The Science of Straw Bale Gardening with Joel Karsten

 

Is it truly possible to grow a vibrant, amazing garden using straw?

Joel Karsten

Hear the incredible story of straw bale gardens by the man who literally wrote the book on this technique, Mr. Joel Karsten.  He routinely challenges old gardening dogma and pioneers exciting new techniques to grow vegetables in the darndest places!

Joel Karsten is a self-described horticulture fanatic.  He is a gardening author, blogger, and teacher of straw bale gardening.  He hates to pull weeds, he loves fresh veggies, and you won’t believe what he can grow even in the climate of Minnesota!

 

In This Episode You Will Discover:

  • how to grow the first tomatoes of the season and be the envy of all your gardening friends!
  • tips to grow vegetables in colder climates than possible regardless of your zone
  • how to silence the critics and get them scratching their head in amazement
  • strategies for sore knees, backs and disabled gardeners
  • why hay and straw bales can be magic
  • 5 things to never do to your garden
  • tremendous ideas and a big garden resource

tomato growing in hay bale

tomato growing in hay bale

Sponsors

Resources

GardenRant.com

Learn To Grow A Straw Bale Garden

This is the gardening book Joel mentioned on the show!

Interview Links

Joel’s Blog – http://strawbalegardens.com/

Joel Karsten on Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/source/strawbalegardens.com/

Joel Karsten – Straw Bale Gardens

Watch the Podcast Here:

 

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Interview Transcript:

Dave:  Well good morning, good afternoon or good evening depending on where you are in the world when you listen to this.  I’m Dave Ledoux, and welcome to another edition of Back To My Garden.  Today we have a very, very special guest.  Joining us from Minnesota, he is a horticultural fanatic.  He’s an author, speak, garden blogger.  He says he hates pulling weeds, but he loves fresh veggies.  And he pioneered a unique solution using straw bales for gardening.  And he literally wrote the book on straw bale gardening.  He’s a blogger at www.strawbalegardens.com  I want to welcome to the show, Mr. Joel Karsten.  Joel, welcome to Back to My Garden.  

Joel:  Thank you David, it’s great to be with you.  It’s definitely true that when you grow vegetables, in typical soil you end up pulling lots of weeds.  So that was the inspiration for trying to come up with some different method, that’s for sure.  

David:  Fantastic.  You know Joel, I put you in the category of experienced gardener.  But we have people listening to the show who are novices and beginners, all levels of experience.  Can you just take a minute, and tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.  

Joel:  Well, I’m a country boy.  I was born and raised on a farm in southwest Minnesota.  When you’re a little kid growing up on a farm, you spend a lot of time baling hay, baling straw.  As even a youth, 8 or 10 years old, I would see a broken straw bale laying up against the barn and I would see halfway through the summer weeds would start growing out of these bales.  I kind of tucked that away in my memory bank and then we fast-forward about 15 years, and I buy my first house.  Like lots of people, I only had an inch of topsoil covering up this awful construction fill that they left behind.  And my other problem was, that I had just graduated from college and I just bought a house, so I didn’t have any money to build raised beds which is what a normal vegetable gardener would do in that kind of situation.  So, what I ended up doing was using straw bales as a substrate, almost like a raised bed, and grow vegetables out of them.  I did a whole bunch of experimenting and trials and testing to see what would work best, what method would work best.  Over the past 21 years of doing it, I’ve sort of perfected the method and recruited a whole bunch of friends, and colleagues and relatives and other people mentioned that I should write a book about this subject.  So I did, and it’s become a really good seller.    

