New garden tech­nique grows plants in straw bales

The Progress-Index - At Home - - News - BY MARY BETH BRECK­EN­RIDGE

AKRON, Ohio — When Joel Karsten was grow­ing up on a farm in Min­nesota, he no­ticed how lushly weeds grew from rot­ting bales of straw.

That made him won­der: If straw worked so well for grow­ing weeds, wouldn’t it work just as well for veg­eta­bles?

Karsten’s 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”

In 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.

The 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 raised beds.

Karsten 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 book.

And at the end of the sea­son, the bales can just go into the com­post pile.

The method won over West Akron gar­dener Mark Grebel­sky, who grew six to­mato plants in three straw bales last sum­mer.

Grebel­sky 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 any­way.

Now he’s think­ing of try­ing the straw bale method for grow­ing pep­pers this year.

“I don’t know if it gave me more (to­ma­toes), but I sure didn’t have to do any­thing to it,” he said.

Karsten 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


He re­mem­bered the way air­borne this­tle seeds would take hold in those de­com­pos­ing bales and grow into tall, healthy plants. He fig­ured veg­etable plants would thrive, too

A 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.

“I dis­cov­ered very quickly that it worked,” Karsten said. “It worked very well.”

Karsten 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 cre­ated there.

Now you can read more about his method at http://straw­bale­gar­ or Karsten’s Face­book page, www.face­­togrowastraw­bale­gar­den.

Part 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.

He starts with com­mon bales of straw, ap­prox­i­mately 2 feet by 1 { feet by 3 { 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 feed.

Karsten 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.

The 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 root devel­op­ment.

That 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.

Plant­ing 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.

As the plants grow, the straw con­tin­ues to break down and sup­ply the plants with nu­tri­ents.

“In 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.

That 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.

The bales do need reg­u­lar wa­ter­ing, but Karsten rec­om­mends us­ing a soaker hose and a timer to make wa­ter­ing au­to­matic.

Karsten 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 emul­sion.

Most 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.

Alexan­dria 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.

It’s 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 said.

Straight 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.

Karsten 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 life. “You’ve made one old lady really happy,” she told him. One old lady made him really happy, too.


Joel Karsten har­vests to­ma­toes from his straw bale garden. Karsten has de­vised a method for grow­ing plants di­rectly in straw bales.

Young plants grow from straw bales set on the ground in Joel Karsten’s garden. Plas­tic sheet­ing at the ends of the rows are used to pro­tect plants that were started early.


Joel Karsten har­vests to­ma­toes from his straw bale garden. Karsten has de­vised a method for grow­ing plants di­rectly in straw bales.

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