Mulching With Straw in the Garden | The Old Farmer's Almanac

How to Mulch With Straw in the Garden

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Gardening With Straw Saves Time, Money, and Sanity!

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Using straw as mulch in the garden saves me money, crops, and my sanity. (Note: Straw is not hay.) See the many benefits of mulching with straw bales in the vegetable garden. 

No, I’m not Rumpelstiltskin, the cranky gnome in a Grimm fairy tale; I can’t spin straw into gold.  But straw bales are inexpensive gold for gardens. I only pay $4 a bale, and the straw saves me hours of weeding, watering, and worrying. 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.

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.

Straw is Not Hay

First, let me explain that straw is not hay. You don’t want to use hay, as it will cause nightmares and plenty of weed pulling. Hay is a grass that is primarily grown and cut for livestock. It is difficult to cut hay without at least some of the grass going to seed.

Straws are the dry hollow hay stalks remaining after cereal crops such as wheat or barley have been harvested. They contain few or no seed heads, especially when compared to hay” (University of Maryland Extension Service). Straw stalks don’t compact or mat. They’re also slow to decompose and don’t tie up nitrogen or other nutrients in the soil, making the perfect mulch.

gardens with straw
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.

Straw Lets You Water Less Often

A thick blanket of straw keeps the moisture in the soil, radically slowing evaporation. Watering the garden once a week will be the norm rather than every day or two. They dry out a lot slower in hot, sunny weather.

If you live in an area of the country experiencing a 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 shortage last winter. The ground is so dry that it’s cracking in spots. But despite high temperatures and a lack of rain, I water the vegetable garden only once a week.

straw mulch around tomatoes

Straw Mulch Reduces Weeds

Straw blocks out the sun, preventing most weeds from germinating and growing. First, remove the weeds from your garden bed. Then, lay down the straw immediately. 

If you’ve already seeded your vegetables, don’t lay straw on top of the seeds or seedlings. But everywhere else, there is exposed ground; lay down a nice thick layer of straw

It will not only keep weeds from growing but also keep the soil moist, soft, and workable.

Straw Mulch Reduces Pests and Diseases

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 diseases.

Straw mulch at the base of tomato and pepper plants also prevents the transfer of soil-borne diseases such as early blight to plant leaves. No water splashes up from the soil to the 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.

Straw Mulch Increases Nutrients in the Soil

Straw decomposes like any other organic material, but it’s much slower. As straw rots, it releases nutrients, feeding the plants growing in it. Straw actually makes your garden better. Genius, right?

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

About The Author

Doreen G. Howard

Doreen Howard, an award-winning author, is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day. She has gardened in every climate zone from California to Texas to Oklahoma to the Midwest. She’s especially fond of unusual houseplants and heirloom edibles. Read More from Doreen G. Howard

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