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A straw bale garden is growing nasturtiums and fennel in a Westside boulevard, and a “bee pond” atop the bales is even watering thirsty bees.

Raechell Coy got the idea for a straw bale garden in Maureen Gilmer’s book, “The Budget Gardener.” Now, vegetables and edible flowers are greening up and ripening atop eight bales set alongside each other in the shape of a half moon at 1709 Defoe St. in Missoula.

The garden is easy to build and plant, and Coy had help. She, her fiance, Steve Cleverdon, and next-door neighbors Amber and Aaron Maccarone teamed up to put the idea in action.

“It’s nice for people who are living in apartments to have the ability to grow some food,” said Amber Maccarone.

For starters, setting down straw bales doesn’t make a permanent change in a yard or boulevard. And the bales are large and heavy, but if push came to shove, some strong friends could move them.

People in wheelchairs can garden this way, and people with bad backs can, too. Planting in a bale doesn’t require as much stooping, and weeding goes by the wayside.

“There’s no digging involved,” Coy said.

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Here’s how the Defoe Street gardeners are growing their tasty mustard greens, peppers and lettuce.

First, they bought straw bales from Mountain West Cooperative, the Reserve Street Cenex. Feed store manager Amber Jenkins said the Cenex tries to keep those $3.99 bales in stock all summer, but she hadn’t run across shoppers who were buying them for gardens.

“That’s the first I’ve heard of it, (but) we sell a lot of straw,” Jenkins said.

The Defoe gardeners may or may not be plunging into uncharted territory around here, and they forged on. Once they got the bales home, they started preparing them. That meant watering them and letting them begin to decompose.

“You definitely have to cure them first,” Coy said.

The bales sit on heavy plastic sheeting to help retain moisture. Ten to 14 days after the curing began, the bales were ready to be planted. The gardeners spread some 3 or 4 inches of compost – at $5.50 a bag – on top of the straw.

“It’s so low maintenance, and really low cost,” said one of the planters.

A crowbar helped to pry open the bales and make room for the compost. The gardeners bought starts at the farmers market and planted away. Now, there’s orange peppers, squash, tomatoes and cabbage.

“I’ve already been able to harvest some of the lettuce,” Maccarone said.

They dig and work in the dirt with a beefy looking set of Corona tools from Costco – a $12 buy. They water with a soaker hose – a $14 purchase – and the hose is busy.

“It takes a lot of water. You have to keep them wet,” Coy said.

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The water is something bees want to drink, too, and Coy, a member of the Big Sky Beekeepers Club, wanted to help them out. The pollinators are on the decline, but they’re welcome at the straw bale garden.

The bee lovers placed a shallow plate filled with rocks and water in the center of their garden, and as many as four or five bees at a time have landed in the “bee pond.”

When all the crop is harvested, the gardeners can snip the twine holding the straw together and use it as mulch, but that will be months from now.

There’s still plenty of time this season to start a straw bale garden.

Beware that doing so in such a public place means fielding questions from neighbors. That straw bale patch of boulevard has a pleasing look, with flower pots set around the vegetables. Still, Coy and her team of gardeners get inquiries and observations from passersby.

One onlooker: “What are you guys doing here?”

The mailman: “This is a very interesting contraption you have.”

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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