Using straw as mulch is an inexpensive, easy way to improve your garden! Here’s an easy guide for how and why you may use straw mulch.
Straw is a byproduct of barley, oats, rice, rye, and wheat. They might not all be available in your area, but most garden centers will have one that will work for you. You can use it in a regular tilled garden, in no-dig gardens, or anywhere you may need extra moisture and protection for your plants.
If you are specifically looking for an organically grown straw you should begin shopping early and be prepared to pay a premium for what you find. Organic straw is going to be more likely to contain seeds than straw grown with the use of chemicals but the number of seeds should not cause any issues within your garden area.
A healthy layer of straw can bring many benefits to your garden.
Is straw a good mulch?
Yes, Straw makes a very good mulch. Straw helps improve your soil’s drainage and aeration. As it decomposes, it provides food for the plants as well. A healthy layer of straw spread evenly across the garden will improve moisture retention and help prevent fruits and vegetables from contacting the ground or heavy rain from splashing dirt on the plants. This helps save you water and prevents fungi contamination.
Where to buy straw mulch
Straw is readily available at most big box stores with garden centers, Farm supply stores, garden markets, and local farms. Organic straw will be a bit more difficult to find and more expensive, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding some in most areas.
How to make straw mulch
There’s not much you need to do to make your straw mulch–Just buy the straw bale, separate the straw to get rid of big clumps, and distribute through the garden. Straw bales are sold in compact bundles and can weigh as much as 50 pounds, so you’ll need to separate the straw well for the best benefits. Compressed bales will require more work to separate before being spread. If your straw has gotten wet, it can be very time-consuming to fluff it up, so I have used a wood chipper to help.
How to use straw mulch
Straw mulch is very easy to use–The most difficult process will be handling the bales. They often weigh 40 – 50 pounds and are bulky to handle. You can see plastic packages of straw in large box stores that are around 20-30 pounds. These will work fine, but you are paying extra for the convenience of plastic and a smaller size.
- Once you get the bale in the area you are planning to mulch, cut the strings, bands, or plastic wrap and begin separating the flakes.
- Proceed to shake them out over the area you are mulching. If your plants are small, be sure not to bury them too deeply under the straw.
- Wet the straw deeply, then walk the area to make sure the straw is in contact with the ground.
Why Mulch with Straw
Straw mulch provides different benefits to the plants and soil in your garden.
- You will be able to control the temperature around your plants by offering shade in the summer and insulation in the winter. Roots and bulbs will experience less stress and maintain their health throughout the season.
- Straw mulch will break down rather quickly and provide you with better soil for the next planting season. Use thin slayers, about 3 to 4 inches, then replenish as needed.
- As the straw decomposes it will begin to attract earthworms and feed the microbes within the soil, enhancing the growing environment within the garden.
- As it rains, the straw breaks the fall of the water, slowing down the movement and preventing quick runoff of soil and water. The shade provided by the mulch slows down the evaporation of moisture as the temperatures rise, meaning the soil will have more time to absorb and retain moisture.
- Straw mulch layers between 3 and 4 inches thick will also help control weed and grass growth. While mulching at these levels will not smother outgrowing grasses and weeds, it will prevent any additional seeds from germinating and growing. A good practice would be to till or hoe prior to mulching to maximize weed control in your garden.
- Straw helps keep leaves, stems, fruits, and vegetables off the ground as well as prevent dirt from being splashed on the plant while being watered. Preventing ground contact will help control soil-born fungal diseases. Tomatoes will benefit from up to six inches of mulch around the plant to prevent soil-born fungal diseases.
- Straw will allow you to pick your garden more quickly after a rain and is a natural material that is safe for children or pets.
Things to Consider:
- Slugs — If your garden has a history with slugs you might want to consider an alternative to straw. The bottom side of straw mulch is a perfect place for slugs to flourish. If you have mulched and later find slugs, you will need to pull the mulch back from the base of the plant or possibly remove the straw from the area.
- Mold — If mold has developed in the straw you should wear a mask to reduce the chance of inhaling the spores as you spread it across the garden area. Giving a good look over your straw before purchasing and not allowing it to get wet before separating and applying should help prevent this issue.
- Nitrogen — Nitrogen reallocation can be an issue early in the decomposing of the straw. The basics of composting come into play here: browns need greens to start the decomposing process. This is not a long-term problem and can be resolved by applying extra nitrates with the first use of straw in the garden. Once the straw decomposes, the nitrates will be released and become available for utilization by the plants.