David:  If you’re having trouble, dear listener, visualizing what this looks like.  You’re going to head over to Joel’s blog at www.strawbalegardens.com   Now, if you’re driving in your car, stop by my blog at BackToMyGarden.com and find Joel’s podcast page, you’ve got to go to his blog because I’ve never seen anything like it.  It’s truly brilliant.  You have to see it, and I would imagine Joel that a lot of people are resistant to attempting what you have pioneered, in the beginning.  What kind of feedback do they give you after they’ve actually built one of these?  

straw bale combo

Joel:  That’s very interesting that you say that because I do get feedback from people.  Especially experienced gardeners.  A lot of times they see you put straw bales in your backyard and at first they think your cheese slipped off your cracker a little bit, and then they come and knock on the door and say, what are you going to do with those straw bales?  Are you bringing horses or goats in your backyard, or what’s going on?  And you say, no, I’m going to grow vegetables in those straw bales.  And an experienced gardener will say ‘well, that won’t work because you have to have soil in order to grow vegetables, you need the micronutrients that come from soil’.  And that’s where the real fun begins, because if you become a straw bale gardener, you instantly become a teacher.  And when you put those bales back there you’re going to get those questions, and then you’re going to start teaching them how this process really works.  And what happens, inside of those bales, the straw very quickly begins to decompose and compost.  So within 2 weeks, by the time you’re actually planting your vegetables into your bales, you’ve been conditioning the bales for 2 weeks, but by time you plant in there the inside of the bale has really started to decompose and become brand new soil, become virgin soil.  Now, anybody can understand that planting in brand new soil, virgin soil, has lots of advantages.  There’s no disease problems that previously existed in your soil.  Soil will harbour diseases and insects for years and years.  Also there’s no weed seeds.  If you’re starting with a nice clean bale of straw, there are no weed seeds in it.  So as it decomposes, you have brand new, fresh virgin soil without any other foreign seeds in it that are going to sprout.  So it brings together the best of several worlds.  And once you explain it a little bit, to even the experienced gardener, they say ‘okay, I understand now, now I get the concept’.  Once you convince them to try it, then the game is over, because they’ll be back next year, it always happens.  They say ‘last year I tried 5 bales, and well this year we’re doing 35 bales because it worked so well, and it was so easy that we decided to expand our straw bale garden’.  It always happens.    

David:  My goodness.  You said something profound, in terms of disease and contamination.  I interviewed Annie Haven, who sells organic cow manure and compost, and she spoke about how in Southern California almost all their compost is polluted and has run-off and field sprays and of course, the cattle in the commercial farms have antibiotics and hormones.  You don’t have any of those problems in straw, do you?  

Joel:  Well, you know you get oat straw or wheat straw right off the field.  Most farmers don’t use a lot of chemical on oats and wheat these days just because it’s a less valuable crop.  And weeds are so well controlled these days when they grow other crops that they really don’t have to do much for weed control or insect control because so many of the varieties are insect resistant today.  The straw comes off in pretty much organic condition, and now we’re going to treat it.  And you can do this completely organically by decomposing your bales using a nitrogen source like blood meal, which is what I recommend to folks.  There are some other good sources out there, you can use feather meal, which is ground up poultry feathers.  That works really well, it has lots of nitrogen in it.  You could also use poultry manure, but it has to be poultry manure that’s not too old, because when manure gets rained on for a long time it tends to leach the nitrogen out of it, so it won’t have a lot of nitrogen left.  But if you use poultry manure that’s about 6 – 12 weeks old, that’s been covered during the composting period, it works terrifically, because it will have 6 to 7% nitrogen and it really helps get these bales ‘cooking’ during that conditioning period.  So you can do it completely organically.  You can use lawn fertilizer as well if you want to, and we give you the recipe for lawn fertilizer or using it completely organically.  Essentially, all we’re doing during this conditioning period is we’re feeding the bacteria that already exist inside the bales.  And there’s no roots in there yet, so the nitrogen we’re giving is just to feed the bacteria.  Bacteria, as soon as you give them nitrogen and water, they begin to replicate and divide and during this period of time, while they’re colonizing the bale, they vibrate, and that vibration causes the bales to warm up and heat up.  So if you’re in a northern climate, it’s a really big advantage of straw bale gardening is when you begin the conditioning period, the bales get nice and warm.  So now you’re planting a tomato 2 weeks later into a bale that 85 – 100 degrees instead of in soil that’s 45 or 50 degrees in that mid-May time period … at least in MinneSnowTa where I live, .  

