A Better Way To Grow Vegetables

A few months ago my Costco member’s magazine contained an article about a Minnesota horticulturist who has developed a whole new way of gardening.

Joel Karsten spent 22 years in his own garden experimenting with growing vegetables and flowers in straw bales.

Does that sound crazy?  It did to me at first.  After learning more about it, I’ve decided to give it a try in my own garden this year.

Mr. Karsen has written several books about straw bale gardening.  He says the advantages include:

  • High yields
  • No weeding and less overall labor
  • Easier for older or disabled gardeners
  • Poor soil is no problem
  • Extends the growing season by weeks
  • Can be conventional or organic
  • Can go anywhere, even on balconies or driveway
  • Cats enjoy them too – this is my own personal advantage
From The Dirt I Occupy blog.  A beautiful kitty in an elaborate tunnel.  My row covers are much simpler than this.

Mr. Karsten advises starting small, and states that four bales per person is a good idea.  I purchased twelve bales at my local home and garden store, at $4.98 each, the best price I could find.  That is an investment of $59.76.

After placing the bales in your desired location you condition them for 12 days.  This consists of sprinkling fertilizer and water on the bales.  The specific amount of fertilizer used depends on whether you are using organic or conventional.  I went conventional this first year.

Bales are ready for planting on day 12.  I goofed up my conditioning, so I planted around day 15.  Schedule interruptions are no problem, you just pick up where you left off.

I planted purchased tomato plants on April 17, very early for central Indiana, but we’ve had a very warm spring.

The book describes how to create a little greenhouse in the event of cold weather.  It’s easy and inexpensive, and requires no tools except perhaps clothespins.  I did this when my temps went below 50F at night.  They’ve gone as low as 27F with no problem.  The decomposing bales generate enough heat to keep things above freezing inside the covering.

I’m writing this on April 27, and three of my four tomato plants have flower buds.  None had buds when I purchased.  This is quite robust growth.  My plants are almost as tall the the first line of the trellis I made according to instructions in the book.  This is all remarkable for tomatoes in central Indiana in April.

I also planted twelve lettuce and one parsley plant.  They’ve grown quickly and are in excellent condition.  This is a romaine type.

The nicest lettuce I've ever grown.
The nicest lettuce I’ve ever grown.

There have been a few wheat seedlings on my straw bales, it’s no problem to just pull them out.  I’ve also seen some cool mushrooms, which are completely normal.

You can also plant seeds, be sure to use the type of planting medium he recommends.  I used seed starting medium on some bales and had problems keeping them moist enough.  Seedlings are finally sprouting.

All in all, this seems like a spectacular method of producing vegetables in the home garden.

I don’t think it’s much more expensive than traditional gardening. After factoring in the time saved weeding, watering (he instructs us use soaker hoses on times across the bales, which I’ve done) and the extended growing season I think it’s money well spent.

The book I bought is Straw Bale Gardens Complete, the latest in the series.  It’s available everywhere.  Here’s a link to Amazon for your convenience.  I don’t get anything for sending you to Amazon.


There is a Facebook group for straw bale gardeners too.  Join me there.

There is a closed group too.  If you’d like to be added contact me via the comments below and I’ll add you.

Watch for more reporting on how my garden fares over the summer.  Happy gardening to you, no matter what method you use this year.


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