The Hidden Danger of Straw Bale Gardening No One is Mentioning

joel karsten straw bale gardening

Straw bale gardening can destroy your garden.

A bold claim, but it’s true. And the evidence is mounting.

Straw bale gardens have taken off over the last decade or so. I’ve seen some really pretty and clever methods of straw bale gardening. Just a quick Google Image Search will show you lots of beautiful straw bale gardens –

Oh, wait! Joel Karsten stopped in to say I can’t use a screencap from a Google Image Search for straw bale gardens to illustrate my point:




He makes you want to jump right in, doesn’t he? Great writer, too.

Unfortunately, straw bales (and hay bales) can DESTROY your garden for years. How? Let’s take a look.

The Hidden Danger of Straw Bale Gardening

Those of you that haven’t read Compost Everything: The Good Guide to Extreme Composting may be wondering why in the world I’d state that straw bale gardening can destroy your garden.

My friend Andi knows.

My friend Luzette knows as well, though her gardens were destroyed by manure, not directly via straw or hay.

When I broke the story of toxic herbicides in manure back in August of 2012 via Natural Awakenings magazine, there were very few people that knew this stuff was around or how pervasive it really was. I wouldn’t have known either… if it hadn’t destroyed about $1000 worth of plants.

Since that first article, the stories keep mounting.


My book covers the problem in-depth

I love the concept of straw bale gardening. It’s great. It’s a lot of fun and it’s a quick way to get a garden going without worrying about improving the soil. You could consider straw bale gardening a form of composting and gardening simultaneously. The soil beneath a pile of rotten hay or straw improves marvelously after a year or so, leaving a patch of humus-rich earthworm-populated earth.

Yet if that hay or straw came from a field that was sprayed with one or more persistent herbicides such as Grazon(TM) or CleanWave(TM), the vegetables in your straw bale gardens will be wrecked. Not only that, you can’t even compost the contaminated straw because the toxins (usually aminopyralid or its cousin clopyralid) stick around and will destroy whatever ends up with the resulting compost.

The reality of modern factory farming is that it’s farming based on poisons. Wheat, oats, barley and other grain fields, as well as hay fields, are often sprayed with herbicides to control broad-leaf weeds long-term. “Weeds” like blackberries, amaranth, etc. The toxins don’t effect members of the grass family (grains included) but they will destroy most garden vegetables quite efficiently. I’ve been thanked multiple times from people that have either saved their gardens from these poisons – or who had finally figured out what had wrecked their crops.


Many people are just discovering the dangers. (Amazon review of Compost Everything)

Around my neck of the woods many farmers have discovered the amazing power of these herbicides to control weeds in their hay fields. They’re sprayed everywhere – it’s incredible.

As the grains/grasses grow, they uptake these toxins without harm. Animals can also graze on the fields without apparent issue.

Yet the resulting straw and manure still contains a potent dose of plant-killing power – and the toxins can stick around for years.

I’ve been offered free manure for my gardens many times. I’ve even been told “We don’t spray anything on our fields.” Yet if those animals are eating hay from the feed store – or if there’s straw bedding in the stables – the chances of contamination are very high.

Just say no. You have to. Otherwise things like this happen to your plants:



If you want to start straw bale gardening, how will you know if the straw has been sprayed at some point? If you have some rotten hay you want to compost, how will you know if it contains deadly toxins or not?

Eventually, it’s going to blow up in your face.


You won’t know, the feed store won’t know, and good luck tracing the straw bales back to a specific field so you can ask the original farmer if he’s sprayed anything within the last couple of years.

I used to sweep up all the loose hay and straw every week or so from the local feed store after I got permission to scavenge it for my compost piles.

No more.

That’s a game of Russian roulette you’re going to lose.


Unless you can verify that the fields from which your straw or hay was harvested weren’t sprayed within the last three years or so with persistent herbicides, you’re risking a lost gardening year… or more!

There was a time when straw bale gardening was a great idea. That time has passed.

Be safe.

Runaway Pumpkin Success and a Seminole Pumpkin Soup Recipe


Remember this post?

We’re getting paid for all the work we DIDN’T do.

The vine (or two or three… I can’t tell how many are there) that popped up in our compost heap has been producing like mad.

Seriously. These pumpkins are like a microcosm of God’s grace. We did nothing to receive them… and they’re overflowing in abundance.

Thus far I’ve totaled up 100lbs of pumpkin and there are probably 5 or more fruit still forming out there.