David:  Yeah, I’m just slightly south in latitude than you, but we had a killing frost last year May 27th and I could see where warmth, in Canada for example, is a major, major selling feature.  

Joel:  Yeah, I have a lot of people in the Arctic Circle that love this method of gardening.  I get letters from them all the time.  Our soil doesn’t thaw out until mid June and it makes it so difficult.  We have long days, of course, during the summer, so once the soil’s warm they get a great growing season.  But their soil takes so long to thaw, so if they do this in straw bales they get the big advantage of 3 – 4 weeks earlier planting, plus the fact that this bale is nice and warm with those long days, they get just huge vegetable yields.  This also works for people in Texas and in Florida because they have a period of time during their growing season in what they would call winter, kind of wimpy winter compared to our winter, where it gets cool and it actually frosted 5 times in Houston last year.  And then the soil cools down, so then they have to wait for the soil to warm up a little bit for the warm season crops like tomatoes to take off.  And once their soil warms up, then they can plant their tomatoes.  What their hope is is that they’ll have ripe tomatoes before the heat sets in in July.  So an earlier jumpstart for them is an advantage as well.

David:  Joel, you’ve been doing this now for more than 2 decades.  I want you to think of our timid, hesitant beginner gardener.  Can you share an obstacle or even a gardening disaster that you’ve overcome, and it can be humourous, and share something candid that you’ve done wrong in the past in gardening.  

Joel:  Well, in traditional gardening in the old days, I, like everybody, you’d try gardening, even back on the farm where I’d get my own plot.  Grandma, of course, ran the big garden, grandma and my mom and dad, but we’d get our own little plot where you could plant, and it would just get taken over by weeds by July 4th.  If you weren’t out there, on a consistent basis, every few days weeding, pretty soon everything was waist-high and your garden just got mowed off because there was nothing really there that was going to be productive.  But as far as straw bale gardening goes, I remember a couple of years ago I planted some cabbage.  Of course, your instinct is to put cabbage in the top of the bales, and the cabbage were probably the size of a softball of a large baseball at this point, and one of my water lines broke and it sort of carved out the bottom of the bale and the whole bale turned sideways.  And when I came out a couple of days later, this bale had tipped over sideways and the cabbages were sticking out the sides, so I though oh well, I think I’m just going to leave it, because if I try to tip it upright I’m going to mess up the bale, so I just left it to grow.  And these cabbages literally grew right out the side of the bale, flopped sideways.  And they actually turned out better than some of my other cabbages because those big scoop leaves in the bottom that usually they hold water, those were tipped sideways, so all the water ran out, and there was less insect accumulation, etc., and those big heads of cabbage, by the time we were done, were the size of a basketball, just growing sideways right out the side of the bale.  So that kind of inspired me, and now I grow all kinds of things right out the side of the bale.  Broccoli, and cauliflower, and cabbage and all my herbs go in the sides of the bale, so now not only do we put seeds in the top of the bale and other plants in the top of the bale, but we put bedding plants that come with a little bit of soil on them, we put those right in the side of the bale as well.  

flowers in a hay bale

David:  What kind of reaction do you get?  People must just give you a look.  

Joel:  Yeah, at first they’re kind of astounded, but then once they take a look and they see what we’re doing — and you’ve got to explain to them a little bit that by the time you plant you’re not really planting in straw, per se, you’re planting in compost inside of that straw bale.  And that’s beautifully productive soil.  What is good soil?  Good soil is decomposed organic material, at least a high percentage of it is.  And that’s what plants respond to, is those nutrients that come from the decomposing cells of previously live being, plants or animals.  As those cells decompose, they give off those nutrients that built those cells and those nutrients don’t disappear, they get reabsorbed by the next root that comes along and a plant that reabsorbs those nutrients.  Mother Nature does a great job of decomposing everything that’s ever been alive on Planet Earth, thankfully.  And she does it using 5 main tools.  Insects and worms, very common inside the straw bale, you’ll see both of those.  You also see, lots of mould and fungi and what is present in large quantities, but you can’t see them, are bacteria.  And they’re the helpful bacteria, the bacteria that are working on decomposition.  Of course, they’re microscopic so you can’t see them with the human eye, but you can feel them because that bale gets warm, and that the bacteria that cause that warmth inside the bale, that vibration as they replicate themselves.    

