SG515 Straw Bale Gardening Pioneer Joel Karsten

Joel Karsten Straw Bale GardensIn this episode of Still Growing…(SG 515), I feature life-long entrepreneur and the pioneer of Straw Bale Gardening, Joel Karsten.

Twenty years ago, Joel Karsten had a brilliant idea.

Thanks in part to his early experiences gardening with his Grandma Josephine and desperate for a solution to his new home’s backyard (the soil was essentially  construction fill), Joel had a feeling he just might be able to garden successfully in straw bales.

When he couldn’t find academic support for his idea, he returned to his childhood home on a farm in Southwestern Minnesota.  In an overwhelming gesture of support, Joel’s Dad welcomed him home with a whole hayrack full of straw bales. And, that was just the beginning.

The approach Joel and his father used to perfect Straw Bale Gardening was actually quite scientific. Splitting the bales into five rows, they began to run various trials. Joel was dedicated to testing whether straw bales could be used as a substrate for growing vegetables. On that Spring day in 1994, they planted 50 bales of straw without any idea of what was to come.

Straw Bale Garden 3

By the middle of June, just a month after planting, they both realized the process was a major success. Truly, the plants growing out of the straw bales were twice as tall as the plants growing in the soil. A new method of gardening was underway…

Straw Bale Gardens Book

And yet, it would take 14 years for the world to discover the pioneering work of Joel Karsten.

This episode is the first of a three part series featuring Joel Karsten and his Straw Bale Gardening method.

This Episode, Part 1, chronicles Joel’s early experiences in the garden as well as his various entrepreneurial endeavors.

When someone is as humble and hard working as Joel, it’s easy to dismiss success; chalking it up to simple good fortune. On closer inspection, it’s precisely his incredible Midwestern work ethic, pride in doing good work, and a serious passion for “the new” that has made Joel successful in every single pursuit that has caught his attention.

It is fitting, then, that a simple straw bale is the medium behind Joel’s successful breakthrough gardening method: Straw Bale Gardening.

To me, the magic of the Straw Bale Gardening story is that Joel was not just “Grasping at Straw” when he acted on his idea. He thoughtfully and scientifically pursued it for over a decade; refining what he learned and continuing to search for ways to improve his approach.

In order to be successful, gardeners need to appreciate the science behind Straw Bale Gardening:

“Very often people will email me, ‘So you just get a bale of straw, and you dig the inside out and you put the dirt in and you plant your plants in there.’ … You can do that if you want to. But, if you do that – you’re not Straw Bale Gardening – you’re soil gardening on top of a bale of straw.

What we’re doing is we’re converting the strawand we’re going to create our own brand new virgin soil inside of that straw bale.

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

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This Episode: SG515 Straw Bale Gardening Pioneer Joel Karsten

Main topics covered in this interview:

  • Joel’s farming roots in Worthington, Minnesota (8:50)
  • An early education in horticulture from Grandma Josephine (11:00)
  • The benefits of hand-watering (19:25)

(Grandma Josephine) just like to walk her garden every morning and look for any problems – any insects or disease problems.

Any leaf on a plant that today looked different than it did yesterday, she’d do a close inspection and if it looked like it had some kind of disease, she’d snip it off and put it in her bread bag and get rid of it.

She was just on top of any problems.  So, things didn’t linger and get worse over the course of a week.

One of those potato bugs would DARE come into her garden and she had it by the next morning and it was in the bread bag and in the garbage.

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Joel’s college experience at the University of Minnesota (B.S. Horticulture) (22:30)

“I remember going with my dad to the arboretum and listening to a couple of horticulture professors…. I got to meet Dr. Bert Swanson.

Years later, when I was a freshmen in college, he ended up being my advisor and truly was a mentor for me all through college.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Joel’s Entrepreneurial Success Stories (28:00)

 “I think early on, every business I’ve started or adventure I’ve gotten into, I have some idea… obviously that there’s a demand and a need for it. But, mainly I do it because I’m interested in it.  And, I think that there might be somebody else interested in it.  

As you pursue the business, or the project, or the idea, things usually just kind of come clear.

I’m not a (business plan) person. I’ve written a few business plans, but usually by two weeks of when I’ve written a business plan, things have already changed and the business plan is kind of out the window.

I’m the type of person that likes to move quickly; taking advantage of opportunities. And, I think that’s where some of the advantage comes from.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Our Governor can beat up your governorOvernight Sensation: “Our Governor can beat up your Governor” (31:30)

“It was an unbelievable opportunity. It was just like an explosion – like a nuclear bomb that went off when we introduced this; ‘Our Governor can beat up your Governor‘…

It’s just a really good example of how when you’re a young entrepreneur – you don’t know what you can’t do. When something comes along – a great opportunity – you just grab it and you go with it.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Before he pioneered his Straw Bale Gardening methods, Joel was a serial entrepreneur – building businesses around everything from industrial filters to toys… and ultimately a distribution company. (36:30)
  • The Straw Bale Gardening Story (41:30)

 “And so I knew there was something in that bale of strawthat those plants really liked.

What if I tried using bales of straw?

So, I called my old professors at the U (of MN), and I told them my brilliant idea that I’d come up with – using a bale of straw as a substrate.

[They] didn’t think it would work out… and they made one suggestion, “You should call Texas A&M“…

So, I call down there and the guy down there says, “You should call this person over at Georgia Tech“.

So, I call Georgia Tech and they say, “Penn State – they’ll know everything about this.”

So, I call Penn State and they say, “Call the U of MN“.  

So, I went in this big circle and I never discovered anything very encouraging.

