Hay and Straw as Winter Mulch

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Using hay and straw as a winter mulch is an excellent plan for the winter season. Last year I experimented with using a cover crop or “living mulch” as part of my winter garden plan. This winter I was pressed for time (actually, I procrastinated) and didn’t secure rye seed to use as a winter cover crop. So Plan B—hay or straw—it is.

First, what are the differences between straw and hay?

  • Straw are the dry stems of a grass or grain, such as wheat or rye, that are left behind after the grain has been harvested from it. It’s commonly used as bedding for animals.
  • Hay is also a grass (also alfalfa), but its seed heads have been left on the stem. It is used as food for animals such as cows and horses.

So, think of a horse in its stall. It’s eating hay as it’s laying on its bed of straw.

With the wheat or rye grains (mostly) removed, straw has little chance of seeding itself into a garden bed. That’s a good thing. Hay on the other hand, with its seeds still on the stems, has the potential to seed itself and cause unwanted “weeds,” or bunches of grain growing in your bed where it is not wanted. Straw, then, would be better as a mulch in the garden.

Right?

Well, here is an argument I have heard FOR using hay instead of straw as a mulch in the garden. Hay has more nutrition than straw because of those seeds. When it breaks down, those nutrients are released into the ground where they are then taken up by the plants. The whole circle of life thing. Some folks who do use hay as mulch will use bales of hay that have been sitting around outside for a year or so, either at a farm or at the back of their own garden. Old hay bales have already started to break down and the chances of them contributing seeds to the garden is much less.

This year I used straw as my winter mulch. Why? Because that’s what my brother had in the barn when I went for a visit. You can see from the photo that my winterized plot with a straw mulch looks a lot lighter in color than my neighboring gardeners who used hay. I’m hoping the straw will start to break down a bit during the winter, and come spring I will work it into my soil. If it doesn’t break down, then I will have a bed of mulch that I can plant into—no additional mulch needed.

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