Straw Bale Gardening with Joel Karsten

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I love trying new things in the garden. Every year, I get to pick something new to try! This year, I am trying straw bale gardening, but it almost didn’t happen. Thankfully, I was able to connect with Joel Karsten, the pioneer of the Straw Bale Gardening method, who gave me some great tips for getting started. Today, I get to share my conversation with Joel and I know you’ll love it as much as I did.

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What is Straw Bale Gardening

Straw bale gardening is a method of planting in “conditioned” straw bales that are ripe with nutrients ready to nourish those plants.

We start with a bale of straw and add a nitrogen source over the period of a couple of weeks. This process allows the straw to break down into a compost-type material. Really good soil is made from this decomposed organic material.

Organic Gardening in Straw Bales

How does an organic gardener “condition” the straw bale? Two great options are blood meal or Milorganite. These high-nitrogen sources feed the rapidly-reproducing bacteria, which cause the bales of straw to increase in temperature through this composting process. The last step is to add an all-purpose organic fertilizer (like this one) to supplement the bales with phosphorus and potassium. After about eighteen days, the straw bales will be ready for your crops.

conditioning straw bale garden with blood meal
Conditioning straw bales requires regular application of nitrogen fertilizer and water for several days, followed by an all-purpose fertilizer.

For step-by-step instructions, I recommend Joel Karsten’s book, Straw Bale Gardening Complete.

What crops are best for beginners?

If you’re new to the straw bale gardening method, the best crops to start with are tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers. Many crops would work well is straw bales, but you might want to avoid sweet corn because of their height and extensive root system as well as permanently rooted crops like asparagus or rhubarb.

Companion planting in straw bales

Companion planting is a fun and resourceful way to get more crops out of your straw bales. As you plant, you want to keep in mind the mature size of the crops you choose. Planting herbs in the sides of the straw bales helps to save space. Carrots grow quickly and can be harvested before others mature. It can be fun to combine different crops and experiment with different combinations.

Joel also recommends using vertical gardening (especially arch trellises) to train cucumbers, squash, and even small melons to make the most use of straw bales.

Benefits to Growing in Straw Bales

The benefits to growing in straw bales are many. In fact, Joel has several pages in his book devoted to those benefits. Here are just a few:

  • Prevent soil-borne diseases because the crops are off the ground that holds the disease spores.
  • Fewer weeds and less watering! So you spend less time tending to your garden.
  • Low up-front investment. Straw bales are not expensive.

Is Straw Bale Gardening for you?

Straw bale gardening is simple to get started! And because the investment and commitment involved are minimal compared to other garden methods, it’s worth a try! For more detailed instructions, make sure to check out Joel’s book for all of the details!

Learn more at Joel’s web site here.

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One Comment

  1. The best time to buy straw bales is after Halloween at the box stores that sell them for the Holiday. I really don’t want you to compete with me, bc I buy 50 bales/winter for horse stall bedding, and I can get mine at $3.00/bale. Buy in the Fall, put in your garden, and they will have decomposed enough that you don’t need the nitrogen additive.

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