The key note speaker a few weeks ago, at the Master Gardener’s all day extravaganza in Otter Tail County, MN, was Joel Karsten. Joel is a Minnesota horticulturalist who has created something which seems at first outlandish. Garden in straw bales? You’ve got to be kidding. No soil? No weeds? Moveable?

Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes.

It sounded too good to be true and we thought it would be fun to try. The first hurdle was the bales. It turns out that they are readily available in the fall, but not the spring. After many calls here and there I was ready to give up when I got a call from cousin Rick who remembered my enthusiasm at Easter. He heard about a farmer with bales near his place in North Dakota, went and loaded up his truck, and called me to say he was on the way to Fergus Falls.


If you decide to try straw bale gardening, you must not confuse hay and straw. Straw is the stalk portion of grain crops (wheat, oats, barley) and hay is a grass based legume and you don’t want that springing up among your carrots.

Joel Karsten, at his Garden Day lecture, enumerated on good reasons for giving it a trial. It is inexpensive because there is no need for a container or planting mix; there is no need for hoeing or digging up the ground; it provides good access with the height; holds moisture and drains well; is reusable or becomes broken down into primo mulch in the fall. And, it is moveable if need be. He told of a friend who was a renter and unexpectedly had to move in the middle of the summer. Instead of leaving his vegetables behind, he simply loaded the bales onto his truck and brought them along to the new garden.

The first guideline (if you care to try) is to position the bales cut side up in a sunny spot. They can be two rows side by side, but not three, with 3 feet spacing between rows.  North to south is best, but not essential depending on the light pattern in your garden. It might be helpful to establish a stake at each end of every fifth bale in order to provide strings for plant support, or a means to drape plastic over newly planted seedlings. Joel suggested 14-16 gauge fencing wire every 10 – 12” above bales.

It will take 10 – 12 days to “condition” the bales before planting and Joel assured his wary audience that we could expect “hyer-decay” of the straw with good bacterium and microorganisms if we followed the instructions. He also said to expect worms and mushrooms to magically appear and the appearance of a “lovely nitrogen rich media.” I know, I know. Hard to fathom.

The conditioning recipe begins with nitrogen. Joel suggested a “cheap lawn fertilizer, but cautioned you make sure that it doesn’t include a herbicide.


Day One: sprinkle evenly, ½ cup per bale of nitrogen fertilizer and water in.

Day Two: Water

Day Three: ½ cup per bale and water

Day Four: Water

Day Five: ½ cup per bale and water

Day Six: Water

Days 7 – 9: ¼ cup per bale and water

Day 10: 1 cup (10-10-10 fertilizer) per bale and water.


Ten bales for vegetables.

First half cup of nitrogen.

Two bales for entry walk flowers.




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