Straw Turns to Gold

January 29, 2019
Straw turns gold-Thinkstock

Hay bales are inexpensive garden helpers!

Photo of hay bale by Thinkstock

Rate this Post: 

Average: 3.8 (61 votes)

Get a Free Garden Planner Trial!

Try out our Garden Planner with a free 7-day trial—ample time to plan your dream garden!

Try the Garden Planner

No, I’m not Rumpelstiltskin, 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. 

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

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?

About This Blog

A lifelong gardener shares the endless lessons she’s learned from her garden over the years, in hopes of making your own gardening just that much easier! Read along for advice, photos, and more.

2019 Garden Guide

Reader Comments

Leave a Comment


I can't say enough about the value of salt marsh hay. The seeds cannot germinate without salt water and the hay is covered with trace minerals from the sea. I am fortunate being relatively close to the ocean, even still not many garden centers carry it.


I am amazed that this article did not stress the importance of buying only organic straw. I'm all in favor of the prescribed deep mulch technique (Google "Ruth Stout"), and straw is a great choice for such mulching, but if you use straw from conventional grain fields you could well end up doing far more harm than good. The danger, which has been well-documented for years now, is the newer class of "persistent herbicides," including aminopyralid, clopyralid, aminocyclopyrachlor, fluroxypyr, picloram, and triclopyr. They affect broad-leafed plants (like your garden veggies!) and thus are sprayed onto grass crops (like the grains from which come your straw!) to suppress broad-leafed weed species. The problem is that these chemicals have half-lives of several years, so contaminated straw mulch could be poisoning your crops for a long time to come. Probably not enough to kill them outright, but enough to stunt their growth and leave you wondering why your veggies look so sad. And since the mulch decomposes into the soil (that's kind of the whole point), by the time you realize the problem there will be no remedy other than literally to replace your soil, or to let that land lay fallow for years before returning to it. Neither composting the straw nor feeding it to animals is a solution, as the herbicidal chemicals will pass through unchanged and, in fact, only concentrated.


As I remove the straw after it's killed the grass, there are several animal holes underneath and I am afraid I am going to see a rat! Do rats like straw on the ground like they do in a barn?


Hi Anita,

It’s hard to say for sure what produced the holes in your lawn, but some possibilities are moles, voles, chipmunks, mice, or yes, rats. The size and shape of the hole would help you to identify the critter. 

Straw seeds

I have purchased straw for the past two years, but there are lots of oat seeds that sprout, which us disapppointing. I has worked well as a grass killer tho, as I am attempting to go grass free.

Straw Mulch

I've been using straw as mulch on my home garden for about 3 years. This year my seeds didn't sprout. I planted pumpkin and cucumber starts which have now started to turn yellow and wilt. Never had this happen before. Could the straw be changing the ph of my soil?

wilting pumpkin and cuke seedlings

It’s not likely to be the straw; we can find nothing to support the idea. It could be failure to rotate crops and/or nitrogen deficiency. It may also be a soil-borne disease such as fulsarium wilt (there are others), brought on by failure to rotate crops. The cuke is also vulnerable to soil-borne diseases…so it could be that or cold weather (below 50°F), cold soil (below 62°F), or blight, or squash bug.


Does 'pine straw' have the same qualities?

pine straw

Pine straw can be an excellent option as an attractive mulch for flowers, trees, shrubs, and even the vegetable garden. It lasts longer than straw, and is denser, so you would apply about 3 inches thick, keeping it a few inches away from woody plant trunks (to discourage rodents). Apparently the rumor that it adds acidity to the soil is a myth (or if it does, it is very slight). Like some other mulches, it helps to keep weeds down, helps the soil to retain moisture, and insulates the soil, keeping plants cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Once it is broken down, you can work it into the soil to help structure. There is some question of it containing a chemical that inhibits seed germination–if you’d rather not take a chance, then apply it around transplants and established plants, or after seeds have sprouted. Of course, inhibiting weed seed germination would be helpful! You can find pine straw in bales at some garden centers. Hope this helps!


Hey folks. Where would I get seedless straw to use as a mulch for the garden. I'm just outside Richmond, VA.

Core Gardening

I heard mention of a gardening technique called "Core Gardening" but I cannot see any other references to it. This approach has the gardener bury straw (do not know how much) down the center of the vegetable bed, about a foot down. It holds water for the bed and reduces watering needs to once every week or two. And plants will root in it as well. Have you ever heard about this? I have additionally read about tilling black molded straw in your garden, both autumn and spring. The black growth is "trichoderma harzianum" which also grows on gypsum drywall. This friendly mold cooperates with Mycorrhizae and enhances nutrient transfer to plant roots. It is also documented to speed up composting.

New Techniques

Yes, Trichoderma harzianum in combination with Mycorrhizae can serve as disease suppressants. They are particularly effective in helping to control damping-off disease in tomato plants. As for “Core Gardening,” you have piqued our interest! We came up empty-handed when researching the method. Perhaps you can aks your source for more information and share it with us? Could be a story….

More info on MIgardener's

More info on MIgardener's youtube channel (search MIgardener core gardening). It sounds like a great method to me and I'm trying it in my fall garden now.

