Straw Turns to Gold

June 10, 2012

Straw bales are inexpensive gold for gardens. I only pay $4 a bale, and the straw saves me hours of weeding, watering and worrying.

Credit: All photos by Doreen G. Howard
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No, I’m not Rumplestiltskin, the cranky gnome in a Grimm fairy tale; I can’t spin straw into gold.  But, straw saves me money, crops and my sanity, which is golden to my thinking. 

Everything in the vegetable garden is mulched with a 6-inch layer, including blueberries, Alpine strawberries and cranberries.  I use a foot or two of straw atop the potato bed to grow clean potatoes that can be easily harvested.  Tubers form in the straw and crops are always bigger when I use the straw mulch.

First, let me explain the difference between straw and hay.  You don’t want to use hay, as it will cause nightmares and plenty of weed pulling.  Hay is grown for animal feed and contains protein-rich seed heads that when spread over gardens sprout.  They quickly grow into lanky, seedy plants that are difficult to control by either pulling or spraying.

Straw is the bottom half of hay stalks and contains few or no seed heads.  It’s pure carbon and has no protein.  Straw stalks are hollow and don’t compact or mat.  They’re also slow to decompose and don’t tie up nitrogen or other nutrients in soil, making the perfect mulch. 

Potato crops are huge when grown in a foot or two of straw on top of the soil.  The blueberries in the background benefit from straw mulch, because their roots are shallow, and the plants are moisture lovers.

A bale of straw costs about $4 in my area.  I get it from a farmer nearby.  Numerous garden centers stock straw, too.  Bales are huge; one will usually cover the garden.  Just be sure that you are buying straw, not hay.

Drought Defense

A thick blanket of straw keeps the moisture in soil, slowing evaporation radically.  Watering the garden once a week will be the norm, rather than every day or two.  If you live in an area of the country that is experiencing rainfall shortage this summer or drought, straw mulch is gold!  I do. We’ve received only a tenth of normal rainfall and had a huge snow deficient last winter.  The ground is so dry, it’s cracking in spots.  But, I water the vegetable garden only once a week, despite high temperatures and lack of rain.

Straw also saves crops like tomatoes, peppers and squash from developing blossom-end rot and cat-facing; blueberries from shriveling; and sweet peppers from turning hot.  Soil moisture stays even and calcium can be transferred from the soil to tomatoes easily, preventing the diseases. Straw mulch at the base of tomato and pepper plants also prevents that transfer of soil-borne diseases such as early blight to plant leaves. No water splashes up from the soil to leaves, because the straw absorbs it.

A thick straw mulch also fosters the growth of large pumpkins, winter squash and watermelons. The mulch provides a clean blanket upon which melons and pumpkins can grow unblemished.

Have you used straw for mulch?  What other materials do you use to hold moisture in and prevent diseases?


Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

In stores now!

Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including amazon.com.

Comments

Thank you very much for

By Tuincentrum Van Eeckhaut on September 16

Thank you very much for publishing this kind of article. I like your article very much.

I'm so disappointed that a

By Jessie C

I'm so disappointed that a Farmer's Almanac article would get such a basic distinction between hay (alfalfa) and straw (the left over plant body from small grains). They are two totally student kinds of plants.
Please fact check before you continue posting this page.

I am very interested in

By Nichole Lyman

I am very interested in trying this method with newspaper and straw... we have lots of extra straw on the farm and I would love to try to use it in order to cut down on weeding time! However, I am very nervous as to how it will hold up to any amount of wind? Any thoughts? We live in Wyoming, and even though we don't get a lot of wind where I live, we do get some storms that will bring wind from time to time. Thanks!!

A thick layer seems to hold

By Doreen G. Howard

A thick layer seems to hold itself together.  I've never had a problem with wind, and I live an area where it gets very gusty.  After I apply the straw, I soak the area throughly to keep it from blowing.  After that, I don't to a thing.

Can u clearify the potato in

By Scott p butler

Can u clearify the potato in the straw planting? So u plant just in the straw or in the ground? I love the idea!!! Next year is my first veg garden!!!