After that, out of frustration, I called my Dad and I told him my brilliant idea…

He said, “Well, let’s try it.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

Straw Bale Gardens Cabbage

  • Straw Bale Gardening goes viral (46:30)
  • The Science behind Straw Bale Gardening (48:00)

“I knew what I wanted to accomplish.

And, I knew one of the main things I was going to need to do was add a source of nitrogen to those bales.

[You need Nitrogen] in order to stimulate the bacteria to develop inside and quickly consume that straw to turn it into soil.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • On creating soil (49:30)

What is really good soil?

Really good soil has a high percentage of decomposed organic material called humus. Something that was alive has died and that’s really what we’re doing inside of this bale: We’re converting that straw into brand new virgin soil.

That’s really important because when you have brand new soil… you don’t have any lingering disease problems, any lingering insect issues, any lingering weed problems or weed seeds that get left in your top soil year after year.  So it really solves a lot of those problems that Vegetable Gardeners face on a year to year basis.
-Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Six years ago, strong demand lead to the first Straw Bale Garden Booklet (51:22)

“I tell people, it’s not a book that you have to convince people to buy.

Once a person buys it, and starts doing it (straw bale gardening), anybody within sight of that garden is going to have questions about how it works…

And, then they convince them that they should try it.

It just sort of sells itself.

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

Joel Karsten Straw Bale Gardems

  • Starting the Straw Bale Gardens website (54:00)

Jeff Olson (of Kare 11 TV) called the night before and said, 

“Everyone around the studio has been asking questions about how they can do this and where they can find more information”.  

He said, “Do you have a website?”

I said, “I don’t have a website, but let me call you back.”

So, I went on and I bought the URL address for and I called him right back.

I said, “Our URL is”

He said, “But there’s nothing there.”

I said, “Oh, there will be… when this thing gets on TV tomorrow night, there will be.”

So I stayed up a built a little website.”

-Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • On shaking up traditional views on gardening (1:01:00)

“I definitely think it’s a new way of looking at gardening (Straw Bale Gardening).  

And, it’s really impactful for those people who are already experienced gardeners; You know, sometimes when you talk to someone who’s been gardening for a long time, it’s pretty hard to impress them.  

But, even the reporter from the New York Times – he’s heard everything – he was absolutely blown away when he came and saw my garden.

He called it a revolutionary method of gardening.”

– Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • On teaching Community Education Straw Bale Gardening (1:04:00)

“I’ve been teaching 4-5 years in Amery, Wisconsin.

This same woman has signed up for the class every year. But, now she doesn’t come to learn how to Straw Bale Garden.

She just comes, so she can bring all of her photo albums and brag about her Straw Bale Garden.

-Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Straw Bale Gardening in North Hollywood unites the neighborhood (1:06:00)

“Sarah Redmond is her name. Originally when she started (Straw Bale Gardening), she did this in her front yard… in North Hollywood, California.

And, she put these great big giant straw bales up in her front yard in rows.

She said, “I lived in this house for 15 years. I knew one or two of my neighbors.

Believe me, when I put these straw bales in the front yard, I now know everybody in the neighborhood.”

By the end of the summer, she had brought these neighbors together.

What a compliment.”

-Joel Karsten, Straw Bale Gardens

  • Next Week: The fundamentals of Straw Bale Gardening – A detailed look at Conditioning Bales

Mentioned on Still Growing… this week

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Jennifer Ebeling
Jennifer Ebeling is a proud Minnesotan and U of MN alumni. Gooooooo Gophers! Each week, Jennifer produces and hosts Still Growing - a gardening podcast dedicated to helping you and your garden grow. The show is an in-depth interview format. Guests featured on the show share a passion for gardening and include authors, bloggers, professional gardeners, etc. Listeners and guests of the show can join the Still Growing community on Facebook. It's a place to ask questions, share garden stories, interact with great guests featured on the show, and continue to grow and learn. Jennifer and her husband Philip have four children, a big golden lab named Sonny, and live in lovely Maple Grove, Minnesota. P.S. When she's not teaching her four kids a new card game - or teaching them how to drive a car - Jennifer loves inspiring individuals and groups to maximize and personalize their home & garden.
Jennifer Ebeling
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  1. Linda Tarango on November 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I have recently volunteered to put up a Head Start garden- have been doing Straw Bale Gardening at home so what a perfect opportunity! I got some small bales in the craft stores and put together a mini version. The kids have sprouted their seeds and this week we will transplant for a REAL educational event! Love your information- I remember the Mother Jones article I read in the ’70’s, remembered it all this time and actually tried it 4 or 5 years ago. I am one of those converts who learned and now want to teach others! Crosby, Stills & Nash had it right way back then, “Teach your children well” LOVIN’ this method!

    • Jennifer Ebeling on November 14, 2013 at 5:46 pm

      Hi Linda.
      I love the idea of Straw Bale Gardens at schools! Let me know how it goes for you.

  2. Andrew Davison on February 19, 2014 at 7:28 pm

    Just found your show this week on itunes. I have listened to every episode, (I have long work days where my hands are busy but my ears are free to listen.)

    The last two episodes on SB gardening has me thinking of some extra garden space that has been given me. I think it will work out well in the space.

    My question is this. Can I use dried chicken manure as my nitrogen source? Should I mix it with water first or sprinkle it on top and pour the water on top.

    • Jennifer Ebeling on March 19, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Hi Andrew –
      Here’s Joel’s response:

      Mix it half-and-half with bloodmeal, sprikle it on top at the recommended rate and water it down in. I don’t recommend using chicken poo alone, because the nitrogen content can vary greatly, deepening on the age of the manure.

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