David:  Absolutely brilliant stuff.  My wife and I, Joel, are crusading to get people to grow their own vegetables.  Even if it’s just a lettuce a radish and a tomato.  Just because of the experience and what it brings to people’s lives being responsible for their own food source.  How was your life changed because of your experience with gardening?  

Joel:  I think if definitely let’s you know where your food comes from, but I’m lucky because I’ve grown up with that from when I was a young boy we grew almost all of our produce, vegetables, in our own garden at home.  So it was only that period when I left home and went to college, for a period of time before I owned my own house, that I couldn’t grow vegetables.  And you really miss it, you really miss the fact that you can’t have fresh peas, and they’re the greatest things ever, fresh peas, fresh corn out of the garden.  Fresh green beans, all the things that you miss if you don’t have your own garden.  I completely agree with what you said earlier, about everybody should grow something themselves.  And I kind have a little bit of a different take on it.  My take is that if you talk to a produce manager at a grocery store, what they’re going to tell you is they get a shipment a great big bin of tomatoes in and they put them out for display.  And the consumer will pick through those tomatoes and they will not take a tomato that has one tiny little blemish in the skin of that tomato.  They’ll leave it sitting there.  And then eventually that tomato either rots or they end up sending it back to their supplier or distributor who of course takes it back to the farmer and says ‘don’t send me any more tomatoes with a blemish because I get them back and we don’t want that’.  So now the farmer instructs his workers, when you’re harvesting these tomatoes, that if they have a blemish on them, those go in bin number two and the good ones are the ones we ship to the store.  So they’re sorting through, and throwing out 40 or 50% of all the produce that they make because it has one tiny little blemish on the skin.  Now somebody who grows their own tomato at home, and they spend all summer babying this tomato and taking care of it, and they pick that tomato and it has one little blemish, guess what they’re going to do?  They’re going to take a knife and cut that out, and they’re going to eat the tomato and they’re going to discover that they didn’t die from eating that tomato.  It wasn’t the end of the world, and I think, at the root of it, we can change people’s attitude towards produce in general.  Towards not having to have the absolute, perfect apple or the absolute perfect piece of fruit.  They’ll eat it anyway.  I’m not saying you should eat stuff that’s mouldy or spoiled or whatever, by any means, but that won’t happen in your garden anyway.  But you may have something that’s a little crooked or looks a little funny, it’s still perfectly edible and at the root we can change people’s attitudes towards vegetables and towards what they eat.  Which in turn can change the whole consumer chain.  Why is produce expensive?  Well, because half of it doesn’t get to the food chain.  Half of it has to be filtered out because it’s not perfect-looking.  It still tastes fine, but it doesn’t look perfect, and I think we can change that.    

David:  That’s huge.  When you were telling that story I was thinking – we started growing heirloom tomato seeds.  80, 90, 100 year old varieties of tomatoes, and I thought those pioneers were skinny.  Because some of these plants had 2 fruits on them, and they were little grotesque things …  

Joel:  But they sure taste good!  

David:  Coming from living in the city with a store-bought tomato and then you grow your own and then you realize, you haven’t eaten a tomato until you’ve eaten your own tomatoes.  