Meanwhile, the vines I planted on purpose have mostly died ignominious deaths thanks to boring insects.

So – what ARE these pumpkins? They’re definitely Seminole pumpkins. We threw seeds in the compost last fall and they’ve plunged right through the summer without a hint of powdery mildew, shrugging off the heat, and going nuts.

They also taste very good, much like a butternut with a little lighter flesh.

It’s exciting to have success, even when undeserved.

These will soon be Seminole pumpkin soup!

Rachel created a delicious soup and brought it to church yesterday. The kids love it too, which is an extra bonus.

A Recipe for Seminole Pumpkin Soup

5 cups of cooked pumpkin
4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
1 dash nutmeg
1/2 cup cream (or coconut milk for an exotic twist)
Puree cooked pumpkin, then add to pot with chicken stock. Bring to a simmer. 
Turn off the heat. Use an immersion blender for a really smooth texture (optional).
Add cream and nutmeg. Salt to taste.
Serves 8.

It’s always the ones you DIDN’T plant…


This year I was really hoping to beat rycamor the pumpkin king in an epic pumpkin patch smackdown.

Unfortunately, almost every pumpkin vine I planted this year was destroyed by something that tore into the stems. Most likely borers.

That is… except for one. The one that showed up spontaneously in my compost pile this spring.

Now it’s got at least five pumpkins on it, and they’re big, so I’m guessing they were some of rycamor’s type. He gave up a few pumpkins last summer, which we made into dinner and pie… then composted what was left.

Now we’re getting paid back for feeding the soil with compost pile pumpkins:

compost pile pumpkins


compost pile pumpkin
You know, if I could just make my entire yard into a gargantuan compost pile, I don’t think I’d ever have to plant another seed…

Simple worm bin composting setup


Now here’s a simple worm bin – this is cool:

I’m keeping my worms in an old dishwasher right now. It’s lying on its back and what was the front door is now the lid. My friend Jeff came over the other day and we drilled a few holes in the bottom, raised it up on bricks and put an old bin underneath to catch the “worm tea.” (I’d been meaning to do that for months… I’ve had worms in that thing forever and kept forgetting to add drainage.)

The fellow in the video claims worm tea made his garden grow like mad.  My guess is that the beneficial bacteria it provides are probably just as important as its nutrient content. Just a hunch. Vermicomposting isn’t the simplest way to get compost, but it’s bascially impossible to beat the quality of the final result.

UPDATE: I’ve written a lot more on worm composting in a simple worm bin – pick up a copy of my book and start your own vermicomposting system for cheap!

simple worm bin described in compost everything

Compost is NOT enough? Steve!? NOOOOO!!!


The brilliant Steve Solomon, author of the must-have book Gardening When It Counts, talks about why just compost is not enough to grow the best veggies:

And he doesn’t even touch on the toxic manure problem.

If you want a healthy garden, start by making amazing compost out of everything you can find – but also pay attention to what Steve Solomon is saying. Micronutrients are key to healthy soil and nutrition.

Steve’s book The Intelligent Gardener is a great place to start your research – I highly recommend picking up a copy.

What Makes Mushrooms Good?


Are mushrooms good for your garden? You bet.

Fungi in general are very important to soil health. By avoiding tilling, you don’t tear up the tiny mycellium running through the soil… and by letting things rot in peace, you Deepen the Awesomeness Of The Mystical Soil Web. Or something along those lines. I created a compost tumbler out of a 55-gallon drum (which sounds better on paper than it works in real life – you can read the whole hilariously stupid story in my book Compost Everything) and then forgot to tumble it for a while. An incredible flush of mushrooms was the result.

mushrooms good composters

What makes mushrooms good composters is their ability to break down tough fibers.

Fungi decompose what many bacteria can’t. Wood and paper fibers, for instance. If you see them in your yard or your compost, be happy. Good things are happening. The mushrooms you see, interestingly, are only the fruiting body of what is often a much larger organism. Tiny threads from one entity could be woven beneath the surface of your entire yard… only to reveal themselves as an occasional mushroom on the surface once in a blue moon.

In a compost pile, fungi take over after the thermophilic bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms have done a lot of the primary work. As the pile cools, they move in and help complete the process of decomposition. Yes, some fungi attack our plants… but many others feed them in ways we can hardly imagine. From extending the reach of plant roots to providing nutrients from sources unavailable to trees, to dissolving rock, fungi are vital. And, though many are inedible, they do bring a delicate ethereal beauty that’s all their own.