Straw bales help sprout new Brodhead school garden

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Gina Duwe
Tuesday, July 8, 2014

BRODHEAD--Veggies in a new school garden in Brodhead are sprouting not just from the ground but also out of straw bales.

Potatoes, tomatoes, peas and other produce are growing out of 24 straw bales in a new garden behind Brodhead High School.

“The kids thought it was really neat—kind of a unique twist on the traditional garden,” said Becky Wellnitz, who will begin her second year as the school's agriculture teacher and FFA adviser.

Students found a YouTube video by Joel Karsten, author of “Straw Bale Gardens,” while planning the garden. They asked him for advice, and a copy of his book that he sent became their garden bible, Wellnitz said.

One reason they are using straw bales is because the soil next to the school is acidic, sandy and rocky, she said.

Straw bales also keep out weeds, provide a longer growing season by staying warmer than the soil and elevate plants to eye level for kids.

“It turned out better than we expected,” said senior Chey Becherer, an FFA and 4-H member and this year's Brodhead Dairy Queen. “I really was impressed with it. You wouldn't think of something growing out of straw bales.”

Before planting, bales must be conditioned with water and fertilizer every day for two weeks, Wellnitz said. Students every day took the temperature of the bales, which hit more than 100 degrees inside. When they started to cool, it was time to plant.

Anything that can be planted in soil can be planted in a bale, Wellnitz said.

“You can't over-water the bales. The excess water will go straight through them,” she said.

When the growing season is over, the used bales will be composted. The group hopes to double the number of straw bales next year.

The school received a $3,000 grant from the national FFA Rural Youth Development program to plant the garden, which FFA and summer school students have been maintaining.

Students in FFA and Wellnitz's horticulture class started the garden, including bringing in soil from the community compost.

“The garden is a success because of all the extra hours they've put into it,” she said.

They also installed a 10-barrel system to collect rainwater from the adjacent greenhouse.

Wellnitz had thought maybe 40 elementary kids would sign up for the Digging in the Dirt summer school class. She was overwhelmed to have 90.

“It was a good problem,” she said.

Becherer and senior Adam Richards helped with the class as part of their community service graduation project.

“They were pretty much like my right-hand people,” Wellnitz said.

High school and summer school students who tended to the garden will receive the fruits of their labors at harvest time.

For the 19-day summer session, Becherer helped write and present lesson plans with Wellnitz. It was a learning experience for her, too, seeing how kids are different and “you have to set yourself at difference paces so they all learn and have fun.”

The kids learned how to grow their own food, rather than thinking it only came from the store, said Becherer, who lives on a hobby farm and shows goats, horse, pony, beef, dairy, sheep, poultry and rabbits at area fairs.

Not every kid knows about FFA, an organization trying to move away from just farm kids, Wellnitz said. The next generation of club members isn't going to come from family farms, she said, so reaching out to "city kids” is key to sustaining FFA, she said.

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