Ohio — When Joel Karsten was growing up on a farm in
Minnesota, he noticed how lushly weeds grew from rotting
bales of straw.
made him wonder: If straw worked so well for growing
weeds, wouldn’t it work just as well for vegetables?
question eventually led him to devise a method for
growing plants directly in straw bales. His idea is
gaining momentum among gardeners with the release last
month of his book, "Straw Bale Gardens" (Cool
Springs Press, $19.99).
Karsten’s method, the bale is used as both a container
and a growing medium. The straw decomposes over the
growing season, producing compost that feeds the plants.
The twine around the bale holds the straw together and
contains what is essentially a small compost pile.
method reduces disease problems, practically eliminates
weeding and gives plants a jump start on those grown
with traditional methods, he said. It also puts plants
within easy reach of people who have trouble bending or
kneeling, and it does so more cheaply than creating
said straw bale gardening is also a good option for
gardeners with poor soil — or no soil, for that
matter. Straw bales can even be used to grow gardens on
hard surfaces such as parking lots, he notes in his
at the end of the season, the bales can just go into the
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method won over West Akron gardener Mark Grebelsky, who
grew six tomato plants in three straw bales last summer.
planted in early May and said he had tomatoes much
earlier than his next-door neighbor, who grew his
conventionally. Grebelsky watered the bales daily, but
otherwise the growing method required little weeding or
other work, he said. He did have to treat for a little
blossom end rot — a condition caused by calcium
deficiency — but he figures that would have happened
he’s thinking of trying the straw bale method for
growing peppers this year.
don’t know if it gave me more (tomatoes), but I sure
didn’t have to do anything to it," he said.
developed his method when he bought his first house and
discovered the soil was mostly fill dirt poorly suited
for gardening. He remembered those discarded straw bales
on the farm, left behind when they would fall off the
bale rack on the way to the barn. They were useless once
they got wet, so they were just ignored.
remembered the way airborne thistle seeds would take
hold in those decomposing bales and grow into tall,
healthy plants. He figured vegetable plants would
horticultural science graduate, Karsten ran his idea
past some of his former professors at the University of
Minnesota, with little encouragement. It was his father
who suggested he give it a try. "What’ll it
hurt?" his dad said.
discovered very quickly that it worked," Karsten
said. "It worked very well."
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has refined his method over the years and until recently
has been spreading the word mostly through a Facebook
page and a website he initially threw together to handle
the response from a local TV station’s story about his
method. He used the website to sell an instruction
booklet he wrote at the request of his father, who got
tired of explaining the method to people who stopped by
the family farm to see the straw bale garden Karsten had
you can read more about his method at http://strawbalegardens.com
or Karsten’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/learntogrowastrawbalegarden.
of the success of straw bale gardening lies in a process
Karsten calls conditioning the bales. His soil science
classes had taught him that bacteria need nitrogen and
water to start the composting process, so he developed a
method of preparing the bales so the straw would start
to break down before planting time.
starts with common bales of straw, approximately 2 feet
by 1 1/2 feet by 3 1/2 feet, an agricultural leftover
that’s used mainly for animal bedding and mulch. Some
people confuse straw with hay, but they’re different
things. Straw is the dead stems of cereal grains, left
behind after threshing. Hay is a crop grown for animal
places the bales so the cut end of the straw faces up
and the twine is around the sides, not on the top and
bottom surfaces. Then, starting a couple of weeks before
planting time, he follows a regimen of watering the
bales daily and sprinkling them with fertilizer on
specific days and in prescribed amounts.
conditioning system starts the composting process enough
that nutrients can be made available to the plants. Heat
is produced as the straw decomposes, so transplants and
seeds planted in the bales have a warm environment for
warmth helps the plants take off faster than plants in
the ground, he said. And faster growth early in the
season can bring earlier harvests.
in bales isn’t too different from planting in the
ground. For transplants, Karsten just opens up a hole in
the straw, adds the plant and fills in the extra space
with a little sterile potting mix. For seeds, he covers
the top of the bale with a layer of potting mix and
plants the seeds according to the packet directions.
the plants grow, the straw continues to break down and
supply the plants with nutrients.
a straw bale garden, we’re creating our own ‘soil,’
quote-unquote, in the bale," he said. Unlike soil
in the ground, though, the growing medium contains no
weed seeds or disease-causing agents.
doesn’t mean straw bale gardens are immune from weeds,
insects and diseases, but Karsten contends his method
significantly reduces those problems and makes them
easier to deal with.
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estimates weeding a single bale requires only about 30
seconds of work over the whole growing season.
bales do need regular watering, but Karsten recommends
using a soaker hose and a timer to make watering
said the decaying straw provides almost all the
nutrients the plants need, although some plants might
need added calcium from a source such as crushed
eggshells. He also recommends applying a liquid
fertilizer every few weeks, either a chemical fertilizer
or an organic one such as fish emulsion or kelp
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sometimes asked whether the straw attracts mice, which
are known for infesting straw bales. Mice like dry straw
as housing, he explained, but they dislike living in wet
conditions. Once the bales are watered, the mice lose
garden plants can be grown in straw bales, Karsten said,
but some are better suited than others. Corn, for
example, requires too much space and produces too few
ears per stalk to make it worthwhile. He also recommends
avoiding perennial vegetables such as asparagus,
artichokes and rhubarb, because the straw bales are
typically used for only one season.
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warmer areas, the bales can be reused until they fall
apart, Karsten said. But since they won’t heat up
again in spring, he thinks it’s better for Northern
gardeners to just start fresh with new bales every
bales can grow more than just veggies, too. Karsten
suggests growing annual herbs in them, or even
strawberries if you’re willing to replace the plants
every year. Some people grow annuals, often along with
vegetables to dress up the bales. And Karsten said straw
bales are a great place to grow summer bulbs for cut
flower arrangements, because retrieving the bulbs for
storage at the end of the season is easier than digging
them from the ground.
Straight, an extension agency with West Virginia
University who wrote a fact sheet on straw bale
gardening, said the method has few drawbacks, other than
the bales’ tendency to dry out quickly if they’re
not watered regularly.
also important to condition the bales properly and to
time planting correctly, she said. An initial spike of
heat is produced by the conditioning process, and it
needs to subside a bit so the plants can survive, she
especially likes the method for people with limited
mobility. One of the master gardeners she works with has
bad knees, she said, and the gardener was able to take a
chair out to the garden and work from a seated position.
tells of a woman in her 80s who wrote to him once,
saying she had given up on gardening because she couldn’t
handle the physical labor. But then she tried straw bale
gardening and told him she grew the best tomatoes of her
made one old lady really happy," she told him.
old lady made him really happy, too.