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Straw bale gardening got its start on Worthington farm

By Carol Stender
cstender@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 03/28/2013 9:00 PM

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MINNEAPOLIS — Joel Karsten has the seeds, fertilizer, soaker hose and straw bales ready to go.

Karsten uses the straw instead of soil.

He considers growing with straw a breakthrough vegetable growing method. Karsten can grow vegetables earlier, anywhere and without weeding. It's become a gardening craze and led Karsten to write "Straw Bale Gardens."

The concept started on his family's Worthington farm.

"As a young farm boy, one of the major steps to manhood is when you get to stack your first rack of straw bales by yourself," said Karsten.

The rack would almost make it back to the dairy and grain farm before one or two bales would fall and break, he said. The broken bales would be tossed to the side. Weed seeds, carried on the summer winds, would fall and rains saturated the straw. The seeds would germinate and grow "like Jack's bean stalk," he said.

"Anyone could see that they were getting some kind of benefit from those rotting bales of straw," he said. "I noted this even then and sort of filed it away in my head."

After high school, Karsten attended the University of Minnesota to major in horticulture science with an emphasis in nursery and landscape management. While he took classes on the "farm campus," Karsten traveled to the east bank for football practice where he played for coach Lou Holtz. He was the only team member studying anything agriculture-related, he said.

Karsten began landscaping for others after his sophomore year. Most of his clients were professors who lived near campus.

"They loved having a farm kid who knew how to work hard, so I had work lined up constantly," he said. "I hired other football players to help out."

He stayed in the Twin Cities following college and focused on his landscaping skills. But nothing created a bigger challenge for him than the first property he purchased. As he began working the soil for a garden, Karsten discovered the ground was more like a construction soil. It bore little resemblance to loose soils.

Karsten wanted a lush garden like his Grandma Josephine's . It was where he played with his trucks as a child while she weeded. As he grew, Karsten helped her and learned about vegetable production.

He didn't have money to purchase truckloads of compost, and he didn't have the resources to build raised beds or make other garden modifications.

That's when he remembered the broken straw bales.

If he were to purposely set out a bunch of straw bales and encouraged the bales to decompose quickly, it might provide enough nutrition. He mentioned the idea to some of his college professors, but they hadn't heard of straw bale gardening. He yielded no results when researching the topic.

Frustrated, he called his father who simply said, "Well, why don't you just try it a bunch of different ways and see what works? What are you out if it doesn't work?"

He set bales up, treated different groups of bales with different rates and concentrations of nitrogen and kept them moist.

By mid-summer, Karsten knew he had a winner.

"Everything was growing fast and looked so much better than similar plants planted in soil at the same time," he said. "The inside of the bales was decomposing very quickly and literally created brand new soil inside the bale."

He intended to use the gardening method to produce vegetables for him and his wife, Patty, but people started paying attention to his methods. Eventually a KARE 11 TV reporter from the Twin Cities' station, Jeff Olson, interviewed Karsten about the straw bale garden.

Almost overnight, Karsten's schedule got busy. He was asked to speak at garden clubs, to teach a class on straw bale gardening and to write a pamphlet. When someone suggested he start a Facebook page, he did and, within a week or two, had 500 "likes." So far the page has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook. He's learned that straw bale gardening is spreading across the globe.

A website, strawbalemarket.com, is devoted to farmers with bales to sell.

Karsten sold his landscaping business 22 years ago and started a small manufacturing and distributing company. But he's continued to use the straw bale garden method for his own produce. Gardening is his hobby, he said.

Patty has great culinary skills and turns the vegetables into delightful dishes. Their dog, Aspen, also likes the straw bale garden and handles the garden security and hole digging, Karsten said.

His book, "Straw Bale Gardens," published by Cool Springs Press, is a complete guide. He uses easy to understand terminology combined with pictures that easily illustrate his methods.