Using Hay or Straw in Your Garden
Using hay or straw in the garden can be a touchy subject! Some gardeners swear that using hay will ruin your garden and turn it into a bed of noxious weeds. Other gardeners are afraid to use straw because there may be persistent herbicides sprayed on it.
Who knew that using hay or straw in your garden could be fraught with such dangers? Well, it is very important to know what you are putting in the garden where you grow your food!
With so many gardeners creating straw bale gardens or using straw as mulch, you would think that straw in the garden is a no-brainer! But before you go looking for bales of straw or hay for your garden this spring, let’s take a look at the best sources and how to use it.
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Difference Between Hay and Straw
Hay is dried plant material such as grasses, clover, or alfalfa that is cut for animal feed. Hay is nutritious and contains many vitamins and minerals to help sustain livestock during the winter when they can’t graze for sustenance.
Straw is the dried stalks of grains left over after a farmer combines the field to harvest wheat, oats, barley, or rye. Straw has very little nutritional value for animals, or for your garden.
Dangers of Using Hay or Straw in the Garden
Conventional farmers use herbicides to reduce weed growth in their fields. Because of this, it is very important to ask what has been sprayed on the hay or straw and how long ago the crop was treated.
Avoid hay or straw sprayed with chemicals labeled as persistent herbicides in the pyridine family. These take so long to break down that even manure from animals that consume the crops sprayed with them can cause your broadleaf vegetables to wither and die.
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Read more about the dangers of these persistent herbicides in The Hidden Dangers of Straw Bale Gardening and Garden Mulch – Straw – Does it Have to be Organic to be Safe?
Weed seeds can also be a problem when using hay or straw in your garden, but this is an easier issue to deal with than the fallout from persistent herbicides. To kill weed seeds, leave bales of hay or straw outside and allow weeds to sprout and die before using in the garden.
Another potential problem with using hay or straw in your garden are fungal infections that may occur when rotting mulch comes into contact with plant stems or leaves. Try to leave a few inches of space around plants to prevent this.
Organic and Alternative Mulches
Whenever possible I use organic straw or hay in my garden. I would rather pull weeds than use toxic chemicals on my vegetables. However, it isn’t always possible to find a source for organic hay and straw.
Here are some alternatives that may be used in place of hay or straw for mulch:
- Dried grass clippings
- Pine needles
- Wood chips
- Shredded paper
- Kelp or seaweed
When using sawdust, wood shavings or wood chips, you may need to use more nitrogen fertilizer in the garden. As wood decomposes it ties up nitrogen in the soil so that it isn’t available to the growing plants.
How to Use Hay or Straw in the Garden
There are many different ways to use hay or straw in the garden. Both of these materials break down and add organic matter to the soil. This helps to make clay soil more friable and fluffy, and sandy soil holds moisture longer when organic matter is increased.
In addition to adding organic matter to your garden soil, hay or straw may be used as mulch, for protecting tender seedlings, or for creating cold frames, garden paths, straw bale gardens, or new garden beds. Let’s take a closer look!
Straw Bale Garden
Strawbale gardens have been quite the rage for a few years now. A quick search online will yield many different designs and methods of creating these labor-saving gardens.
The general idea is to purchase straw bales, place them in rows so that the cut side is facing up, put some soil down the center of the bale, and allow the straw to decompose a bit. Once the straw has started to rot, plant your vegetables in the soil row.
There are quite a few advantages to this garden method:
- Straw bales hold moisture, reducing need to water garden
- Fewer weeds, less work
- Raised plantings need less bending to tend plants
- As straw decomposes, it releases some nutrients
- At end of season, straw is tilled into the garden to improve soil structure
There are a few disadvantages too:
- Straw usually costs $5 per bale and up which increases garden expenditure
- Be careful not to buy straw treated with persistent herbicides
- Some fungal infections may affect garden plants
Mulching Your Garden
Hay and straw both make great mulch in the garden as long as they weren’t treated with persistent herbicides or contain noxious weed seeds.
Using hay or straw as mulch in the garden has the following benefits:
- Reduces moisture loss and reduces watering
- Keeps soil cooler in hot weather
- Prevents weed growth and reduces weeding
- Breaks down to increase organic matter in the soil
- Is an all natural mulch, unlike black plastic or weed barrier fabric
Make a Garden Path
A deep layer of straw may be used to create a path through your garden or yard. Use one or two layers of cardboard or newspaper under a thick layer of straw to create a weed barrier that should last all season!
