Book review: "Straw Bale Gardens"

Straw Bale Gardens by Joel Karsten (Cool Springs Press, 144 pp., $19.99)

by Susan Mulvihill

Up until a few months ago, I’d never heard of the straw bale gardening method. One of my Master Gardener colleagues mentioned how she’d read a book about it and wanted to give it a try.

The book she was referring to was the recently-published “Straw Bale Gardens” by Joel Karsten. I decided to read it, too, and by the time I reached the end of the first chapter, I was excited to try it out in my own garden.

Let’s get the most important point out of the way first: yes, you actually grow your garden in bales of straw. Why? Well, as the straw bales decompose, the temperature inside rises. That’s just what warm-season crops like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, melons and squash love. And the decomposition process provides a lot of nutrients for the plants, which will cause them to grow and produce plentifully.

Karsten does a great job of explaining all of the positive attributes of straw bale gardens in a manner easily understood by gardeners of all experience levels. In addition to the above items, they include being able to garden on your feet rather than having to kneel down, never having to worry about crop rotation since you just replace the bales each year, and having a minimal amount of weeding to do.

The book is filled with attractive color photographs that both serve to instruct and excite the reader.

The author explains how many bales to get in order to produce enough veggies for a family, the step-by-step process of setting up the bales for the most efficient garden, how to condition them (more on that in a moment) and how to plant them. Karsten also provides helpful plant profiles of the vegetables, berries and herbs gardeners would be interested in growing.

The conditioning process entails saturating the bales with water daily during the course of 12 days and fertilizing them every other day during that time. All of this jumpstarts the decomposition process so needed for a successful garden. After that period, the bales can be planted.

When I was interviewing a gentleman for my May 25th feature story on straw bale gardens, I was impressed that, while he and his wife have had little experience with vegetable gardening, they both felt confident enough to give it a try after reading Joel Karsten’s book. He said they found all of the information they needed to get their garden started and are very enthusiastic about it to boot.

So what am I doing in my own garden? Since I have 26 raised beds, there wasn’t a lot of room to get crazy with straw bales but I do have two going and am excited to see the results. Mine are planted with peppers, tomatillos and cucumbers.

Out in the Master Gardeners’ demonstration garden, we have several straw bales set up and are growing all sorts of veggies in them. The public is welcome to visit the garden during plant clinic hours (Mondays-Thursdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon starting June 7). It is located at 222 N. Havana St., just south of the Extension education center. You can direct questions to the Master Gardeners in the plant clinic on the second floor of the building, or call (509) 477-2181 or email them at

I intend to write a follow-up story on each of the straw bale gardens this fall, so stay tuned for a report on how well they performed.