Straw mulch: shield your greens

Choosing the right mulch is a big deal for gardeners. Depending on what you plan to grow, wood chip mulch might be a good option. Maybe clippings are best. But for most of those working in a raised bed vegetable garden, straw mulch is one of the best types of mulch on the market.

Straw has many advantages. It promotes water retention and prevents soil compaction. It keeps the plant roots healthy and is popular in organic horticulture. So if root health and watering are an issue for you, straw might be the answer.

In your home garden, you need to know which organic material is best for mulching and which one is best for your situation. So before you spread more mulch on your garden bed, let's cover some tips on using straw as a mulching medium.

What is straw mulch?

Straw mulch looks beautiful and over time it decomposes to form the soil. Source: Zane Selvans

Interestingly, there is more than one type in the “straw” category. Each of them has its place in different garden beds. To find out which of these straws is the best garden mulch for you, let's examine each variety.

Straw mulch

These are the remains of cereals and grains that are used as mulch material. Straw is only slightly different from hay in that it is the remaining hollow stalks of wheat, barley, or rye.

Straw does not contain seeds. This prevents weeds from constantly having to be pulled during the growing season. It's a great way to help you do a lot less ground work and add a nice splash of gold to your garden.

You can usually find large bags of straw at nearby hardware stores and tractor supply stores for around $ 5 to $ 10 per bag. You can also find bales of straw at a variable cost.

Certified weed-free straw mulch

Chances are you'll get straw that is not weed-free if you buy it in a standard bale or sack. If you are concerned about weed seeds in your mulch, look for a certified weed-free straw instead. Just like regular straw, these are grain and grass crops that have been harvested, but these are steam treated to remove weed seeds that make gardening difficult. This type of mulch is great for your garden or for composting.

We particularly like straw that has been steamed to kill weed seeds and chopped into finer particle sizes, such as the garden straw sold through our Epic Gardening shop. The finer sizes it's chopped and split for make it incredibly easy to apply and it's virtually dust free. Some livestock suppliers also produce weed-free straw, but it may contain wheat or barley seeds, which means you may have unexpected wheat or barley plants in your yard.

Hay mulch

Unless you actively compost, hay mulch may be the least desirable of the straw because it contains the most seeds from weeds and invasive plants compared to the other types of mulches mentioned above. Pure hay is widely used as a feed for cattle and is obtained from farmers and ranchers who have surplus supplies.

Although it breaks up easily, mulching with hay can inadvertently steal nutrients from your garden due to the amounts of weed seeds it contains. As weeds grow, they deprive other plants of nutrients.

If you don't mind weeding often, hay could be an acceptable option for your garden. If the weeding season doesn't suit you, try one of the other mulching materials listed here.

Alfalfa as a mulch

This is a special grain plant that is steam treated to remove the seed heads. In contrast to conventional straw and hay, alfalfa mulch begins green. When these mulches break down, they turn golden and provide the soil with an abundance of nutrients – especially nitrogen, which is an essential part of healthy garden soil. After all, alfalfa meal is used as a nitrogen supplement in organic fertilizers!

However, alfalfa has some drawbacks. First, it's expensive. While organic materials like these are great for early root development, some of the nitrogen needed in the vegetable garden could evaporate into the air if not used properly. But overall, it's a great garden mulch that you can find at most garden centers.

Pine straw

These are fallen, dried pine needles that act just like other mulches in garden beds. If you are interested in regenerative agriculture and live near pine trees, this organic material is great for garden mulching. For those who live near pine trees, it's practically free. Otherwise, it's about as expensive as straw.

It's a great garden mulch because it doesn't compact as it breaks down, so it doesn't create a layer of mulch that could cause a water table to choke your plants. Pine straw does not contain seeds either, so you don't have to worry about weeds in your mulch or in your yard.

Some have raised concerns about whether pine straw is acidic. If it turned brown and fell naturally from the tree, it is essentially pH neutral. Green pine needles are still slightly acidic, but the dry brown needles have lost most of that acidity.

Advantages and disadvantages of straw mulch

Straw for protection against erosionStraw is effective in reducing soil erosion both in gardens and on slopes. Source: TranBC

Here we are going to go into some of the subtleties of straw mulching and how it can help or harm the plants in your garden. There are often disadvantages with improper selection and use of mulch. Gardeners should consider which layer of mulch is best for their soil.


Overall, each type of mulch mentioned above will help your soil retain moisture. That means you don't have to water as much and you can save time and money. Established plants in healthy soil, watered with a drip pipe and covered with mulch, are in an ideal environment to thrive.

This is especially the case with certified weed-free mulches. Here, too, there are fewer weeds to worry about. Without invasive weeds, these mulches help reduce soil erosion, which is a concern of soil scientists and climatologists.

Loss of topsoil is something that many regenerative gardeners want to combat. Mulch is a big part of this fight to keep topsoil.

Mulch also keeps disease out in your garden. When they are broken down, they not only enrich the soil with nutrients, but also prevent the reproduction of bacteria and fungi that can lie fallow in the soil. At the same time, mulches keep the potting soil in the bed and prevent mud from draining off. They make gardens look amazing too, adding a pop of color here and there.