Joel:  I have a short little diatribe in my book, I don’t know if you’ve read that section, where I talk about if you grow anything in a straw bale garden, you should try growing some heirloom tomatoes.  Because, number one, tomatoes are very disease-sensitive, and fungal disease septoria and verticillium is harboured in the soil.  So if you haven’t had success it’s probably because you have fungal disease in your soil, but with introducing straw bales, you’re never going to touch the soil because you have that separation layer, so you can do a great job of growing heirloom tomatoes without ever touching the soil and they’re going to tend to perform much better.  And I tell people if you’ve never had an heirloom tomato, you’ve never tasted one, it’s probably because you’ve never grown one.  Because people who grow heirlooms don’t give them away.  And people who grow heirloom tomatoes can’t really functionally sell them because if you put a bunch of heirlooms in a box and try to carry them to the farmer’s market, by the time you get there they’ve rolled around a little bit and the skins have cracked open and nobody wants to buy them.  They have very thin skins, many varieties of them, which makes them much more palatable the thin skin makes them taste better, but they’re not easy to sell.  You can’t carry them around and ship them and that kind of thing.  They have to be harvested and within 2 or 3 days they have to be eaten.  And you can’t really do that very well unless you grow them yourself.    

giant round straw bale

David:  I want to talk about your book Joel because a lot of people listening to this podcast, even though they’re new, some of them are very adventurous and they want to try a new style of gardening.  How do you start a straw bale garden?  Can you just touch on how your book can help the person with a vision to start their own straw bale garden?  

Joel:  I always tell people that this is the perfect way to garden, for those who are just beginning gardening and those who might be towards the end of their career in gardening because gardening, and lifting soil is heavy.  40-60 lbs per cubic foot, so as you get older and you can’t get down on the ground, it’s much easier if you can plant 20″ above the ground in the top of a straw bale and you can harvest there as well.  Now for the newbie gardener, I always jokingly say that we should force people to garden in the soil for a couple of years before we let them garden in straw bales because they would see how much easier it is.  If you let them start out with straw bales, it just seems so easy.  Why doesn’t everybody grow a garden?  Because it really is that much easier.  First step is you’ve got to find straw bales.  So look around.  If worse comes to worse, you can always use a hay bale.  If you get further south, down into Florida and places like that, there are a lot of people down there that don’t have access to straw, there’s no oats or wheat or barley or cereal grains or small grains grown in their area.  But if you get above the Mason-Dixon line, if you look around a little bit you can find some straw bales, there’s lots of oats and wheat grown around this country.  So get you hands on a couple of straw bales and you’re going to spend the first 10 days conditioning the bales, getting them ready.  You’re going to put fertilizer, water on them, it can be organic fertilizer or regular lawn fertilizer, we go through the book and spec exactly what to look for and how much to put on, how to put it on, all the details.  Essentially, put on some fertilizer and water, that fires up the bacteria.  The bacteria start to consume the inside of that straw bale, and after 10 days you’ll see the heat inside that bale gets really warm, sometimes up to 140-150 degrees.  Then it cools off a little bit, as soon as it gets under 105 it’s planting day.  You can use bedding plants, so they come with some soil on the roots, already started plants, or you can start your own seeds, of course indoors if you’re in a cooler climate.  And you can use those to plant right into the bale.  Make a hole in the bale and shove it right down into that decomposing straw which will not look like soil when you plant.  Trust me, it will still look like you’re planting into a straw bale, but it’s the microscopic bacteria inside that have started to decompose that straw and have reversed that nitrogen sink and are now suppling nitrogen.  Believe me the plants will love that environment.  As soon as it’s cooled of a little in there, it’s ready to plant.  Now if you’re doing seeds, you have to make a seed bed on top of the straw bale.  Now, what I don’t want you to do is take your shovel and go over to your garden and take a scoop of soil and put it on top of the straw bale.  Because now you just brought weed seeds with you, you just brought disease and insect problems.  So if you want to avoid that, what you want to get is one bag of sterile planting mix at the garden centre, put a thin little one-inch layer, like you’re frosting a cake, on top of that bale.  Now put your peas and beans and carrots or whatever you’re going to plant from seed in that seed bed.  And it will hold that seed and moisture around that seed for 10 days or so until that seed germinates and sends that root down into the bale, and now you’ve got a well-established seed bed at that point.  So, it’s pretty simple.  Now the big advantage is that you’re going to probably water a little bit less than you would a traditional garden, straw tends to hold moisture really well.  You’re not going to have the weeds you have from a traditional garden.  You’re not going to need to do as much fertilization.  Some of your fertilization comes from that conditioning process, but a lot of it comes from the decomposing straw.  That bacteria breaks the straw down and all the nutrients that it took to grow the wheat or the oats are now available for this new plant to reabsorb.  It’s raised up off the ground.  Not everybody has knee or back problems where they can’t get down to the ground, but if you do, this is a great way for them to be able to garden.  I have lots of people who garden out of their chair, or wheelchair.  If they use a chair to get around, this is a great way for them to be able to have a garden without all the expense and commitment of building raised beds which can be very expensive.  And, if you’re a renter, the option of having a raised bed is pretty much out, if you own your own house, that’s different.  For a lot of people, this gives them flexibility.  I have people that do this in a parking lot, you don’t have to have soil at all.  You can do this on concrete, you can do this on the roof of your building.  Wherever you can get a straw bale, carry it up there, put down your straw bale.  If you have water, sunlight and your straw bale, you can have a beautiful vegetable garden.    

