In early June, our neighbor leaned over our chain-link fence, watched my husband for a second, then asked, “What, exactly, are you doing?”
Rob was using a hose to soak four bales of hay, which he’d recently acquired from a local garden center. He performed this ritual twice daily, often while wearing pajamas and a pair of red Crocs, his hair still spiked from sleep. It was not difficult to see why our neighbor might be concerned.
“It’s a hay bale garden,” said Rob, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world, and never mind the complete and utter lack of anything even resembling vegetation. Our neighbor raised an eyebrow, then left Rob to his baffling project.
Friends were similarly skeptical: The rest of our yard was a glorified dirt lot, after all, so no one had a lot of confidence that our hay bale experiment would result in any kind of harvest.
But by late July, the bales were exploding with life. Watermelon unfurled from leafy vines, while squash grew to the size of newborns. Our tomato plants bowed under the weight of the fruit, and our cucumber bush was so prolific, we had to beg friends and family to take some off our hands (we also gave five to that inquisitive neighbor).
Rob is now a full-blown hay evangelizer, giving garden tours and pushing his method so hard, you’d think he makes commission off the sale of bales. He swears he’ll never have another kind of garden. But the truth is, we built our hay bale garden out of caution: We really wanted a vegetable garden, but we live in Globeville.
Back in the late 1800s, the Globe Smelter opened and began spewing arsenic, lead and other heavy metals into the air and down into the yards of Globeville residents, most of them immigrants who worked in the nearby factories. In the 100 years that followed, the Globe Smelter, which eventually became Asarco, continued to emit pollutants that seeped further into the neighborhood’s soil, sediment, groundwater and surface water.
After studies of the plant’s pollution emerged in the 1980s, most Globeville residents abandoned their gardens. They sued Asarco in 1991; in 1993, the EPA named the area a Superfund site and added it to the National Priorities List for cleanup. In 1994, Asarco paid to remove several inches of topsoil from yards and parks in the neighborhood.
Globeville was removed from the Superfund priorities list in 2014, but concerns linger. When I talked with Adam Brock, a founder of the GrowHaus in neighboring Elyria-Swansea, he told me that the neighbors for whom he cultivated fruits and vegetables were afraid of starting gardens in their own yards. And as you drive around the neighborhood, you see spectacular rose gardens, crawling vines and Colorado wildflowers, but veggie planters are conspicuously absent.
When we bought our tiny house in the neighborhood, we hoped to build a sizable garden on our relatively large lot, but we weren’t sure we should be eating produce grown in our soil. The hay solved our problem: You plant seeds directly into it, avoiding potentially contaminated dirt altogether.
But we were curious as to whether the Globeville cleanup operation had actually worked — or, conversely, if the soil content was bad enough that we should prohibit our nieces from playing in our yard. So we shipped little tubes of our dirt to the Soil, Water, and Plant Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University for testing.
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What came back was remarkable.
It turns out that the soil in our yard is clay, and not particularly rich in nutrients (which could explain why our lot looks likes a barren desert). In order to grow much of anything in it, we’d need to do some serious nitrogen-fixing. But the soil is not contaminated with zinc, cadmium, chromium, molybdenum, lead or any of the other things we feared. According to the last sentence of our lab report, “metals are low, and not at toxic levels.”
Now that we know our soil is safe, will we plant a more traditional garden next year?
“Not a chance,” says Rob. He already has plans to fill our entire lot with hay.