Depending on the source of your mulches, they can cost from nothing to under $ 100 for the first application. Straw mulch can often come from sources where they are no longer desired. Find a farmer who wants to dump some straw and you are done.

Finally, in hot climates, the light color of a straw mulch can help draw extra heat away from the ground. This can help maintain the correct temperature for seeds to germinate without letting the soil bake in the sun. Similarly, in cooler climates, it protects the floor by acting as a blanket over the floor surface, keeping it warmer than if it were exposed.


Mulching around plantsStraw mulch reduces soil splashes on plants. Source: Thawley

Since straw breaks down quickly in the ground, especially when compared to wood chips, it may not retain its appealing golden appearance for as long as some would like it to be. Although they still regulate the temperature of the soil, you will need to apply such a mulch at least once per growing season.

A bale of hay (or bale) can be heavy and difficult to break apart, and it could contain weeds. Some of them can even promote soil-borne diseases if applied too thickly or thinly. But even a good lay of mulch can be completely offset by constant weeding around your plants.

If you are interested in more expensive alfalfa or hay mulches, consider doing a good cost-benefit analysis before spending any money. Sometimes larger gardens would do just as well with a free source of mulch than something that costs a lot of money to incorporate into composting or garden soil.

Probably the least common problem with straw mulching is that they can contain insecticides and herbicides that kill good nutrients that are in your soil when they break down. Consider the source and consult your gardening friends before buying. In general, this isn't a huge problem, but it is still possible in theory.

Ideally, what you are looking for is something that does not contain any harmful chemicals, weeds, or pests. If you're not sure, research your straw source first.

Where to use straw mulch

Mulching a raised bedBoth raised beds and sunken gardens benefit from straw mulch. Source: JoePhoto

There are convenient times to mulch your yard, and there are also inappropriate times. Here are a few tips on how to and not to apply.

Seed start

You won't want to mulch the soil as you plant it, as it could choke seedlings or provide too much moisture, which will prevent sprouting altogether.

Instead, wait for your seeds to germinate and mature enough to be high enough above the ground so that a thin layer of mulch doesn't hold in too much moisture. It is also appropriate to mulch around mature, already established plants.

When not to apply

Don't apply straw in a thick layer around newer plants. While your compost heap will estimate a foot-deep layer, your garden will prefer about three to six inches of litter in the planting area.

Instead of piling straw against each plant, instead make sure that there is a small trough area around the base of your plants. This prevents the roots from suffocating and allows moisture to flow directly into the plant's root system. It also prevents fungus and bacteria that appear in overly humid garden conditions.

Compost with straw

Straw is great for mulching and also for composting. Use it to cover your pile in a layer thick enough to cover the green matter and you will be set for nutrient-rich compost to apply to your garden for the coming seasons.

You can even use a bale of straw to frame a compost heap. Simply place each bale on the floor in a square or rectangular shape later. Then add your compost materials. When the compost breaks down, so does the straw. This method eliminates the need for wire, buckets, or stakes.

Use the humus-rich compost when you sprout vegetables for the upcoming season. You will find that gardening with this compost is very rewarding. Especially if the straw you have procured is free from weed seeds. One way you can know the straw is doing its thing is for your pile to balance out the steam in the winter. This is a good sign that everything is going according to plan.

Attract earthworms

One of the best tips I've received on my gardening adventures was to put some straw (chemical-free, of course) in the soil to get the boys out to the yard … the boys are earthworms. I've found that adding just a little to my beds leads to a rich soil earthworm love.

When I plant in later seasons, I see earthworms while digging. And earthworms are always a sign of an even healthier soil, because they leave worm droppings, which provide essential and important micronutrients for the vegetable garden.

Straw paths

A cool way to use up excess straw is to put it in the walkways between your garden beds. Not only does this add some contrast and design to your garden, but it also prevents weeds. Instead of constantly pulling weeds from the garden border, you'll be using straw to keep them down.

Just pull a large handful out of your bale and shake it on the sidewalks. Use a rake to refine the design and add layers as needed.

frequently asked Questions

Mulch and soilMulch protects the soil surface and prevents erosion or moisture evaporation. Source: stellar678

Q: Is straw a good mulch?

A: It's excellent. It doesn't take as long to break down as wood chips and is healthier than clippings. This mulch serves as a source of nutrients and keeps the soil moist and warm in cold months.

Q: which is better straw or mulch?

A: Straw is a type of mulch. However, when you refer to wood chips, there are different and more appropriate uses for each. Certain plants get along well with wood chips, while others do better with straw.

Before making a big decision or purchase, do your research to determine which is best for your situation. The straw disintegrates much faster than wood.

Q: How much does straw mulch cost?

A: It depends. You could get some free straw bales from a local farm or collect fallen pine straw for free, or you could buy bags at the garden center for about $ 5 each. Alfalfa can be quite expensive in higher quality forms.

The green fingers behind this article:

Leave a comment