Berries for the Birds

My garden is a little bit larger
than the typical coastal California lot, which means that it’s just slightly
bigger than a postage stamp. I want to
add more berry-producing shrubs and vines; I really do. The problem is, I don’t have the room.

That led me to plant my “bird
feeders” in the alley behind the house. There they would grow, relatively undisturbed, needing only a seasonal
whacking back to keep things under control. There was only one problem with this plan: the soil. A neglected,
out-of-the-way corner of the garden or alley might be the perfect place for a
wildlife buffet, but often these areas are neglected precisely because the soil
is so terrible.

In my case, the ground was so hard,
and so densely packed with gravel and the roots of weeds, that I couldn’t get
make any headway with a shovel. That’s
when I decided to try a new raised bed straw bale technique I’d seen at a
garden show. I happen to like the
organic, barnyard look of a straw bale in the garden, but even if you don’t,
the whole thing will decompose over a year or two and a little clever planting
of groundcovers or low-growing vines will cover it up in the meantime.

To begin, simply clear the area of
weeds and level the ground. If you want
to lower the height of this new bed, you can dig a shallow depression and set
the straw bale in it; otherwise, just lay it on the ground. (Use straw instead of hay; it contains fewer
seeds.) Don’t bother removing the
strings that hold the bale together—they’ll help provide a little structure.

Next, pull out the straw in the
center of the bale, leaving the bottom layer as a weed barrier and the sides
for support. If you use drip
irrigation, you can run it through the bale so it will irrigate at the root
zone. Then fill the hole with compost
and potting soil and water the whole bale thoroughly. 

Now plant into the center of the
bale, stand back, and enjoy! The roots
may eventually reach through the bale to the ground below it, but there’s no
need for you to do any digging to make that happen. Line up several of these bales along a back fence or in an alley,
and you’ll have the beginnings of a berry-laden hedge with very little effort.