This is the second in a series of reviews of new books by local garden writers.
Straw bale gardening is a gardening method created and championed by Minnesota horticulturist and writer Joel Karsten.** His latest book on the subject, Straw Bale Solutions (Cool Springs Press, 2018), covers all the ways that straw bale gardening has solved gardeners’ problems from dealing with steep slopes to clay soil to desert-like conditions all over the world. It’s a fascinating read as well as an introduction to the straw bale gardening method.
Straw Bale Solutions starts with Joel’s story: He had a new yard with extremely poor soil but wanted to grow vegetables. He also was low on cash. Having grown up on a farm, he knew that plants would grow in straw bales, so he came up with a method to rapidly decompose the middle of bales to create a compost-like growing medium. He created a booklet to share the method, started giving talks at local community education programs, then wrote a book, and now is a popular garden speaker and writer. The straw bale gardening books have been extremely popular and the straw bale method has spread around the globe. As Joel notes in his book, the straw bales attract attention!
Straw bale gardening is especially popular with people who garden in challenging sites. Many folks who live in Wisconsin love the method because they have lots of walnut trees on their lots and walnuts exude a substance (juglone) that prevents many plants from growing. Folks who live in very dry areas also like it, as do those who have lots that are prone to flooding. Others use straw bales because the soil is contaminated.
In Straw Bale Solutions, Joel provides an overview of the method and some tips for best results. (Big hint: Don’t over-water the bales!) He then profiles more than 25 individuals, community gardens and businesses that use straw-bale gardening to grow food. The stories are fascinating because each of the gardens would have been a huge challenge using traditional in-ground gardening methods. For instance, one gardener lives in the Netherlands, where her land is prone to severe flooding. The height of the bales prevents plants from being washed away, resulting in a productive garden. On the opposite side of the world, in Davao, Philippines, a young woman helped set up a demonstration garden to show how the method could be used to grow food in urban areas, even where tools are scarce. The stories come from Canada to Cambodia, and provide insights into the usefulness of straw bale gardening.
If you have considered trying straw bale gardening, this book will give you enough information to get started and an abundance of inspiration. If you are already a straw bale gardener, you’ll find you have plenty of company!
**Full disclosure: Joel Karsten is treasurer of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society.