Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden

By Joel Karsten | January 6, 2016
Image by Joel Karsten
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 www.StrawBaleGardens.com 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!
strawbalegardensbkcover
WIN ONE OF TEN COPIES OF ‘STRAW BALE GARDENS‘!

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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  • Paper Straw
    Comment added November 9, 2020Reply

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  • Lillydaplyn
    Comment added January 23, 2020Reply

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  • Arjoopandey
    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

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  • 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.

  • Francis
    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

    parsnips

  • 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!

  • Kadie
    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...

  • Starr
    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.

  • Kris Randol
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    I try to grow big thing and they never seem to get there I would try Dill's Atlantic Giant in straw bales

  • Eva Notley
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    Even if I don't win a copy of this book, I am going to try this method for tomatoes and then move forward to other vegetables.

  • Gerry
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    A very interesting way that could allow far more people to grow their own food.

  • Roy
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    Would love to add bales to my garden.
    Tomatoes and beans would do well.
    But at $8 to $10 a bale it is rather costly.

  • Catherine
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    It would have to be tomatoes (fresh tomatoes are ambrosia!)

  • Alex Vassilounis
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    It is great to lern about new things as we get older.
    This is something I did not come accros in my 69 years in this erth. Thank you for teaching us new methods.
    I like to plant leaffy vegetables like lettuce, swiss chard, chiccori, cruciferous plants like broccoli, cauliflower, e.t.c. Also cucumbers, tomatoes and many more. I hope I can do it right.

  • David Womack
    Comment added January 10, 2016Reply

    I want to grow cucumbers, squash, and several different pepper varieties.

  • Judy Stacy
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I love my tomatoes from my straw bales. I had some great cantaloupe too!

  • Kathy
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I own your book and have read it cover-to-cover twice as well as going back to certain sections.

    I have every intention of using straw bales this year in my own(1/2 acre) garden and I AM excited about that, but I am even more excited about the fact that our church group is going to have a community garden for low income families and individuals this year and, for many reasons, we are planning to use the straw bale method in our community garden, too.

    (Yeah, that was my idea.)

    AND the other members of our sponsoring group also want to use the same method in their own gardens. I think I'm the youngest in the group and I'm 66, so you can imagine our enthusiasm for NOT having to crawl around on the ground, stay bent over, or kneel to pull weeds. Most of us (including me) are no longer as limber as we once were and couldn't manage those positions anyway.

    We will find out at our organizational meeting this coming Monday(1-11-16) just how many people are going to participate.

    Wish us luck!

  • Doris Rives
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I am gonna try potatoes this year.... Love this method of gardening!

  • Penny Minor
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I'm going to definitely do this.

  • Dorothy
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    We tried a few bales the first year. After get success, we doubled the number last year. We had beautiful veggies and are adding more bales this year. We are going to attend one of your seminars because we can't wait to meet you and thank you in person.

  • Sayonna George
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I want to grow some tomatoes, zucchini and Hubbard squash. I am a senior and think the straw bale would be great for me.

    Thanks for having the change to maybe get your book.

    Sayonna George.

  • Judijo
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    Looks like a great way to efficiently garden! I look forward to trying it!

  • Kara Kudro
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I would love to try strawberries in this type of garden, very creative concept.

  • Mitch
    Comment added January 9, 2016Reply

    I'm planning on trying this with mix of plants , last year had problem with them cute little animals I can't hurt, so will try using plants they don't like planted in the sides to try keeping them way.

  • Mick
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    Definitely would try peppers in this bale setup

  • Bobbi
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would love to grow Tomatoes in the Hay bale, I be they would be so tastey,,, :)

  • Janet Laine Foster
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would love to grow a bean tepee for my children with the bales surrounding the base. I think this would provide an excellent hiding spot for kids on a hot day.

  • David Allie
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I'd love to try cherry tomatoes in a hay bale garden!

  • Valerie
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    Green beans Tomato cucumbers lettuce

  • Sheryl Edwards
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would like to grow green beans in straw bales!

  • Kristen Chan
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I'd love to grow carrots in straw bales!

  • allison
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would love to grow carrots. I imagine no rocks in the hay bales would lead to big, long, straight carrots!

  • Sheryle G
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would like to grow tomatoes and peppers in a straw bale.

  • Hailey Brownwulf
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    Like everyone else, I would be excited to try my hand at growing tomatoes with this method, for salsa and spaghetti sauce.

    If I had a copy of the book and learned more about this method, I might conjure up some more interesting ideas other than what is pictured on this blog. (:

  • Paula McKenna
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    My son & I have discovered the unbelievable difference in taste of the vegetables we grow ourselves vs the GMO crops usually found in our store. We would, of course grow tomatoes--love that fried green tomato plus our hot peppers for my pepper sauce to go on top of our turnip & collard greens. Can you tell we're from the south? Plus we live on 25 acres of rolling AL land that is too beautiful to describe but whose dirt can only be described as red clay--hard to dig in, impossible to grow in. Oh, I forgot to mention our beans, zucchini and yellow squash...I could go on & on but we'd love to try the bale growing this year!

