the bale, creating a rich planting compost medium. Details about the best type of fertilizer  and conditioning schedule to use are shared in many online sites. Search for “square bale garden conditioning.”


Gardeners: Robin and Rich Mustion, Tecumseh (with Robin answering the questions)


Describe your garden:

This is our second attempt at straw bale gardening. Our first attempt was in 2017, and the flood destroyed it before we reaped any produce. I tried it again this year and am thrilled with the result! Straw gardening is so easy compared to growing in the ground. 

I highly recommend it to anyone who has difficulty hoeing and weeding. I can sit in a lawn chair to do the minimal amount of weeding needed with the straw bales.

I have six straw bales in my garden this year and have cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, cabbage, green beans and squash growing and producing. We have ample produce and have been able to share with friends and family.

I planted tomatoes in the ground as they do not do as well in the straw bales. I also used three old stock tanks for herbs and other things. I planted a fairly large pumpkin patch in the ground and have lots of small pumpkins growing.

This garden spot is fenced to keep the deer and other things from getting into it. We have soaker hoses across the bales, which makes watering easy. 


Are you influenced or inspired by anyone?

We are definitely influenced by our ancestors. My grandparents always had a large garden, and the family would help with harvesting and canning. We all ate produce from their garden – both fresh and canned – throughout the year. 

My parents also had a nice garden in their yard each year, and we all helped with that garden as well. My mother canned, and we ate from her garden year-round.

Rich’s parents were also gardeners, and we have special memories of helping and eating from their garden. Rich’s brother and sister-in-law have an outstanding garden every year. Lots of canning allows them to eat their produce throughout the year.

We have learned about gardening from the efforts of ancestors over the years. I have wonderful memories of spending time in the garden with my grandparents and family. These experiences certainly taught us about the benefits of gardening. It’s a great feeling, growing your own food, and sharing it is also very rewarding.

We lived in Kansas City for 30 years and had a garden a few times, which we enjoyed. Several years ago, when we bought property in Tecumseh, we began gardening in the ground and totally enjoyed it. We also found great joy in sharing our produce with our family and friends!


What is your favorite thing to grow?

I love my pepper plants. Red, yellow, orange, green, jalapeño and small, sweet, colored peppers are fun to cook with and delicious! 

Green beans are unbeatable when cooked just like my grandmother and mother prepared them. We also love home-grown tomatoes and can eat them with every meal. Nothing beats a homegrown-tomato BLT. 

We love the cucumbers as well, and we use them in several different types of salads, and we also enjoy simply eating them sliced. I love a cucumber sandwich!

Actually, everything we grow is wonderful….Reaping the benefits of your efforts in the garden is just special and so rewarding. Everything tastes a little better because you sweated and worked for it.


Tips and tricks?

I highly recommend straw gardening. Aging makes gardening a real challenge as you must bend, squat, hoe, till, etc. Most of the work with straw gardening is in the beginning as you prepare the bales for planting. 

For 10 days, you water and fertilize the bales until they reach the temperature required and begin to break down. Then you plant the seeds or plants down in the bales with a tiny bit of soil. It’s amazing how things take off in the bales!

A small amount of grass comes up in the bale, but it’s easy to pull out. You can do it from a chair! You can plant several things in one bale. I planted marigolds in the sides of the bales to help prevent insects, and they add some color and beauty to the garden.

Anyone with limited space or who does not enjoy the bending, squatting, hoeing and tilling of a traditional garden should try straw bale gardening. 

The internet has lots of sites that tell you exactly how to start a straw garden.


What is your favorite part of gardening?

Eating great produce and sharing with others is definitely our favorite. Watching things grow and thrive is also very rewarding. God is good and has given us this opportunity to feed ourselves this tasty healthy produce!


What is your least favorite part?

Canning is not something I enjoy. Of course, I know it’s a good thing to do, but it’s a lot of hot work, and we love to eat the produce fresh from the garden. Also, if I canned our produce, we would not have as much to share with others.


Memories from the garden:

My fondest garden memories are in my grandparents’ large garden, picking strawberries and eating more than went into my bucket. 

I remember my mother telling me not to eat them and then hearing my grandmother say, “You eat all you want!” It makes me smile now. 

Putting up corn is also a great memory from my grandmother’s kitchen. My mom, grandmother and aunts all worked together to clean and cut the corn off the cob before freezing it. I’d sit with my cousins at Grandma’s kitchen table while the adults were working. Grandma would put a pea in the middle of the table and give each of us a straw. She would tell us if the pea rolled off on our side, we were out. We laughed and blew and worked hard to keep that pea on the table. It kept us busy while the adults processed the harvest. We have so many wonderful memories that revolve around gardening and harvest! 

Great times with lots of laughter and special memories. So grateful for all the important things learned about life during these experiences!

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