Straw Bale Gardens Complete Book Review – Straw Bale Gardening

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My book review of ‘Straw Bale Gardens Complete‘ by Joel Karsten. 

“Breakthrough vegetable gardening method, all information on urban and small spaces, organic, saving water. Make your own bales with or without straw.” 

I live in a bus on my son’s property in tropical Northern Queensland, Australia, surrounded by cane fields and in a garden-paradise. There are some struggles, however!

  • High temperatures cause rapid evaporation of water in the soil.
  • Insects want to share all your vegetable seedlings.
  • Being an old grandmother, I can’t and don’t want to dig and prepare a veggie patch from scratch, the soil is way to dry anyway.
  • Animals dig up new plants each night (bandicoots!).
  • Constantly needing to apply mulching materials to protect plants and soil from the very hot sun. All my gardens are chock full of mulch, not always my favourite look.

Straw-bale-gardens-complete-book-review

Straw Bale Gardens Complete Review

While browsing in the library last week, in the backyard category, I came across this book, Straw Bale Gardens Complete, by Joel Karsten. The cover had lush, very healthy cabbages, beans, and pumpkins growing in a bale of straw and stated:

“Breakthrough vegetable gardening method, all information on urban and small spaces, organic, saving water. Make your own bales with or without straw.”

This book grabbed my attention as it claimed to solve some of my garden challenges, and I love the idea of growing organic vegetables. I will discuss the book here, while I’m also actually putting some of the information into practice, making my very own sugar cane straw bale garden.

I liked Joel’s attitude of much trial and error, then writing the book from his experiences.  I’ve also heard the same comments as Joel, straw bale gardens will never work, why would you even try them, they won’t retain enough water, etc., etc., etc. But I was encourages by Joel’s words:

“Set aside the scepticism and try it for yourself.”

Straw Bale Gardening

Straw bale gardening is a radical idea, for the following reasons:

  • It takes 75% less time.
  • Straw bale gardens use less water.
  • They involve less bending.
  • Straw bale gardens require fewer pesticides.
  • They don’t require weeding.
  • Straw bale gardening can be done anywhere, even on a rooftop, on a shoe-string budget.

Joel has a whole chapter for straw bale gardening in small urban and unusual spaces, like asphalt, the corner of a carpark, and on top of a pile of pallets. It includes all the details and things to be careful about, for example, placing a rubber mat, or similar, under your bale before placing your bale directly on your deck. Putting bales directly on your deck may not be good for the stain or paint.

For a gardener who needs a portable garden to move during the year, as the sun changes position, you can use an old shopping trolley. I love this idea and will keep my eye out for one! Plant some flowers in the side of your bale if your neighbours think you are getting a goat…

Best Straw for Straw Bale Gardening

The book includes chapters about straw, the best straw to use, what kind of straw to use, how to obtain straw bales, and where to place the straw bale garden for the best results, with a minimum of six hours of sun per day. Straw bale gardens grow best with morning sun, and with bales places in single-file. 

As a grandmother, I like to water and inspect every plant, every day, as I do my rounds. I remove any diseased leaves and check for harmful bugs which I remove by hand. I know which plant is growing well, which plant is not, and I try to troubleshoot the problem as soon as I can.

On pages 48 and 49, I learned some very important points that I had already done incorrectly, being in much haste to get started. I grew up on a farm and every summer helped dad with baling the hay for winter feed for the sheep and cattle. However, until I read this book, I never realized that:

“Straw bales have two distinctly different sides. One side is the cut side and it looks like the ends of the straw are aligned and have been sliced off with a knife. The other side of the bale is the folded side and appears as if the straw stems have been folded over in the baling process.”

Joel says: “It is ideal to orient the bale cut-side up because this allows much easier penetration of water and granular fertilizer into the bale during the conditioning process.” Also, just as important: “The strings on the straw bale should be around the sides of the bale and not on the top and bottom surfaces of the bale. Strings hold the bale compressed which is essential to its quick decomposition.” I will need to correct these mistakes but I’m only on day two of conditioning my straw bale garden, so no serious problem, yet.

