Why would that make a difference to us in the garden? The problem lies with hay. Hay often is made up of a combination of different plants growing in a field or meadow. Farmers will cut and bale the plants in a field like that to feed to dairy cows that are in their resting stage, called dry cows. That kind of hay is of low quality and is less nutritious than say alfalfa hay, but that is fine for dry cows because they don’t require dense nutrition when they’re not producing milk.
Hay is a crop that is grown and harvested as a feed crop for cattle, horses and other farm animals. Straw on the other hand is a byproduct of a grain crop; in our area it’s usually usually wheat straw that we see.
Composting hay can reduce the number of weed seeds to a minimum but that has to be done the right way in order for the compost to reach a high enough temperature to kill the seeds. I’d be wary of composted hay unless you’re sure of how it was composted.
Nowadays people use the terms hay and straw interchangeably, and in most cases, it makes no difference whatsoever. For example, we say we were on a hayride at a get-together even though the wagons are filled with straw rather than hay. Straw ride just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Granted, there are exceptions to the rule. You can find weed-free hay, such as 100% alfalfa or timothy but these can be expensive. Sometimes straw can be highly contaminated with weeds if it was grown in less than optimum conditions.
In a garden, however, getting the two confused can lead to problems in the future. Hay and straw are often both used as weed control mulch in the garden but the results you get can be quite different.
You never know what plant combination you’ll get in a random bale of hay. More often than not they contain weeds that you can inadvertently introduce to your property. I’ve seen such tenacious perennial weeds like thistle come into a garden as a result of their seeds hiding inside a bale of hay.
Be aware of the difference between hay and straw when shopping for mulch.
Straw on the other hand, is much better for use as a garden mulch. Since wheat and other grain crops are so competitive in a field, they suppress the growth of many weeds. Farmers also will control weeds one way or another to ensure the highest yields they can get of valuable grain. That results in straw with no or very little weed contamination.
Sometimes you’ll see “spoiled hay” that may be high quality hay that was left outside in the weather and began to get moldy making it unacceptable as a livestock feed. That can be okay for use in the garden if you know it came from quality hay.
Rice straw is very good, as it rarely carries weed seeds, but wheat straw mulch in gardens is more readily available and will work just as well.
The first key to using straw as mulch is in finding the right types of straw garden mulch. Some straw mulches may be mixed with hay, which can weed seeds that can sprout in your garden rows. Look for a supplier that sells guaranteed weed-free straw.
Straw will compost pretty quickly in most garden settings. Check the depth of the layer in between rows after about six weeks. You’ll probably need to add another layer, to the depth of 2 or 3 inches (5-8 cm.), to help keep the weeds down and moisture in the soil during the hottest part of summer.
Best Types of Straw Garden Mulch.
If you’re not using mulch in your vegetable garden, you’re doing entirely too much work. Mulch helps to hold in moisture, so you don’t have to water as often; it shades out weed seedlings, cutting down on weeding time; and it composts into nutrients and amendments for the soil. Straw is one of the best mulch materials you can use around your vegetable plants. It’s clean, it’s light, and it breaks down relatively easily, giving your plants more of what they need to grow. Let’s find out more about using straw mulch for gardening.
Place the straw in a 3 to 6 inch (8-15 cm.) layer in between the rows and between the plants in each row. If you’re growing a square-foot garden, keep the straw to the center aisles between each garden block. Keep the straw away from the leaves and stems of the plants, as it may spread fungus to your garden crops.
How to use straw mulch in the garden is easy. Bales of straw are so compressed that you might be surprised at how much of your garden one bale will cover. Always start with one and buy more if it’s needed. Place the bale at one end of the garden and clip the ties that run around the bale. Insert a trowel or sharp shovel to help break up the bale into pieces.
If you’re growing potatoes, straw is the ideal way to hill the area around the stem. Usually when gardeners grow potatoes, they hoe the soil around the plant and pull loose soil into a hill around the potato plant. This allows more potato tubers to grow along the stem underneath the soil. If you pile straw around potatoes instead of hilling up the soil, the potatoes will grow cleaner and be easier to find at the end of the season. Some gardeners avoid using soil at all for their potato plants, and just use successive layers of straw added throughout the growing season.
Tips for Using Straw as Mulch for Vegetables.
A 2-inch-thick layer of straw is deep enough to provide the most benefits, including moisture retention, weed suppression and temperature control. When spreading the straw, pull it back from the base of the plants so it doesn’t rest against the stems. If bare soil shows through the straw, you aren’t using enough.
Straw breaks down quickly, so it will need to be replenished throughout the growing season to maintain the depth. It’s also not the most attractive mulching material, which makes it most suited to vegetable gardens, according to Clemson Cooperative Extension. If you want to use it in ornamental beds, consider covering the straw with a thin layer of a more attractive mulch, such as bark chips.
Straw or hay for garden mulch improves the soil and protects your plants from drought stress and weeds. Using straw on garden beds is a low cost option that works exceptionally well in most applications. Straw comes in compressed bales and even a small bale usually provides enough mulch for a small garden. Selecting the best type of straw and using it correctly provides the most benefits to the soil and plants.
Straw suitable for use as a mulch contains no seed heads and is generally seed-free, otherwise it may introduce weeds into the garden. If you have a choice between straw or hay for garden mulch, choose straw. Hay is not a replacement for straw because hay generally still contains the grain heads. Chopped straw works well in gardens because the shorter lengths allow it to break down faster and make it easier to arrange around your plants.
Store any extra straw in a dry area so it doesn’t decompose. You can use the extra straw to replenish the mulch later in the season or to cover empty beds in winter.
How to Spread Straw.
The coarse texture of straw helps it trap air, which provides soil insulation and protects the garden bed from temperature fluctuations. The straw is also porous and allows moisture to seep down into the soil, notes University of California Sonoma County Master Gardeners. Like most mulch materials, straw helps conserve soil moisture and prevents rapid soil drying and drought stress.
Using straw to kill weeds is also effective, as it suppresses most unwanted plants so they can’t grow and establish in the bed. Straw keeps developing fruits clean, especially vine varieties like melons, tomatoes and squash that usually sit directly on top the soil.
The type of straw also determines its propensity for weed problems. Rice straw contains no seeds, while wheat and oat straw require a month-long exposure to winter rains so the seeds are rendered unviable.
Straw bales also become exceptionally heavy when wet. Place bales near the area they are needed so you don’t have to move them later. Uses for straw bales that are left over include seasonal autumn decorations, mulching around perennial plants in the fall and insulating around the foundations of old buildings.