David:  I couldn’t take notes fast enough.  Every 10 seconds, somebody turns 60 in North America, and so your system is brilliant.  When you said parking lot …. look at California, they haven’t had rain this year in some parts.  Anything to do with conservation of water, growing their own food … this is very good stuff. Your book, the best place to get it is on your blog, right?  

sbg book
Joel:  StrawBaleGardens.com
 

David:  If you have a loved one who’s a gardener, this is now The Book to give them for Christmas.  I’m going to get one for my wife, that’s fantastic.  Now, you’ve been doing this 2 decades, I’m sure your gardens have changed constantly in that time.  What does your garden look like today?  

Joel:  I’d love to show you a picture, it’s right out the back window behind me.  But unfortunately, I tried earlier with my webcam, and it’s too bright outside, so it doesn’t show up very well.  I’ve got 24 or 25 bales going this year.  Most of it is vegetables, I’ve got a few bales that I grow for cut flowers, because it’s a great way to grow summer bulbs.  In cold climates like Minnesota we have to dig a hole and plant out bulb in the spring, and then we have to dig it up in the fall and store it inside over the winter.  A straw bale makes it very easy, I condition the bale, I shove 100 gladiolus bulbs down into the bale, they all bloom, they make beautiful blooms.  I cut those and I use them for display in the house, big bouquets of flowers throughout the summer.  I do gladiolus caladiums, calla lillies, dahlias, all the list of summer bulbs that I use strictly for cut flowers.  I also do all kinds of vegetables, obviously, all your tomatoes, I think I have 15 tomatoes this year, and multiple varieties of peppers.  All kinds of herbs, parsley, chives, oregano, tons of basil, purple basil, Thai basil, all different kinds of basil because we’re big basil people.  Interestingly, this year I’m growing a few sunflowers for cut flowers.  I always grow zinnias and other things for cut flowers, but I planted a few sunflowers this year just to get some little ornamental ones to use as cut flowers as well.  Just a whole mix of stuff.  Above every row of bales (I usually put 5 bales in a row) I put a fence post at each end of the row, and then I run wires back and forth between those fence posts.  So it creates a little espalier or little trellis above the bales.  And that allows all the peas and beans and my cucumbers (I hang the cucumber vines on top of those espalier wires) so now when you pick your cucumbers, you can stand up and walk down the row and pick those cucumbers, instead of having to bend over on the ground.  They stay nice and clean this way, they don’t get dirt splash on them.  For vine crops that are disease sensitive, again it’s those fungal spores that are harboured in the soil, so if you can get those vines up off the ground, we avoid any of that fungal problem on our vine crops.  Some of the big ones, pumpkins, and watermelon, and big varieties of squash, butternut … those have to be on the ground.  But I like to put a layer of either straw or wood chips down and let the vines run on top of those.  It tends to keep them separated a little bit from the fungal spores in the soil, and they do a lot better that way.  But it’s not a big area.  I have 25 bales and my space is probably 20 feet deep and about 35-40 feet wide, so it’s not a huge area.  It doesn’t take any more area to grow the same amount of vegetables in straw bales as it does in the soil.  So if you have the same garden space, you can just as much or more production out of the straw bales.  