 

All the set-up, water solutions, fertilizer, trellis-making, and bale-making instructions are outlined clearly and in detail in this book, with great photos to help and show you how to do things.

Straw Bale Conditioning

My favourite chapter in the book is the conditioning chapter on page 87. It gets into the real practical stuff and how to get the bales into the “cooking” process. Because straw bale conditioning takes 10 days, this chapter explains how to prepare the straw bale on a daily basis, why each step is important, and how to tell if it is working.

Joel has a small “tip” square on some pages, the voice of experience speaking. I like the one on page 92:

“Use a few baby food jars half full of beer to trap slugs in your straw bale garden. Bury the jar about half way in the surface of the bale, and you’ll see it will attract dozens of slugs before the beer evaporates in a few days.”

I’m going to try that, my son won’t notice one can going missing…

For the purest organic garden, there is a chapter about organic straw bale gardening and some things to consider. But, being an action girl, I want to now get onto the planting seeds and seedlings chapter.

Planting Seeds and Seedlings in Straw Bale Gardens

As I am planning to grow tomatoes and basil plants that I have already purchased, I want to follow Joel’s instructions to the letter this time. This chapter contains vital information on straw bale temperature, how to plant seeds and seedling, etc. but I really loved his paragraph on page 110, referring to his moms idea of planting a skirt of annual flowers into the sides of the bale to pretty up the decomposing bales of straw in plain sight, my kinda girl.

Joel suggested planting impatiens, petunias, marigolds or salvia, with the added advantage that if the flowers look wilted, it’s time for more water for the veggies. Great idea, mom!

Caradonna Salvia
Caradonna Salvia
Rose-Purple Spikes on Compact Plant The Salvia ‘Caradonna’, Salvia nemorosa, has glowing purple stems loaded with violet-purple flowers that bloom from June to October. With its gray-green aromatic foliage, it makes an attractive accent all summer long.

I couldn’t resist including another great tip from page 111 in this review, something very dear to my heart — helping cut flowers last longer in the vase. He suggests re-cutting the stems under warm water then adding some of the following mixture to every vase from now on. Re-cut, change the water, and add this mix every 3 days; your beautiful flowers will last so much longer.

Longer-Lasting Cut Flower Mixture

  • 1 cup of 7Up or Sprite.
  • 3/4 teaspoon household bleach
  • 1 cup of hot water

There is loads more information in this book about green houses, pesticides, water solutions, and of course, harvesting.

On page 137, Joel talks about keeping your straw bale garden busy, planting in rotation so that no surface area on your bale is left idle. He suggests harvesting something every day. Many vegetables will be ready in 30 days; eat them as soon as possible –  within hours, if you can.

He includes a great tip for freezing excess basil, as well.  Cut up your basil with scissors. Put the cut basil in ice-block trays and cover with olive oil. Freeze your basil-oil blocks and store them for winter months. This is a winner as I love this herb in much of my cooking.

Joel completes his book by explaining the “gold” compost, left for the rest of the garden when harvest is complete. Then, he gives a very comprehensive plant profile and how to eat each plant; the most important thing, of course!

In my opinion, this is a book you would refer to many times. It’s clear, simple, readable, doable, fun, and has lovely illustrations. I learnt a lot and now I want to put it all into practice. Keep an eye out for my next articles, in which I’ll write about my experience conditioning and preparing the straw bales for planting! I’ll also let you know how my vegetables grow in the bales. 

Check the Price of ‘Straw Bale Gardens Complete’ on Amazon!

Written by Suzanne Harris

Dan-Elle-Meager-Outdoor-Happens-Self-Sufficient-Backyard-HomesteadsAffiliate Disclosure

Outdoor Happens is an affiliate with Amazon and some other great companies we believe in. This article may contain affiliate links. When you click on one of our links, we earn a small commission on the sale. This is free for you and helps us keep this site an awesome, free resource! Thanks for supporting Outdoor Happens! Dan & Elle

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