Guest Gardening Bloggers

Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden

By Joel Karsten | January 6, 2016
Image by Joel Karsten

Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden

by Joel Karsten January 6, 2016

Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden

By Joel Karsten | January 6, 2016

This week’s gardening guest blogger is Joel Karsten, a farm boy who grew up tending a soil garden like other gardeners have for centuries, then shook up the gardening world with his first book describing his breakthrough Straw Bale Gardening concept. The New York Times called Straw Bale Gardening “a revolutionary gardening method” and his ideas have been enthusiastically embraced globally, making his books best-sellers in many languages.  Karsten has inspired tens of thousands of first-time gardeners and a legion of “seasoned” growers who have found a new and better way to pursue their passion. His methods have enabled “retired” gardeners to begin gardening again since his method eliminates the physical challenges found in traditional soil gardening.

Read on for more information about straw bale gardening and enter for a chance to win one of ten copies of Joel’s book, Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding!   

Are you sure that’s a garden? It looks like you’re bringing goats into your backyard!

IMG_7973 What do you suppose your neighbors will say when they see you watering a bunch of straw bales lined up in your back yard next spring? The first question is usually, “Are you feeling okay?” or even, “Are you planning on bringing home a goat or a horse, or what EXACTLY are you doing?” You explain somewhat hesitantly that you’re planning to grow vegetables by planting directly into the straw bales. Your neighbor, a long-time gardener, tells you “that is never going to work, because vegetables require specific nutrients and those nutrients can only be derived from the soil, and anything that grows from a straw bale will be lacking in nutrients… if you can get anything to grow in the first place.” It is at this point when you become a teacher.
It is at this point when you become a teacher.
You calmly explain that while it may sound crazy, the science behind straw bale gardening is incredibly simple and straightforward. And its success rate is undeniable, taking out so many variables that would otherwise impact traditional soil gardening.
For two weeks prior to planting in the bales, you will be “conditioning” them. Conditioning is a process where nitrogen and water are applied to the bales to feed the (naturally occurring) bacteria inside the bales. These bacteria, when given a food source (nitrogen) and water over a few warm days, will replicate every 15 minutes until they colonize or saturate the bales. Once the bacteria have completely colonized the bale, during which time the bales get very warm, they begin to consume and digest the high-carbon cell walls of the oats, wheat or barley straw in the bales, and quickly break down those cells, releasing the molecules that created those cells, turning what started as straw into brand new “soil” inside the bales. IMG_5982
The previous summer Mother Nature constructed the straw by taking from the soil nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, the three fundamental building blocks of all plant life on earth, along with a variety of micronutrients or trace-elements like iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc, and then organized them to construct cells that expanded and grew the oats or wheat. Everything that has ever been alive on this planet is eventually decomposed back into soil, deconstructing cells and releasing molecules, which can then be absorbed by the roots of a new plant and transformed into a new organism. This process of deconstruction, digestion or decomposition is accomplished by five main decomposers including insects, worms, fungi, mold, and the heavy lifter of all decomposers, bacteria. The smallest, microscopic in size, but the most effective of all decomposers, bacteria is the engine of decomposition that allows all forms of life to exist, by “recycling” the molecules from one organism so that they can be used again to grow another plant. The bales will be a host for all of these decomposers, filling with insects, worms, fungi, mold and bacteria, all of which work together to create beautiful virgin “soil” inside every bale.
IMG_6063 Once the bales have been conditioned they are ready to plant. There is no lingering disease or insect infestations in this virgin “soil.” Last year’s garden soil lying just below the bales may very well be harboring disease or insect issues, and certainly contains thousands of weed seeds in every cubic foot. It is important to never introduce existing garden soil into the new Straw Bale Garden, because many potential issues may ride along. Weed seeds, which often harbor in soil for years before getting the right conditions to germinate, would be spread on the surface of the Straw Bale Garden if soil were introduced, along with potential fungal spores, insects, or other diseases that may be lingering in that existing garden soil.
Choosing what to plant is really easy, because almost anything with roots will thrive in these newly conditioned bales. Stay away from the few plants that like extremely acidic or alkaline growing media, because the bales will produce a “soil” that is nearly neutral. Avoid planting corn, only because the roots are huge, and even the biggest bale would only have room for a few stalks of corn. Other perennial rooted vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, which take a few years to get established, will never be harvested from the raised height of the bales. The bale decomposes and will collapse and disintegrate right on that spot within three years for sure, leaving behind a little lump of soil, and an asparagus or rhubarb patch in that spot. Beyond that, plant everything else that you like to eat. Leafy greens love the bales, as do root crops, vines, cucurbits, herbs and even flowers. If you normally plant using seeds, then use seeds in your bales as well, but create a seed bed on top of the bales first using about an inch or two of sterile planting mix. Soil-less mix, with no potential to harbor disease, insects or weed seeds, spread on the surface of the straw bale will hold moisture around the seeds until they germinate and send a root shooting down into the bales. Or if you are planting using bedding plants or transplants, just make a hole in the bale and tuck the rooted plug down into the bale. Pretty simple! IMG_6136
It is at this point when you become a preacher about the method!
IMG_5787 Straw Bale Gardening provides many advantages over traditional soil gardening, some of which have already been alluded to: no weed seeds, no disease or insect carry over, and a neutral pH which allow you to grow essentially anything with roots. There are many other advantages to this method, which have made it so popular among brand new gardeners, and those gardeners that are well seasoned and may be nearing the end of their gardening careers. The raised height of the bales is a big advantage, eliminating the need to get down on the ground level to plant and harvest. Soil is heavy and moving it around is labor intensive, while straw bales once in place eliminate much of the physical requirements of traditional gardening.
Straw Bale Gardening provides at least ten other distinct advantages as well, learn more about these by visiting or our Facebook page. Get your hands on a copy of the comprehensive guide to growing in straw bales, my book titled “Straw Bale Gardens” which is filled with specific details on the entire process, garnered from my 22 years of research on this amazing method called Straw Bale Gardening. Copy and use this Gardening Know How coupon code OPWVBIT33L5D to receive a discount on your purchase of the book. You can also learn more about me, Joel Karsten, or send questions you might have about Straw Bale Gardening.
Enjoy trying and sharing this revolutionary method and all the crops it will yield!