David:  I’m going to a shout out to Winston in Glasgow, Scotland and his biggest complaint is that he doesn’t have enough space.  Winston, I know you guys use metres up there, but think your space is bigger than Joel’s, and you can do this Winston.  Joel, a lot of people are resistant to gardening, a lot of excuses like no time, or they’re too busy.  I want to ask you, is there anything you’ve never grown that you’d love to experiment with?  

Joel:  You know, I’ve grown about everything that is possible to grow at this latitude.  There’s a few things that we discovered that just don’t seem to do very well.  One of those is sweet corn.  It grows fine, but it’s lanky and tall and tips over really easy, it’s hard to keep it upright.  Other crops like asparagus and rhubarb, they take 3 years really to get a root established before you can harvest anyway.  And in 3 years David, there’s going to be nothing left but a little lump of soil in your garden, that’s all that will be left.  So, I don’t recommend growing things that are perennial roots, that come back from the same root year after year.  I guess as far as things I haven’t experimented with, there’s a bunch of ornamentals, flowers and other things like that, that I haven’t done.  People ask me all the time, can you plant shrubs, if you’re going to leave the bale there?  Bury part of the bale and plant shrubs in it?  I’ve never done that, but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t work.  I’d like to experiment with that a little bit, and see how that works.  I can’t think of anything else.  Up here, this far north, it’s pretty tough to grow things like sweet potatoes, but I’ve had very good success with sweet potatoes.  Peanuts can be difficult, and we do peanuts in our straw bales.  I tell folks, when I teach classes up here, that gardening in straw bales this far north is kind of like gardening 400 miles south.  It’s like gardening for me in Northern Missouri or mid Missouri, because of the season extension you get because you can plant quite a bit earlier, and when you plant earlier, your tomatoes will be ripe 2 to 3 weeks earlier than all of your neighbours.  I always tell people, if you’re the first one with ripe tomatoes, that means you’ve won.    

David:  LOL.  Fantastic.  Joel, we could go for hours, but the time is getting away from.  It’s time to play my favourite part of the show, it’s called 5 Quick Questions.  Are you ready to play?

Joel:  Sure  

David:  Question number one:  What do you think is the number reason people don’t try straw bale gardening?  

Joel:  I get resistance, especially from people overseas that they can’t find straw bales.  And that’s a difficulty.  But, a little inside information for you, in the next book we’re going to solve that problem.  

David:  Oh brilliant, a cliffhanger!  <LOL>   When’s the next book coming out?  

Joel:  Spring of 2015, just an expanded version of this book, but we are going to do some stuff in there where I’ve been doing a bunch of experimenting.  We’re going to show you some alternatives to buying straw bales, some things you can create on your own that people will be very interested to read about.  Stay tuned.  

David:  Question number two:  What is the best gardening advice you ever received?  

Joel:  You know the best gardening advice, and this is going to sound very strange, but my Grandma Josephine was my first professor of horticulture.  And every time, before we’d go to the garden, she had a bar of soap laying by the front door.  She’d pick up the bar of soap and she’d scratch it with her fingernails.  And when you get to the garden, you garden all day long and you go to wash your hands at the end of the day, she didn’t wear any garden gloves, she went to wash her hands and that soap under her nails would dissolve and she never had dirt under her fingernails that way.  So all your gardeners can use that.  Keep a bar of soap by our door when you’re leaving to go out and garden just pick up and scratch it a little bit, and you won’t have dirty fingernails ever.  

David:  That’s gold!  Good stuff.  Number three:  If you had just 2 websites to share with a beginner gardener, what would they be?  

