One of the gardening “ingredients” I include in my raised bed gardening is straw. I started by using it as a winter mulch for my fall-planted garlic bulbs. Then I added it as a summer mulch to a couple of gardens. This year, I’m going to spread straw on a pathway between some of my raised beds instead of using the usual shredded cedar. One thing I didn’t realize when I was a newer gardener was that there is a difference between hay vs straw. In this article, I’m going to share some of the benefits of using straw in the garden, and why you may want to avoid using hay bales.
What is the difference between hay and straw?
I think a lot of people use the word hay to describe straw, and vice versa, not realizing there is a difference. Hay is planted and harvested by farmers to feed livestock, like horses, sheep, and cows. It’s actually a mix of plants that could include fescues, legumes, such as alfalfa and clover, and different types of grasses, like millet. Hay contains all the parts of a mature plant—stalks, leaves, and seed heads—harvested when they are fresh and still full of nutrients for animal feed. It is then rolled into those big round bales you see dotting farmers’ fields.
Consequently, hay can be filled with seeds, as well as weed seeds. You don’t want to add more weeding to your gardening to-do list! Therefore, use hay mulch at your own risk.
Straw is essentially a post-harvest by-product of threshing the stalks of cereal grain crops, like wheat, rye, oats, and barley. The seed heads are gone and what is left are hollow stems. This material is used more for animal bedding as it has little nutritional value left. But, it’s also a great option for gardens.
Hay vs straw: The benefits of using straw in the garden
So, what exactly can straw be used for in the garden? There are actually a few ways you may be able to put a bale or bag to good use.
Straw can be used for the following tasks:
- As mulch in the summer vegetable garden
- To create a winter mulch to cover fall crops, like garlic
- As an inexpensive material to cover pathways in the garden
- To insulate cold frames
- For straw bale gardening
- To help determine certain pests, such as flea beetles, in the soil
- As a source of carbon when adding to a compost pile
- For erosion control
- for sheet mulching
Let’s dig into a few of these benefits a bit more…
Why straw mulch is good for veggie gardens and pathways
There are a few great options you can use as mulch in a garden, depending on the area. Straw is generally quite inexpensive, which is great if you have lots of area to cover, especially in a veggie garden. As I mentioned, in the fall, when I plant my garlic, I cover it with a winter mulch of straw. The other function is to try and keep squirrels from digging up the cloves.
In a summer garden, a loose mulch like straw can help to prevent some pests, like root maggots, squash vine borers, and flea beetles, from laying eggs close to the soil. Using mulch of any kind can also help the soil conserve moisture content (which may mean less watering), and control weeds. Place it around tomato and pepper plants, as well as vining veggies, to keep them off the soil as they grow. If you’re wondering how much straw mulch to spread, start with about three to four inches (7.5 to 10 cm). If you have a problem with lots of slugs in the garden, loose mulch, like straw, is not recommended.
Straw can also be used as a low-cost mulch for pathways between your raised beds. It helps to minimize weeds and aesthetically it looks nice. If you’re trying to create a new path or garden area, straw can also be used for sheet mulching.
Making use of full straw bales
Straw bales can really come in handy during both the warm and cold seasons. They’re a lightweight material when taken apart for the garden in summer and provide good insulation in the winter. (That’s why they’re often used to insulate straw bale homes!). If you find yourself with a whole (or almost whole) straw bale, you can use it for straw bale gardening. You just need to know how to condition the bale before you plant your vegetables, like seed potatoes, squash, beans, cucumbers, etc. It is possible to source pre-conditioned bales.
Straw bales can also be used as an insulator for cold frames during the colder months of the year—or to construct actual straw bale cold frames. And the best part is, when you take apart your cold frame in the spring, that straw can then be used as mulch. Nothing goes to waste.
Buying straw for your garden
It’s worth noting that some farmers growing hay may spray persistent herbicides to eliminate broadleaf weeds, depending on what is being grown. When sourcing straw for your garden, try to find out the provenance of your bale. Farmers’ markets, for example, may offer good leads on finding an organic bale. If you live in the US, Joel Karsten author of Straw Bale Gardens offers a classified ad listing service called Straw Bale Market.
If you have a small garden, you may want to go in on a bale with a fellow green thumb. Straw bales may look compact, but there is a lot of straw compressed in that package! I’ve shared bales with my sister and a friend, and still had lots left over.
Last fall, I used a product called GardenStraw from a company called HealthiStraw for the first time. It’s a large but lightweight bag of chopped wheat straw that is easy to put away for future use after you’ve added what you need to the garden. You can also purchase smaller bags.
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