Plant potatoes 4-6 inches

By Doreen G. Howard

Plant potatoes 4-6 inches deep in the soil.  As sprouts with leaves appear, bury them with straw.  Keep doing that until you have a straw layer at least 18 inches tall.  Higher will produce more potatoes.  Always leave the top two sets of leaves on each stem unburied so they can use sunlight for photosynthesis.

Will either straw or hay kill

By LEE TINKER LOE

Will either straw or hay kill nut grass? I was told planting sweet potatoes would, but it didn't work. Help!

Neither will kill nut grass. 

By Doreen G. Howard

Neither will kill nut grass.  Best way to kill it and all the rhizomes that make it spread is to douse plants with 20 percent agricultural-grade white vinegar in early spring before planting.

Check organic gardening sites

By kddunbar

Check organic gardening sites for nutgrass management strategies. I used compost tea sweetened with unsulfured molasses and had a good result. Apparently, the sugars from the molasses feed the microorganisms in the compost tea, and then those lil' critters start feeding on the sugars in the nutgrass rhizomes. The only other organic way I know is to dig them out, and that is quite a chore!

What about for a wet year?

By cindy a

What about for a wet year? Does the straw hold in too much moisture? Want to keep the squash and etc off the wet ground but need the soil to dry some too.

Straw does hold moisture in

By Doreen G. Howard

Straw does hold moisture in the ground longer, but if your rain-soaked beds are 18-inches-high or taller, that's not a problem. Moisture trickles down to lower levels, plus the straw slow evaporation. It's a great squash and melon mulch because of these traits.

Just to be correct, hay is

By Gary Sutliff

Just to be correct, hay is from different plants, usually clover, timothy, or mixed grasses and they do contain seed heads. Straw is the leftover stems from plants such as wheat after the seed heads have been harvested, so the weed seed load is usually much less.

If you leave the straw

By GardenGal4

If you leave the straw outside in the elements to "season" it will kill all of the seeds, then you can use it in your garden without any problems! The straw keeps moisture in the dirt but you need good dirt or else you'll end up with clay soup underneath. Straw can attract mice, pill bugs and slugs so heads up. In the end, it works great and there is nothing better for your garden. Bury your soaker hoses under it and you're all set. Grass clippings cook the dirt and add a nitrogen blast and leaves break down and mess with the PH as well.

I've used wheat straw in my

By Ryan Lukshis

I've used wheat straw in my garden for a long time but for the past two years (including this year) there are weeds that are actually growing FROM the wheat straw. I put black mesh down before the wheat straw so I know it's not coming from the ground. Any ideas as to why it's growing from the wheat straw? Any ideas on how I can get rid of these weeds?

Pulling the weeds is the best

By Doreen G. Howard

Pulling the weeds is the best way to get rid of them. I've been sold bales of straw, too, that were weedy. Some farmers are very sloppy about the way the harvest and include seed heads. It comes down to: know your source! And avoid proven weedy straw.

How would I use straw as

By globerg

How would I use straw as mulch for tomatoes, beans and peppers? I also don't have a clue where to find straw for organic gardening, I live in downtown Toronto.

Try pet supply stores for

By Mijames

Try pet supply stores for straw if you can't find it at a garden centre.

Thanks Doreen for the great

By TimCAD

Thanks Doreen for the great article. I live a little south of you in Aurora and started using straw as mulch this year. I only put a thin layer (less than an inch) over my radishes and carrots as the seeds are directly sown. I was concerned about the seedlings sprouting up through it. Do you think it would be OK to put a thicker layer on for my fall plantings?

After seeds sprout and you

By Doreen G. Howard

After seeds sprout and you thin, put a thick layer of straw mulch on, around each seedling. A good trick with carrot and radish seeds is to place a strip of toliet paper over the newly sown seeds. It breaks with each watering or rain storm and becomes part of the soil. The paper holds enough moisture close to the seed to aid germination.

i have used straw in my veg

By bert w johnson

i have used straw in my veg garden for years, and really good on holding the weeds too.