Joel:  There’s a lot of great blogs out there these days.  GardenRant.com is a great one.  InTheGarden … there’s a ton of them.  Off the top of my head I can’t narrow it down to just a couple.  They can always go to ours, it’s a good website for a beginner, and read some of the posts on there.  We have a facebook page with 42,000 gardeners from all over the world that they come on and talk about good things, and they talk about their issues and problems they run into, so it’s a great place to learn.  It’s called Learn to Grow a Straw Bale Garden  on Facebook.  

watering strawbale garden rows

David:  That’s a good one.  Number four:  What’s the best gardening book or resource you can suggest?  

Joel:  I have a book, I don’t know if it’s the best for this method of gardening, but just an overall book.  It reminded me a lot of my Grandma when I read it, it’s called the No Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout.  One of my all time favourite books.  She talks in the book just like you’re sitting across the table talking to your grandmother.  She’s just a sweet lady, you can just tell by her voice that comes through in the book.  And she talked about her method of gardening, that she developed years ago.  A lot of very interesting stuff in there and really inspiring.  And again, at the time that I read it, my Grandma wasn’t around any more, and it was this kind of weird feeling like you’re talking to your Grandma through this book.  It was a very interesting book, and I actually bought a first edition of that book, it’s probably one of my most treasured possessions.  The No Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout, the first edition, I believe was in the mid sixties, so something like that.  

David:  Nice.  Number five:  What’s the number one thing that every gardener should try to grow next year:  

Joel:  Tomatoes, without a doubt.  If you haven’t grown tomatoes, you have to grow your own tomatoes.  A few varieties.  You will be successful, I guarantee you.  If you do this in straw bales, there is no way you’ll fail.  Now your level of success may vary depending on how much effort you put in, but if you put any effort at all, you’re going to get tomatoes, either the earliest on your block or one of the earliest batches of tomatoes on your block.  And people love the early tomatoes.  Nobody wants your tomatoes in September.  I always tell people, you’re driving around the neighbourhood looking for unlocked car doors so you can throw in bags of tomatoes in September.  Everybody’s trying to get rid of them. <LOL>  It’s the first tomatoes that really count, and as a straw bale gardener, you’ll be the first one to have tomatoes.  

David:  Well, dear listener, another podcast has come and gone but this one’s been a doozy.  I want everybody to head over to Joel’s blog at  www.strawbalegardens.com  I want you to pick up a copy of his book.  I want you to join the conversation.  You want to talk about passionate people, head over to his facebook group and that’s at Learn To Grow a Straw Bale Garden.    I bet if you just searched Straw Bale Garden it will come up on Facebook, but there’s 42,000 people talking about it.  I’m going to give the last word to you Joel, if you could just share a thought of wisdom or encouragement for our listeners today in their gardening journey.  

Joel:  You don’t have to start with 50 bales like I did.  Start with one or two bales, and resist the criticism.  Because you’re going to get neighbours and friends and relatives that think you’re off your rocker, and this isn’t going to work, and blah blah blah.   But you’ve got to forge ahead, just keep forging ahead and invite them over on the day when you harvest your potatoes and you cut those bales open and you give it a little shove, and the bale falls over and out comes 3/4 of a bushel of potatoes out of that straw bale.  And that will change their mind forever, from that day forward.  Everybody should grow their own food, at least something that they eat, because it inspires you and it will inspire your kids.  I have people literally in their 90’s that are doing this, all the way down to a little kid for a 4H project who’s 8 years old and he’s growing his own straw bale garden.  So it doesn’t matter how old you are, how much experience you have, what physical condition you’re in, you can do this.  So give it a try, get your hands on a straw bale.  If you find some this fall, just set them out in your garden so you can use them next spring.  Don’t put them in your garage, because you’ll make a mouse hotel.  Put them outside in your garden, they’ll get wet and the mice don’t like them at all once they’re wet.  So keep them in the rain and snow in the winter, and next spring they’ll be ready to go.  

David:  Absolutely brilliant.  Joel, thank you so much for being on the show.  

Joel:  Thank you David for having me.  I really appreciate it, I really enjoyed being with you.  Have a great day.

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