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Tracy Frank, Published April 30 2012

Minnesota man writes book on straw bale gardening

FARGO - If you want a garden, but hate the work that comes with it, or if you love gardening but are no longer physically able to do it, a different method could solve your problems.

Joel Karsten, who has a degree in horticultural science and grew up on a farm near Worthington, Minn., has written a book about straw bale gardening, which he said is similar to container gardening, only the container is the outside of the straw bale.

Through experimentation, Karsten found that planting vegetables, root crops, vines and flowers into the top and sides of straw bales worked better than planting them in the ground. It’s also easier to maintain than a traditional garden, he said.

In the spring, you condition the inside of the bale to become a planting mix while the outside, which is exposed to the elements, slowly decomposes. The decaying straw becomes compost, which is a great environment for plants to grow, Karsten said.

“There are some big advantages to using this method,” he said.

One is that it’s off the ground, making it easier for people confined to a wheelchair or for those with back or knee problems to garden.

“It’s less expensive than having to build a raised bed,” Karsten said.

There are also very few weeds in a straw bale garden, Karsten said.

“For people with vegetable gardens, the biggest commitment of labor during the summer is weeding that garden on a regular basis; otherwise your weeds are going to steal nutrition and sunlight from the plants you’re trying to grow,” he said. “In this environment, you’re starting out with a straw bale that has no weed seeds in it.”

A straw bale garden doesn’t have to be watered as often as a regular garden because straw, which is typically used for animal bedding, is very absorbent, Karsten said.

“It tends to stay wetter throughout the season,” he said.

One of the biggest advantages, especially in this climate, is that as the straw decomposes, it generates a lot of heat that can give gardeners at least a two-week head start on the growing season, Karsten said. Placing a plastic tent over the surface of the bale for the first three to six weeks turns it into a mini greenhouse, he said.

“We can plant before the potential last frost because of the greenhouse effect,” he said.

To plant from seeds, you will need to create a seed bed on the surface of the bales with clean potting mix, Karsten said.

The straw bales need about two weeks conditioning before they can be planted, so Karsten suggests starting at the middle to end of April or beginning of May.

You can get straw bales from farmers, garden centers or nursery stores, he said. Because it’s easier to find them in the fall, Karsten said to plan ahead and save them for the following spring. Put them in the garden and let them get snowed on and rained on, he said. He advised against storing them in a garage where they can attract mice.

A hay bale would not work for gardening because it’s full of weeds, attracts critters like mice and doesn’t hold moisture nearly as well, Karsten said.

A great byproduct of straw gardening is that you can compost the bales at the end of the season and use it to fill containers for flowers, he said.

The method is growing in popularity. Karsten has almost 15,000 followers on his Facebook page.

“People all over the world are doing straw-bale gardening,” he said.

He’s heard from fans as far away as Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Australia.

Susan DeMatteis of Marlboro, Vt., had knee-replacement surgery last summer, but using the straw-bale method, she was still able to garden, she said.

“It made it so easy for me to maintain, not having to bend down,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to this year’s garden.”

Karsten said it’s touching to hear from people his book has helped.

He was inspired to try straw bale gardening 12 or 13 years ago after listening to a radio gardening show talk about using straw over the top of a potato cutting to grow potatoes, he said.

“Listening to that conversation, I thought to myself, ‘If that works for potatoes, why wouldn’t decomposing straw work for other vegetables?’ ” Karsten said.

He did some library research and called agriculture institutions all over the country and couldn’t find anyone who had heard of planting vegetables inside a bale of decomposing straw, so he tested out the method in 50 straw bales on his dad’s farm and tree nursery south of Worthington.

“It worked really, really well, much better than I thought it would work,” Karsten said.

Then people kept asking about the method and his dad encouraged him to write the guidebook.

“There’s a whole generation of people whose parents didn’t garden, and they don’t have that agricultural exposure,” Karsten said. “By the following generation, we’re going to have a whole group of people who don’t know anything about gardening or have any ability to grow their own food, and I think that’s a major loss to our society.

If this method works for them and it’s easier and you still get lots of productivity out of your garden, even more so than a traditional garden, then why not do it?”

Karsten, who lives in Roseville, Minn., teaches classes on straw-bale gardening and has written a 40-page how-to manual on the topic called, “Straw Bale Gardening.”

The book is available in print for $14.99 including shipping or $9.99 for a downloadable version on his website: StrawbaleGardens.com. You can also purchase the book on Amazon.com.

Karsten has sold nearly 50,000 copies of the book since its release in 2010.