Straw bale gardening

People have been talking about straw bale gardening for years and, I admit, I haven’t really paid much attention. It’s not that I wasn’t curious about the idea. It just wasn’t on the top of my list of things to try until recently when I got the opportunity to talk with Joel Karsten about his new book “Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and With No Weeding.”

Karsten isn’t just another gardener talking about straw bale gardening. He invented straw bale gardening. That’s right; he came up with the idea for a growing technique that has now become an international sensation. And it all started when he was a kid growing up on a farm right here in Minnesota.

Farmers, he told me, have no need for piles of wet, unruly straw. So when a bale would break open for one reason or another and get rained on, his family would push it up against the barn to break down over time. “I always noticed that those stacked up, broken bales would have the biggest, tallest weeds growing out of them, so I knew there was nutrition in there,” Karsten recalls, adding that he didn’t think much more about it until 15 years later.

By then, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota, and he and his wife Patty had just bought a house in Roseville. After looking forward to gardening at their new home, they were disappointed when they realized that their whole lot consisted of little more than construction debris in which nothing was going to grow well. Then, Karsten remembered those straw bales. “And I thought, what if I just line those bales up and try growing vegetables in them as they decompose?” he recalls.  

An idea takes off

Karsten ran the idea by some of his former professors, but they were nonplussed. So he called his dad, hoping for encouragement. “Well, let’s try it. What’ll it hurt?” his dad said. (If only everyone could have a parent like this.) The two of them started their straw bale gardening trials the very next weekend, and Karsten began taking detailed notes on everything they tried. 

Not surprisingly, all those straw bale gardens attracted a lot of attention on the family farm. Finally, tired of explaining what in the heck they were to everybody who came by, Karsten’s dad asked him to write up a handout that he could give to people. Over the years, that handout evolved into a booklet that grew fatter and fatter and was purchased online by thousands of people who visited Karsten’s straw bale gardening website: Publishers began contacting him, and the result is his new book, which was just published by Cool Springs Press.

Why try it

Straw bale gardening is a great option for gardeners who have poor soil, a small amount of space, limited mobility or just an insatiable curiosity to try new things. As the book explains, bales can be placed on the ground to become instant raised beds — even in a parking lot. But they are more than containers. As the bales decompose, the organic matter provides nutrients to the plants inside. In addition to holding water well, straw bale gardens don’t need to be weeded and have fewer pest and disease problems. Another advantage is the ability to start planting earlier in the spring. New straw releases heat as it decomposes, helping seedlings get established faster than they could in regular garden soil. “Vegetables like to have warm roots and cool tops,” Karsten explains. “So having the inside of the bale be warm in the spring means you get early root establishment very quickly.”

How to do it right

It’s not hard to grow vegetables and annuals in straw bales. But there are some make-or-break tips that Karsten has learned over many years. He shares all of his know-how in his book, which includes lots of beautiful, helpful photos and planting schematics. Those who want an in-person demo can attend one of Karsten’s many straw bale gardening talks this season.

Dates and times can be found on his website, but I want to call out Straw Bale Gardening Day at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Saturday, April 27 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Karsten will do a short talk at the start of every hour in the parking lot just north of the main entrance. Straw bales will be available for purchase (and can be delivered), and he will also be selling books. Be sure to check out his demonstration garden so you can see exactly how to try straw bale gardening at home. Count me in!

Meleah Maynard is a writer and master gardener. For more gardening tips and information, check out her blog at: