Author, lecturer, and straw bale gardening pioneer Joel Karsten hails from Minnesota, where he even grows peanuts and sweet potatoes in ordinary bales of straw. In Straw Bale Gardens (Cool Springs Press, 2013), Karsten explains the simplicity and benefit of gardening with straw bales and all the necessary details to start your unique garden and how to keep it growing. Maybe you desire to grow a garden but don’t have the space or the tools to turn a grassy plot of land into an area of thriving plants and wholesome produce. By fitting straw bale gardening into your garden plans, you can overcome these obstacles. Read what brought Karsten to the innovative and efficient idea of Straw Bale Gardening and find the inspiration to start one, yourself.This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Straw Bale Gardens.
You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Straw Bale Gardens.
A Great Addition to Your Garden Plans
Straw Bale Gardening might seem like a strange idea at first. When people hear about it for the first time, they almost always ask the same question: does the plant actually grow in the bale? It seems that we’re so accustomed to the idea that plants only grow in soil that we have a hard time getting our heads around the idea of dirtless gardening. But the answer is yes. You plant your garden directly in bales of straw. Add some water, fertilizer and sunshine (not necessarily in that order) and your garden will explode with beautiful, wholesome produce. No tilling, no cultivating, no weeding. It really works. And it is growing. When you count up all the people who have attended my straw bale seminars, “liked” my Straw Bale Facebook page and bought my booklet on Straw Bale Gardens from my website, you get a number that’s nearing a hundred thousand. And those are just the Straw Bale Gardeners I know about.
If you pay much attention to gardening, you know that two of the most popular kinds of gardening today are vegetable gardening (as with the whole Urban Homestead trend) and container gardening. Straw bale gardening combines these two by growing vegetables (yes, you can grow flowers too) in what is arguably nature’s perfect container: the straw bale. Straw bales aren’t just the container, you see, they are also the growing media. As the straw inside the bale decomposes it provides nutrients for the plant for the whole growing season. Then, in the Fall, you toss whatever is left of the bale onto your compost heap and you start with a fresh bale in the Spring. The straw bale cycle is complete, and your root cellar is full of fabulous home-grown food.
A Little Bit of History
Straw Bale Gardens came about sort of by accident. As any kid who grew up on a farm like me can tell you, straw bales are everywhere — especially if you raise livestock. Straw is used mostly for animal bedding. It’s a valuable commodity and it consumes a lot of a farmboy’s summer. Stacking straw bales on a bale rack, then stacking bales, and then stacking more bales was a job that never seemed to end. It starts from the moment a farm kid is big enough to lift a bale of straw and smart enough to stack the rack securely to avoid a rack disaster. In fact, one coming-of-age moment in farm life happens the first time you are trusted to stack bales on a rack by yourself. If your rack makes it to the barn without spilling any bales, you are one step closer to becoming a farm man.
Once straw is dried, baled and racked, it must be put into dry storage quickly. Wet bales are worthless for bedding because they will never fully dry out. So when a rogue bale would tumble off the rack unnoticed in transport and eventually be rained upon, there was no point in doing anything with it but leaving it alone.
Within a few weeks those bales would begin to turn gray, and a few sprouts would emerge from the thistle seeds that floated over in the wind. The thistles would bloom and grow into some of the tallest, healthiest plants on the farm. After years of watching this happen, inspiration struck, and the original seed for Straw Bale Gardening was planted in my mind.
A Dorm Room is No Place For a Garden
Leaving the farm and heading for my four-year vacation at the University of Minnesota came with lots of perks. no livestock to feed, no chores, no firewood to split and stack, and no garden to tend. But after four years of living in dorm and student apartments, I started to miss having a garden. Although I’d run a business doing landscaping for my professors, the growing experience wasn’t complete without a vegetable garden. I longed for the fresh produce from Grandma’s garden that I’d grown up with. So when I bought my first house and discovered that the soil was all heavy clay and construction backfill, I was disappointed. With little money available to spend on major soil modifications, I almost gave up on having a vegetable garden. But then I remembered those straw bales with the big healthy thistles growing taller than me, and I decided to do some experimenting.
Start Small and Grow
I ran my “new idea” involving the use of decomposing straw bales as a substrate for growing vegetables past several of my old professors. They were unimpressed. So I called my dad for some encouragement. I asked him if he thought the idea had merit and he simply said, “Well let’s try it. What’ll it hurt?” The following weekend I drove out to the family farm. dad had scrounged up a whole rack stacked full of beautiful straw bales. I wanted to start small, maybe with a couple of bales, but he insisted that you couldn’t learn much with a couple of bales. Instead, he said, we needed to run some trials using many different methods. So we laid out around 50 bales and got started planting.
One Small Straw Bale Garden for Man; One Giant Leap for Gardening
It worked! The plants that sprang up from the bales grew just like those old thistles did. We learned a lot about gardening in straw bales that first year, and we’ve learned more, much more, every year since. In the process I took notes and came up with about 25 pages of details on how to grow a garden in straw bales (mostly so dad had an easy way to explain what was going on to all the people who started coming to his farm to see about this straw bale business they’d heard about).
Since then the questions have kept coming, and my notebook on Straw Bale Gardening has gotten thicker and thicker. This book, Straw Bale Gardens, reflects the years of experience it has taken to “perfect” the method and includes all the knowledge I’ve accumulated about Straw Bale Gardening since I first discovered that it worked. And worked better than any of us expected. I can’t count the number of people who have said to me over the years that they have garden plans to double or triple the number of bales they are growing next year, due to the success they had the past year. Some have even come to my seminar for a second time just to bring pictures and to brag about their success. It is very rewarding to see so many people having so much success with Straw Bale Gardening by growing their own food and enjoying the fresh produce, without the work they were used to doing in their old soil gardens.
I am not suggesting that everyone who wants to give Straw Bale Gardening a try should start with an entire rack of 50 straw bales. It’s probably a better idea to start small and grow bigger as you get a feel for how much produce you can handle. Because if you follow the relatively simple instructions in this book, I can assure you that you will be successful. Just be prepared to answer some questions from your neighbors — there will be plenty.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten, published by Cool Springs Press, 2013.