Every time I use straw to

By susanmajp

Every time I use straw to mulch my garden, it gets loaded with sprouted wheat, whose roots grow deep so fast that I am unable to pull it all. I never remember this happening when I lived up North--is the wheat harvested differently in the South? It takes me years to remove the ever sprouting wheat from my garden. I've recently tried it again after not using it for over 20 years. I used old straw that we used in our dog's house the previous winter, believing that the remaining grain would have fallen from the seed heads. Boy was I wrong! I have spent hours an hours pulling wheat from my garden yet again, defeating the no-weeding goal. Am I doing something wrong? Digging wheat out in over 100 degree heat is getting old. Help!

Both my mother-in-law and I

By nicolemtracy

Both my mother-in-law and I use newspaper under the straw as an extra weed barrier. This prevents wheat from sprouting and does a great job of snuffing out weeds. The only real problem I see with this method it if I want to plant something new I either have to buy a start or start it inside since a seed wont germinate, but if you only want to keep the weeds out, this may be a good solution for you. :)

Same problem here. I used

By Skinfan

Same problem here. I used straw in my weed free garden only to find I am a wheat farmer now. Time to get the tiller out in this 100 degree weather. I don't know if I will use straw again unless it is very clean.

As an old farm girl (think

By GlendaJ

As an old farm girl (think 1950's and 60's!) I can't help but explain that straw is NOT the bottom half of hay stalks but it IS the lower part of wheat after it is harvested. Thus the beautiful golden color and the mostly empty pods on the heads of each "straw". I too have lots of it in my garden and the potatoes are doing very nicely in the 3 ft high pile of straw in which the row is growing. Can't wait until it's time to harvest them!

Newspapers ( check and see if

By Coop Bob

Newspapers ( check and see if they use soy based ink)cover with wood chips holds moisture and keeps the weed in check.

Do you till the straw in

By MAH

Do you till the straw in after the harvest or do you remove it?

If you leave it, it will turn

By Almanac Staff

If you leave it, it will turn into mulch!

Thank you for your interest in the Old Farmer's Almanac and our Web site.

Straw will rot slightly over

By Doreen G. Howard

Straw will rot slightly over the winter, and you can use it again for mulch, adding more to maintain a six-inch or so layer of mulch. Straw doesn't add any nutrients to the soil, but it can be used to break up clay.

Can I use the straw at the

By zaismas

Can I use the straw at the base of my grape vines? They are drip fed so will the straw interfere with that? I live in drought-ridden TX just north of San Antonio. I'm in Zone 8b. Thanks!

As long as the soil is

By Almanac Staff

As long as the soil is receiving enough water then it should be OK.

Straw helps keep moisture in the soil which slows down evaporation. Very helpful during times of drought!

Thank you for your interest in the Old Farmer's Almanac and our Web site.

Where can i find more

By karlene

Where can i find more information on growing potatoes in staw? Also will sweet potatoesgrow that way too?

I make a furrow just like I

By Coop Bob

I make a furrow just like I was planting the seed potatoes in the ground, I cover with about a foot of straw. as the plants grow I cover with another 6 inches of straw. They are a lot easier to dig and the potatoes are really clean.

Sweet potatoes and yams are a

By Doreen G. Howard

Sweet potatoes and yams are a different botanical family from potatoes. You can mulch their beds with straw to preserve moisture, but plant stems will not produce in a thick straw layer.

Where is your garden located?

By Jenifer Pierpont-Johns

Where is your garden located? I live in upstate NY and am concerned about attractign slugs and beetles with the straw.

I live along the Wisconsin

By Doreen G. Howard

I live along the Wisconsin border, 90 miles northwest of Chicago in Zone 5. Any mulch is going to draw slugs and beetles. Use barriers or sprinkle or spray plants with Dipel, an organic control for chewing pests. It freezes their stomaches.

Can leaves be used in the

By Skinfan

Can leaves be used in the same way? Can I use a combination of both?

Leaves tend to mat when wet.

By Doreen G. Howard

Leaves tend to mat when wet. Also, they decompose rapidly, drawing nitrogen and other nutrients from the soil. So do grass clippings. An alternative is straw is compost or incomplete compost. Both break down, but they don't draw nutrients from the soil, robbing plants. Pine needles work, too.

If you use pine needles

By Angie Mc

If you use pine needles though, you need to be careful of the pH in your soil. If your soil is already acidic, you will want to avoid them.

Looks like I am buying some

By Skinfan

Looks like I am buying some straw. Thanks for the help.

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