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  • 2-in-1

    New garden technique grows plants in straw bales, which act as container and growing medium
  • AKRON, Ohio — When Joel Karsten was growing up on a farm in Minnesota, he noticed how lushly weeds grew from rotting bales of straw.
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  • AKRON, Ohio — When Joel Karsten was growing up on a farm in Minnesota, he noticed how lushly weeds grew from rotting bales of straw.
    That made him wonder: If straw worked so well for growing weeds, wouldn't it work just as well for vegetables?
    Karsten's question eventually led him to devise a method for growing plants directly in straw bales. His idea is gaining momentum among gardeners with the release last month of his book, "Straw Bale Gardens" (Cool Springs Press, $19.99).
    In Karsten's method, the bale is used as both a container and a growing medium. The straw decomposes over the growing season, producing compost that feeds the plants. The twine around the bale holds the straw together and contains what is essentially a small compost pile.
    The method reduces disease problems, practically eliminates weeding and gives plants a jump start on those grown with traditional methods, he said. It also puts plants within easy reach of people who have trouble bending or kneeling, and it does so more cheaply than creating raised beds.
    Karsten said straw bale gardening is also a good option for gardeners with poor soil — or no soil, for that matter. Straw bales can even be used to grow gardens on hard surfaces such as parking lots, he notes in his book.
    And at the end of the season, the bales can just go into the compost pile.
    Karsten developed his method when he bought his first house and discovered the soil was mostly fill dirt poorly suited for gardening. He remembered those discarded straw bales on the farm, left behind when they would fall off the bale rack on the way to the barn. They were useless once they got wet, so they were just ignored.
    He remembered the way airborne thistle seeds would take hold in those decomposing bales and grow into tall, healthy plants. He figured vegetable plants would thrive, too.
    A horticultural science graduate, Karsten ran his idea past some of his former professors at the University of Minnesota, with little encouragement. It was his father who suggested he give it a try. "What'll it hurt?" his dad said.
    "I discovered very quickly that it worked," Karsten said. "It worked very well."
    Karsten has refined his method over the years and until recently has been spreading the word mostly through a Facebook page and a website he initially threw together to handle the response from a local TV station's story about his method. He used the website to sell an instruction booklet he wrote at the request of his father, who got tired of explaining the method to people who stopped by the family farm to see the straw-bale garden Karsten had created there.
    Now you can read more about his method at strawbalegardens.com or Karsten's Facebook page, www.facebook.com/learntogrowastrawbalegarden.
    Part of the success of straw-bale gardening lies in a process Karsten calls conditioning the bales. His soil science classes had taught him that bacteria need nitrogen and water to start the composting process, so he developed a method of preparing the bales so the straw would start to break down before planting time.
    He starts with common bales of straw, approximately 2 feet by 11/2 feet by 31/2 feet, an agricultural leftover that's used mainly for animal bedding and mulch. Some people confuse straw with hay, but they're different things. Straw is the dead stems of cereal grains, left behind after threshing. Hay is a crop grown for animal feed.
    Karsten places the bales so the cut end of the straw faces up and the twine is around the sides, not on the top and bottom surfaces. Then, starting a couple of weeks before planting time, he follows a regimen of watering the bales daily and sprinkling them with fertilizer on specific days and in prescribed amounts.
    The conditioning system starts the composting process enough that nutrients can be made available to the plants. Heat is produced as the straw decomposes, so transplants and seeds planted in the bales have a warm environment for root development.
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