One of the nice things about making a straw path through your garden is that it may be moved if you change your mind. It’s easy to put a straw path down and costs less than purchasing bricks or pavers for a permanent path.
Straw Bale Cold Frame
Creating a cold frame from straw bales and old windows has quite a few benefits. Bales of straw used to form the walls will insulate the plants inside from cold weather much better than lumber or glass. At the end of the season, you can use the straw as mulch, for creating a garden path or till it into the soil.
There are quite a few ways to arrange your bales for the sides of a cold frame. The size and shape of the cold frame will depend a lot on the size of windows used for the glazing, or clear top of the cold frame.
Protect New Plants
Because hay and straw are natural insulators, you can use it to help protect tender seedlings from temperature extremes. When seedlings are first planted they can’t tolerate strong sunlight. Use some hay or straw to loosely cover the tender plants during full sun or in the evening to protect from cool night temperatures. When they have acclimated to outdoor life, pull the straw away and use as a mulch to prevent moisture loss.
Hay or Straw for Your Best Garden
With such a versatile material, you are sure to think of some other uses for hay and straw in your garden.
- They make a nice place to sit back and admire your work.
- Use them as a decorative element for displaying your pumpkins in the fall.
- Create a temporary cold frame easily.
- Insulate plants and protect seedlings from the sun.
- Straw mulch under growing pumpkins helps protect the rind.
Try a few bales from a local farmer who doesn’t mind answering your questions. As long as they are free of persistent herbicides and noxious weeds, bales of hay and straw make a great addition to the home garden!
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You suggest wood chips as an alternate. No way. I did the wood chip thing on my 1-acre garden. It was great for weed control but when I turned the chips into the soil for the next years prep it absolutely killed my soil. The soil nitrogen chemistry was robbed and heavy nitrogen injected irrigation did not help.
I ended up creating a new plot on virgin soil. All is great in the world, except the weeds flourish.
I use wood chips in my pathways but not around plants. However, adding nitrogen usually overcomes the problem with wood chips tying up nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes. You may have used way more wood chips than I have tried.
I am planting my vegetable in Clay soil. I have half acre in the backyard. Please advise should I use hay or not to cover the ground. I need to make path as Clay soil becomes very sticky when it rains.
Hay or straw will work well for lining your paths and mulching your plants. As it rots, it helps to loosen the soil and feed the beneficial microbe in the soil. If your soil stays wet, it would be better NOT to mulch your plants with straw because that will hold in moisture which could lead to root rot… but it should still be okay to line your paths with it.
I hope this helps… Lisa
Hi Lisa! Thanks for this excellent informative article! I also use straw as mulch in my garden and always use a straw bale cold frame, so I have chose to feature your article this week on our Farm Fresh Tuesday Blog Hop!!! 🙂
Thanks so much for the feature, Tamara! Best wishes with your cold frames and garden this year!
That hay cold frame is fascinating and would be so easy to do.
That’s why I build a couple of them every year! I am terrible with tools and most of my projects involve duct tape … so this is right up my alley! 🙂
I always do a hay bale garden on a new, first year garden spot especially in my area with heavy clay soil. Expensive, sort of, but surrounding farms have plenty that have gone moldy and they can’t feed to their livestock. So I get them fr $1 a bale. No, they aren’t sprayed with herbicides because it was grown for livestock feed.
When we terraced one hillside for a 1/4 acre orchard, we bought big rounds of moldy hay for $10 a round. A ton of moldy hay fr $30. Now that’s economical. My point is this, think outside the box stores when planning your garden. See a farm with livestock? It doesn’t hurt to ask. Homesteading is about building a community. After 4 years of doing this and developing friendships, farmers around me now call me to see if I want moldy hay for free.
It’s great that you have that resource! I would still ask about the herbicides sprayed if you don’t know the farmer. There are quite a few sprays that are used on hay and straw that is used for livestock feed and bedding, as well as for human consumption that can kill the broadleaf plants in your garden.
Yes, in some areas you may very well be able to get moldy hay for free and this can be wonderful for composting for your garden! If you have any issues with mold, you may not want to do this or you may need to wear a mask when working with the hay.
In my area, they still want money for moldy hay. I have purchased it for my garden and had very good results with it, but it usually runs $2 a bale! Guess it all depends on where you live!
Thanks for the suggestions, Jo!