Alumni spotlight: Joel Karsten

1991, B.S. Horticulture, Nursery Landscape Management

Advisor: Dr. Bert Swanson

Current organization/ employer:
Self Employed - Contract Author with Quartos USA Publishing

Favorite memory of campus:
I lived in Bailey Hall as a freshman at the University, and while that was nearly 30 years ago, the friends I made there I still stay in touch with, and bump into in the business world even today. I was a football player so I spent lots of time on the West Bank campus every day at the training facilities there, where I also made lots of friends and memories. Hanging out in the student center lounge, playing pool and ping pong, between classes, and trying to talk to girls!

I loved the small town feeling of the St. Paul campus, and the friendly smiles of everyone in Alderman Hall where I spent so much time. My favorite spot to walk around was the beautiful Mullin's Woods Display Garden and the other display gardens, which as students, we helped plant and maintain. It has really expanded these days, but it was lovely even back then. The first warm and sunny day in spring the whole campus hung out on the big open lawn off Cleveland Ave., playing catch and laying out in the sun trying to get a tan.

Why did you choose CFANS as a college?
My father was a crop and dairy farmer and later started a small tree nursery when I was very young. He was always curious about new things happening in the industry, and would attend seminars once in a while to gather whatever information he could. When I was a Freshman or Sophomore in high school he took me out of school one day and we took a trip to the big city, to attend a seminar at the Arboretum. I don't recall what the seminar was about anymore, but I remember it was presented by Dr. Bert Swanson. I remember thinking that he was a very friendly and smart guy. He suggested that I should consider attending the U of M and trying for a degree in Horticulture, which I didn't really know much about until that day. He later became my student advisor and favorite professor ever.

I knew for sure from the time I was a Junior in High School that I wanted to go to the U of M. My plan was to study Horticulture and play football for coach Lou Holtz, but we all know he left for Notre Dame by the following year. Regardless, I knew that the U of M had a well respected Horticulture program, and so I never even applied at any other colleges. I was lucky enough to have scholarship money to help pay for my college, which was great for a poor farm kid from rural Minnesota. Looking back today, I wouldn't do anything differently, I really enjoyed my time at the U of M, and managed to learn a few things during my stay as well.

Why do you think the University of Minnesota is great?
The University of Minnesota is a very well respected institution around the world. Always considered in the top public research institutions regardless of the field of study. When it comes to agriculture, plant science, animal science, the list is shorter and the U of M is almost always in the top two or three recognized institutions. Sometimes as a student I felt like I wasn't up to the challenge of such an institution, but working hard, and learning how to fail successfully, recover and take a new approach were a very important part of the learning process for me. The University is a large institution and with that comes many benefits, resources and reputation, and represents the State of Minnesota very well. The different colleges within the University are like small towns, while fellow students that share your major are like a little neighborhood in that small town. Everyone gets to know everyone else, and these relationships ex tend far beyond the day you receive your diploma. With today's technology, communication via LinkedIn and Facebook among fellow graduates provides a terrific way to keep in touch socially, but also from a business perspective.

Career information/ professional achievements:
1989 - I started a small Landscape Design and Construction company while still a student, mainly doing work for professors and friends of professors from the St. Paul campus.

1993 - I sold the Landscape and Snow removal company and started an import and distribution company dealing with filtration in the heavy industrial hydraulics industry.

1995 - I sold the Hydraulics/Filtration business and started a small manufacturing company, and a separate distributing company.

1998 - I started a product development company, a partnership with my best friend from third grade and fellow U of M graduate.

2006 - I wrote my first self-published book, called "Straw Bale Gardening" which gained wide acclaim and created a large number of followers of my Straw Bale Gardening Methods around the world. This lead to many presentations and speaking invitations locally. Several television, radio, newspaper appearances followed, gaining some momentum for the book and the method of gardening.

2013 - I wrote a book for Quayside Publishing on Cool Springs Press called "Straw Bale Gardens" which became the best selling book in the gardening category world-wide, in a dozen languages or more, and launched my second career as a professional speaker. The book was launched to much acclaim and positive reviews with articles appearing in over 600 media outlets within the next year. The New York Times wrote a full page review, Associated Press, Reuters news wire articles, and several magazines, blogs, online gardening websites, etc. created a buzz in the gardening world that launched the book to the best sellers list around the world.

2013 - The International Gardening Festival at Chaumont in the Loire Valley in France employed a Straw Bale Garden, as a featured garden at the festival. Out of over 2,000 entrants, this garden was selected and became the most visited garden in the history of the event, with over 400,000 visitors from around the world.

2014 - "Straw Bale Gardens" was awarded the P.J. Redouté award for practical horticulture, a prestigious award in the international horticulture world.

2014 - I was asked to make more than 150 presentations around the country and around the world, but none more exciting and fun that at the International Flower and Garden Show at Epcot Center, where I spent a week meeting people from around the world and presenting about Straw Bale Gardening.

2015 - I wrote the second edition "Straw Bale Gardens Complete" for Quartos USA Publishing, which was released February 15, 2015.

What's your passion? What do you love about your work and your field?
I love gardening! Vegetable gardening is great, but I spend much of my gardening time each summer growing summer bulbs, dahlias, lilies, gladiolus and others. I have a small rose garden, and a large hosta collection, and plant a few hundred annual flowers, and about a thousand spring bulbs every fall. My wife says I love to putz around outside, and I must agree, I love spending a whole Saturday working in the garden, just moving plants around and finding new things to try.

I still have a business outside of the "horticulture" industry. I enjoy that work as well, but my true passion has always been horticulture, and I am delighted that I now get to spend much of my time talking with others about what I love. It is a very strange circumstance that lead me to what I am doing these days, certainly a winding road on the way back to what I love, but I couldn't love what I do these days any more than I do.

How did your education at the U of M help prepare you for what you are doing today?
Dr. Bert Swanson, my favorite all time professor, always said "if you don't spend ten percent of your time educating yourself, you will be out of date completely within ten years." I thought this was brilliant and is probably even more true these days with technology changing so quickly. I find that reading industry publications regularly, in print or online, keeps me current and engaged in my industries. While I learned a great deal of actual facts and figures as a student, what I learned best was how to learn. Learning to find information I need, and how to implement what others have already learned so I don't repeat their mistakes, or "reinvent the wheel." Learning how to communicate effectively with others, including the ability to write descriptively, with a keen eye toward editing and being as brief as possible.

What advice do you have for current students (and future alumni)?
I offer young people about to head off to college some unusual advice that they probably don't get very often. I tell them not to worry about getting all A's, or even all B's, but spend as much time as they can getting to know their fellow students, and professors. The contacts made will be much more important in the long run than whether they received a B or a C on a test.

I also tell them to go to class, no matter what, always go to class. This sounds simple but I found that even if I didn't study much outside of class, if I went to every class and paid attention for that hour lecture, I could get a good grade without spending much extra time studying outside of class. I also didn't miss out on any opportunities to socialize with other students.

Join every group, organization, student opportunity that you are offered. You can always decide later that you don't have time to participate, but you'll be surprised by the people you meet and the opportunities you'll get if you show up and show interest in something. The old saying that "Ninety percent of your success in life is just showing up" is almost correct, I'd say its more like 99%.

Find a job that offers you the opportunity to grow, work hard and jump at every opportunity to learn something new, or to share what you can with others. This is where opportunities come from, both financial rewards, and career advancements are almost always offered because you stepped up and showed up.