To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Wednesday, January 13, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:

What favorite vegetable would you like to grow in your straw bale garden?

The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)

UPDATE 2/20/2016: Congratulations to the following people for winning a copy of ‘Straw Bale Gardens‘: Ruth Little, Connie Lee, Sarah Josephs, Carson Elmore, Chad Puschel, Brian Kennedy, Jennifer Nielsen, Francis Savarese, Kadie Doggett and David Allie!




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    Sam Lucas
    Comment added February 9, 2020Reply

    Thanks for sharing this information. We also share blogs related to gardens and flowers. If you'd like you can write for us as well.

    Comment added January 23, 2020Reply

    I grew up some flowers for birds in my garden, i am just trying to do some good deeds and this is a simple and easy way to do through garden.

    Comment added July 20, 2019Reply

    This is some really good information about gardening. I want to start a garden in my yard soon. It is good to know that I should check my soil. That does seem like a good thing for me to check before starting a garden.

    Vouchers Tree
    Comment added May 20, 2019Reply

    Articles that have meaningful and insightful comments are more enjoyable, at least to me. It’s interesting to read what other people thought and how it relates to them or their clients, as their perspective could possibly help you in the future.
    Regards :

    peter bialec
    Comment added September 29, 2017Reply

    tried armenian cucumbers last season with great result have mixed variety of tomatoes this season & no weeds wish I heard about this years ago

    Jim Patterson
    Comment added January 18, 2016Reply

    I had great SBG sucess with 10 straw bales my first year in 2015. Very sucessful with Beef Steak and Early Girl Tomatoes, pole beans, lettuce, parsley, pumpkins, peppers, and 3 different squashes.

    Had less sucess with carrots, onions, beets, and strawberries.

    Have developed a PowerPoint presentation on Straw Bale Gardening and have many photos of garden at different stages of growth. I'm fasinated with it!

    Alberto Glez
    Comment added January 14, 2016Reply

    2015 was my first year growing plants and I became obsessed. I am always thinking what I want to plant next. I am currently growing 24 types of seedlings, tomatoes, peppers and herbs.

    Joan Bloom
    Comment added January 14, 2016Reply

    I'll try again to post a comment. I would like to grow rainbow carrots in a straw bale garden. I've tried them in containers with very little success. I have two circular gardens that I made with the sheet composting method, so no digging and it works quite well. However, they are not raised beds, as the straw bale gardens are.

    So, yes I would very much like to try rainbow carrots in straw bales. It seems like a great place to grow these delicious, and beautiful, carrots.

    Comment added January 14, 2016Reply

    I would want to try tomatoes. It is a really innovative idea.

    John S.
    Comment added January 14, 2016Reply

    Thanks for the idea and the chance to win!

    Lucy Irving
    Comment added January 13, 2016Reply


    Jacob Kamholz
    Comment added January 13, 2016Reply

    This is an excellent way to start a garden in the community boxes in my city. Excited to get a quick jump this Spring!

    Comment added January 12, 2016Reply

    I would like to try this for multiple plants (fruits and vegetables). I'd love to try squash first.

    Russ Stokes
    Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

    I consider myself an expert gardener, by trade I am a nurseryman and have grown tomatoes and other vegetables in greenhouses. But now that I am 65, I find it harder and harder to prepare the soil, bend over to plant seed or transplants, run string so the rows are straight, etc. And I've pulled enough weeds in my lifetime that I just don't want to do it anymore. Last year I really scaled back on growing a garden; just too much work. But this method of growing which appears to be based on solid horticultural practices has peaked my interest. I always like to grow flowers in the garden as well as the veggies, so I would be interested in seeing how gladiolas and dinner-plate dahlias do.

    Linda Gregory
    Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

    Would love this been way to try straw bale gardening.

    Lisa Warmoth
    Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

    A friend of mine grew some peppers & tomatoes this way last year. It didn't appear she had any particular plan or method to her "straw bale gardening". She crowded her plants a bit, but they did seem to do pretty well anyway. I didn't visit again past mid summer so I don't know the end result. However, I was very curious about this method of gardening. I'm always looking for new planting ideas.

    Lisa Warmoth
    Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

    Oops! I forgot to mention what I would like to plant. I would put some bales on my deck where it is very sunny. I would plant cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and basil. The 3 things I would like close to my patio door because I eat so much of them. :0) Also the vines could hang on the deck for support.

    Sandy Zimmer
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    I would plant potatoes and tomatoes in the bales.

    Barbara Hall
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    All my years of gardenng, I have never been able to grow strawberries successfully, using bales of hay may just work..bales of hay, wonderful idea...

    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    I am most exciting for growing a variety of salad greens and cherry tomatoes in my straw bale garden!

    Where do you source your straw bale from? Is it considered a waste product, or is it in pretty high demand in your area?

    Laura Sherrill
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    I'd like to try sweet potatoes. They are my dogs favorite treat.

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