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Beautiful, Hay-Grown ‘Maters: Lexington Man’s Chemical-Free Gardening System Uses Hay Bales to Produce a Perfect Harvest

July 12, 2008

By Megan Sexton, The State, Columbia, S.C.

Jul. 12–J.W. “Red” Rutland is 83 years old. He works about 55 hours a week as a receiver at a Lexington grocery. And he grows tomatoes to die for.

Each summer, his garden off Corley Mill Road produces hundreds of tomatoes, grown without any pesticides or chemicals. Many of those tomatoes are sold at 14 Carrot Whole Foods in Lexington (where he also works). Others are given away to friends and family — or eaten by Rutland (preferably between two slices of white bread and topped with Duke’s mayonnaise and a little salt).

He has lived and gardened on this land since 1962, dividing it years ago so that his two daughters and a friend could build homes there, too. In the early days, when he owned and operated the Red Star Grocery in Columbia, he grew all sorts of produce to sell at the store. Rutland and his late wife, Marah, ran that store for 34 years, until the land was taken to make room for a parking lot for Carolina Coliseum.

He said he never thought he could work for anybody other than himself, until he started at 14 Carrot, where he has spent 20 years. “I love it. I look forward to getting up every morning and getting to work,” he said. “I never did learn how to play.”

But back to the tomatoes.

These days, Rutland has a new method for growing them. About three years ago, when he turned 80, his daughter read a story about growing vegetable plants in hay bales.

“At 83 years old, I don’t like digging in the hard ground too much,” he said of the soil on his property, a mixture of “clay and rock.”

So he decided to give the hay bale gardening a try.

A sign as you enter proclaims “Red’s Hay Bale Garden.” Five long rows of hay bales are lined up, with towering tomato plants — along with some squash, beans and other vegetables — growing out of them.

It’s an easy growing system, he said. He starts with a layer of newspapers — about eight sheets thick — on the ground. Then he places the hay bales on top of the newspapers. When it’s time to plant, he uses a keyhole or wallboard saw (a small saw with one blade) and cuts an opening about the size of a quart jar into the bales.

Then he mixes up his special soil — mushroom compost, Black Kow compost, organic potting soil and sphagnum moss. He packs the mixture into the hole and adds the tiny tomato plant.

“You put the plant in there, and they’ll never stop growing,” he said.

Another plus — no weeding.

Rows of Big Beef, Mortgage Lifters, Better Boys and Park’s Whoppers (his favorite) fill the hay bales. There are Roma tomatoes for cooking and cherry and grape varieties for salads. He has added some heirloom plants this year — Cherokee Purple, Boxcar Willie and Royal Hillbilly. “They came labeled,” he said with a smile. “I didn’t name them.”

He runs an irrigation hose down the rows of plants, and it drips water to the plant roots. For fertilizer, he makes a tea out of cricket droppings — available commercially — pouring about a cupful on each plant once or twice a week.

“No chemicals ever come on my property,” he said.

Each evening, after he gets off work at the store, he drives to the garden behind his daughter’s house (and across the pond from his home), to take a look at the rows of tomatoes and other vegetables. He picks some, checks on others.

He picks them when they aren’t completely red; they pick up color as they mature. Just don’t ever put a tomato in the refrigerator, he said.

Each morning he hauls some of the produce to the store, where it is sold to waiting customers.

“I have people I don’t see but once a year,” he said. “They come to get my tomatoes.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The State, Columbia, S.C.

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