  • Sarah
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    I would love to try planting zucchini in a straw bale this summer!

  • Bonnie Day
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    Tomatoes- esp heirlooms Love Tomatoes

  • Jason
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    This sounds really interesting. I wonder if I could try using this on top of my pre-built raised beds to build organic matter? Also, I am curious to know if you could grow root vegetables like sweet potatoes in a setup like this? I've had a tough time getting the the soil in my raised beds deep and loose enough to grow big ones.

    • Lisa Warmoth
      Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

      Hmmm...what an interesting idea. I do the layered gardening concept in my raised beds. Black & white newspaper, straw, green grass clippings, dried leaves, garden friendly food scraps & some compost. I also do this on the bottom of my container plants as well. A dream come true for the worms.

      Anyway, I use straw as a cover on my raised beds to prevent weeds. It breaks down nicely. I like the idea of the straw bale on the raised bed. I'd like to see how that turns out. I'm gonna experiment with that this year. I'm always looking out for new ways to garden.

  • Sharon
    Comment added January 8, 2016Reply

    Hm, I like this idea!! I would definitely try tomatoes.

  • Carol Yemola
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    I would definitely grow tomatoes. I plant about 12 bushes and make my own spaghetti sauce with the tomatoes.

  • MichaÅ‚ KamiÅ„ski
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    Sounds really cool, I think I'm gonna try it this season. And of course, TOMATOES!

  • Jennifer Nielsen
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    Definitely tomatoes. I like that you use a little "new" disease free dirt. I have that problem a lot with tomatoes in my area, so this would be a dream!

    fishblurry@gmail.com

  • Chad Puschel
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    Great article! This will go great with my rain catch, with gravity fed drip irrigation "system"... I say "system" because I tried to recycle or reuse as much as possible and I'm still working out the kinks. My main crops are Bell Peppers, Collard greens, Broccoli,and Hot Peppers. Do you think these crops would do well planted in a hay bale? Also are there any concerns about using recycled rain water, microbes/bacteria?

  • Nicky F.
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    Great information! I would love to grow sungold tomatoes and lots of basil.

    • Lisa Warmoth
      Comment added January 11, 2016Reply

      :0) We think alike. I tried sungold cherry tomatoes for the first time a couple years ago. I'm hooked. Gotta have basil with tomatoes, I always say. lol

  • Vicki Fisher
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    I would love to grow mini-cucumbers, round heirloom squashes, or melons- I love vines and the bales would really allow them to flourish and spread out!

  • Frank
    Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

    I would like to grow strawberries / blueberries and many other different veggies as our kids love gardening and growing their favorite food. I would love to know more about this amazing concept.

  • Brian
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I can't help but smile at this one! I love the plants that are sticking out of the sides of the bales, using up every surface. So much good information in this post, it's almost overwhelming. My backyard is missing that "down on the farm" feeling.

  • Brennan
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I've never had a good tomato from the store so perhaps it would be a start. I am a newbie and had little success last year despite the attention devoted to my small garden. This might be exactly what I need!

  • Connie Lee
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I would like to grow tomatoes in my straw bale garden.

  • Sue
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I would love to grow tomatoes and salad enhansers as cucumbers, green and red peppers,radishes,cauliflower, broccolli, kale etc. in bales of straw. I have difficulty with traditional planting and weeding with bending down and this would also keep the rabbits from eating my plants and importantly no need to worry about my dog peeing on my vegetables. Wonder how this would work for berry bushes. The rabbits love to eat the stems in the winter snow. This is a win-win with being able to produce and provide fruits and vegetables for many of seniors living near me. Thank you for super information. Can't wait for spring and warm weather to start this straw planting.

  • Debra Goughler
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I WOULD grow many different veggies as well as flowers. I would love to learn more about this amazing concept

  • Steve
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    What a great idea! The science is sound as well. I would use the bales in a greenhouse to grow salad crops, tomatoes and peppers.

  • far too much sun and wind
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    This sounds so interesting. I am not able to get my tomatoes to grow, so I would be interested in putting in tomatoes or lettuce. Do they help deter rabbits?

  • Ruth L
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I'd grow summer squash and zucchini, we seem to eat a lot, I think the bales would be great under trapezes too.

  • Anne of Green Gardens
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    Looks like a neat concept, I'd like to learn more and share it with my readers.

    • Joel karsten
      Comment added January 7, 2016Reply

      Call me anytime Ann, I am happy to help you put something together. Best, Joel

  • Judy Stockman
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    I'd love to grow tomatoes in a straw bale garden! This looks like a great alternative to a traditional garden for me. I am too crippled by arthritis to do the work of planting and maintaining a garden in the traditional way; even raised beds require work I'm no longer able to do. This would be so much easier!

  • Dave
    Comment added January 6, 2016Reply

    Great article with exciting but simple ideas

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