Core gardening and straw mulch

I plant my vegetable garden in 4 ft by 50 ft raised beds that are 15 inches high, with the soil that exists here (sandy loam), a core down the center that is 12 inches wide with straw wet down well, the core of straw is 10 inches deep, then the soil put back on top. I drip irrigate on the surface with a drip line with holes every 6 inches. I direct sow most seeds and mulch with 6 inches of straw on top of the drip line and around each plant once the seedlings emerge, then another 6 inches of straw when the plants are 12 inches or more tall. In my hot, dry climate where summer temps reach 100 to 110 at 12percent humidity, the soil stays perfectly moist 1 inch deep and all the way down with a watering schedule that is every other day for 10 minutes. The plants thrive, never get leaf diseases and produce intensively. Every winter here, which is very mild and rainy, I pull back the straw, Then top dress the soil with 1 inch of worm casings, and 1 inch of composted chicken manure, then put the straw back on top. This produces intensive results consistently.

Core Gardening Seems to Work...

A much belated reply to this post, but I just stumbled upon it.

I didn't realize "core gardening" was an actual *thing*, but I did exactly that this year after greatly overestimating how much straw I needed for another project. Having barely made a dent in the bale I bought, I decided that burying a whole layer of it about 8-12 inches down in my garden might help with moisture retention and as a sort of "slow release compost/fertilizer." I also have super heavy clay soil that I am slowly trying to improve every year, and thought it might help with compaction.

I live in Southern NM, where it gets to be 110F on a regular basis, and so any anecdote I could give you about watering probably won't be relevant; moreover, we are also having a very hot year, so it's hard to tell if the mulch is helping with moisture retention. That said, it certainly isn't hurting.

On the other hand, it's REALLY helped with the soil compaction, and plants that typically would die because their roots couldn't get through my clay pot of a yard are flourishing! I even grew a bunch of potatoes in the clay soil, where I added the core of straw. This is the first time I've really been able to grow root vegetables without having to buy new dirt for the garden areas.


I used straw for mulch this year but I am seeing sprouts come up out of the straw. Is this normal?

Sprouting Straw

It might be that the supplier didn’t thresh before he baled, thereby leaving grain heads that are full of seeds. Luckily they pull out easily!

A correction. ..straw is the

A correction. ..straw is the bottom half of wheat not hay.

i covered my garden in straw

i covered my garden in straw over the winter...its almsot a foot deep. the soils gotten pretty compacted underneath. should i pull the straw back and till? or should i plant right in the straw? thanks


Hi, Julie— Based on Doreen’s advice (above), esp in the context of her dry soil, we would say plant! And water accordingly (she experienced dry soil, too). The straw will break down over time.

Hey can I use that straw that

Hey can I use that straw that they build roofs with as mulch?

Do I spread mulch on my

Do I spread mulch on my squash hills before I see growth? If so, how deep shall I pile the straw?

You can apply mulch once the

You can apply mulch once the soil is warmer than 75ºF. Straw will help keep down weeds and also keep the squash clean and more pest-free.

good morning, I enjoy reading

good morning, I enjoy reading all comments and answers I have learned a lot.

My garden problems are minimal but I do have a big problem with thistles in our yard (2 acres), how do we get rid of them?

thank you so much, Ann'e

Most thistles can be

Most thistles can be controlled with the use of herbicides in the fall or spring. You do need to figure out what type of thistle you have ( there are both perennial and biennial kinds) to figure out the best solution. We'd suggest you contact your local county cooperative extension to recommend herbicides approved in your state.

Following up on TimCAD's

Following up on TimCAD's Q&A...I have just directly sowed many seeds...lettuce, carrots, green beans, peas... and have added a 1"-ish layer of straw as mulch. In your answer, are you suggesting NOT to use straw as mulch at this point, but to wait til I have growth, and then add straw? If so, what do you suggest I use as mulch? I live in a very dry area and want to use something for water retention. Thanks.

Thank you very much for

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

I'm so disappointed that a

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.

Exactly! Hay has nothing to

Exactly! Hay has nothing to do with straw.

Theres hay and there's hay.

Alfalfa hay unless it's Bermuda or Fescue, or mixed grass

I am very interested in

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

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

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

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

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. 

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

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Doreen for the great

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

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.

Following up on TimCAD's

Following up on TimCAD's Q&A...I have just directly sowed many seeds...lettuce, carrots, green beans, peas... and have added a 1"-ish layer of straw as mulch. In your answer, are you suggesting NOT to use straw as mulch at this point, but to wait til I have growth, and then add straw? If so, what do you suggest I use as mulch? I live in a very dry area and want to use something for water retention. Thanks.

i have used straw in my veg

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

Every time I use straw to

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!

Same problem here. I used

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.

Both my mother-in-law and I

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. :)

As an old farm girl (think

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

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

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

Straw will rot slightly over

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.

If you leave it, it will turn

If you leave it, it will turn into mulch!

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

Can I use the straw at the

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

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

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

Sweet potatoes and yams are a

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.

I make a furrow just like I

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.

Where is your garden located?

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

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

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

Leaves tend to mat when wet.

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.

Looks like I am buying some

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

If you use pine needles

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.


BONUS: You’ll also receive our Almanac Companion newsletter!

The Almanac Webcam

Chosen for You from The Old Farmer's Store