Actually, Joel Karsten is the son and grandson of farmers, and he got the idea for using bales of straw to make unusual "containers" to grow things in about 15 years ago. He remembered as a kid how bales would occasionally fall off the rack and get kicked to the side, where they'd just get wet and start decomposing. "Before you knew it, all kinds of seeds of things that had fallen on top of the bale grew like crazy," he says.
By now, Joel's the country's most visible proponent of straw bale gardening, a system he swears by in a booklet, soon a book, online, and in dozens of speeches he gives around Minnesota, where he lives.
It's an interesting system - you stack straw bales and tie them together, fill the middle and cover the tops with compost, add a little nitrogen-rich fertilizer to get things cooking, and plant your vegetables. By the end of the season, you can take the bale apart and it becomes compost for next year. In the meantime, Joel says you get lush growth, way fewer insects and weeds, and a lot less work and expense than you would with traditional in-ground gardening.
I've talked to straw bale gardeners, and yesterday I visited the Penn State Cooperative Extension folks in Collegeville. There, Linda Antonacio-Hoade has a six-bale garden going right in the parking lot. It looked very healthy, overflowing with (trellised) tomatoes, peppers, basil, eggplant and marigolds.
It's a fun idea, one Joel especially recommends for older folks and anyone with a small space to garden in. Story coming soon ...