February 26, 2015 at 2:15 p.m.

Find yourself a straw bale and get growing

Find yourself a straw bale and get growing
Find yourself a straw bale and get growing

A few dozen avid gardeners set aside their ice chippers and jumper cables for the day, and showed up at the Wyoming Area Giese Memorial Library to learn about straw bale gardening from the guy who literally wrote the book about it, Minnesotan Joel Karsten.

Karsten’s 2013 hardcover guide to this innovative and earth-friendly style of gardening has been translated into 16 languages (see strawbalegardens.com) His program February 21  was sponsored by the Regional Library system,  through Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment funding.

Karsten clearly loves this mission,  sowing the seeds of DIY inspiration and cultivating knowledge of the straw bale gardening method.  

Karsten said using straw bales instead of tilling a garden into the ground is preferable for many reasons:  crops require less water because the bales hold moisture very well;  he recommends a drip irrigation system but a soaker hose along the tops of the lined-up bales works fine.

Crops starting life a little above-ground benefit by the air movement around the plants, and unlike traditional containers or raised beds-- there’s no waste, and less expense.  

When the bales have produced their crops their residue  can be composted.  

Bale gardens can even be relocated-- Karsten said one gardener in a rental dwelling sent him photos of moving bales onto a flat trailer, and hauling the garden away mid-season when the property changed hands.

Karsten  has also used no insecticide or herbicide in 22 years of pursuing this passion.  

The soil that the decomposing bale makes in its center is basically virgin soil, so there are no undesired micro-organisms or weeds to cause problems.  He has also found that pests don’t like damp straw so mice, voles and other creatures have simply not been an issue.

You can arrange bales atop any hard surface, even roofs or pavement, and enjoy vegetables, herbs and flowers with very few square feet at your disposal.  
“There shouldn’t be any empty space on your bale,” he explained as he showed slide after slide of successful straw bale gardens.  Images of lush gardens of upright crops (tomatoes, beans, peppers, herbs, and those that vine should be trained on a trellis structure above the bales) starkly contrasted the view out the library windows.  

Annuals and smaller plants can be plugged into the sides of the bale where-ever sun hits it.  Potatoes thrive in straw bale gardens because of the air spaces within the bale.  Cabbages and other early crops do well because the bales are first “conditioned” (fed nutrients) and tented with plastic, so the interior heats-up weeks in advance of the normal planting season.  Seeds or plugs can be started weeks earlier than the date most spring soil are warm. Northern climate gardeners have reported to Karsten that they appreciate extending the growing season this way, he said.

What you don’t grow in a straw bale is a very short list.

Sweet corn gets too top heavy, so he doesn’t recommend it.  Rhubarb, asparagus and other plants that need a couple years to establish themselves don’t do well and of course, long lived perennials and bulbs need to be in the earth.

Karsten grew up on a dairy farm, and as a youngster he’d notice that the odd bale that fell off the wagon and got shoved up against the barn, would sprout the biggest thistles on the place.

He said he eventually got his degree in horticulture and tried a formal straw bale approach at the family farm, with a “control” traditional planting to account for weather and comparable conditions.  The bale crops did outstanding.  He perfected the straw bale approach later, when he purchased a home with poor soils.  He developed and started selling a 68-page booklet.  

“A few friends and neighbors were about the only ones who knew about it,” he explained.  At the family farm people driving by would stop and ask about the bales with plants growing out of them, “...and there were so many people it drove my dad crazy, so he put information about the bale garden in a box on the roadside,” Karsten said.  

When an article came out in the New York Times fairly recently, “They told me it was the most e mailed article for four consecutive days,” he boasted.
Last year this method was a featured innovation at a seminar series at Disney’s Epcot Center.

Karsten advises his audience to start small, try a few bales and make sure you follow directions (the $21 book can be checked out at the library or you can buy it on-line or at home improvement stores) There’s a “recipe” to feed the bacteria that you must have in order to colonize the bale and start the “party” that creates the growing media, he explained.  

Karsten is certain bale gardens will take-off and could become a primary style of gardening. “It’s not me,” he told the audience,  it’s the method, it works.”  










 










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