Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

The Best Mulch for Strawberries: Straw or Wood Chips?

By: Zac Friedman

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The best mulch for strawberry plants is clean organic mulch like straw, pine needles, or shredded leaves. You can also use other types of organic mulch such as wood chips, bark nuggets, or grass clippings.

Mulch is beneficial for strawberries. It can protect them from the cold, help keep the weeds down, and provide valuable nutrients as it degrades. In this guide, I’ll outline some of the best mulches for strawberries and outline the benefits of each. I’ll also explain how and when to mulch your strawberry beds for the best results. 

The Best Mulch for Strawberries

Why Mulch Strawberry Plants?

Strawberries are perennial plants. They grow great in temperate climates. They can survive cold winters but they do need a bit of extra winter protection to survive in extremely cold climates. The crown and root system of strawberries can be sensitive to freezing temperatures. 

This is because strawberries have a shallow root system. The roots of June-bearing strawberries only go about 6” deep. The root system of Day-neutral strawberries only goes 3-4” deep. Mulching can protect the roots from cold injuries. Mulch can also protect the crown. This is important because the crown because is where the new leaves, runners, and flower buds all develop. New growth is particularly sensitive to cold winter temperatures. New plants are also more sensitive than established plants. 

Mulch creates a protective barrier between the soil surface and the snow and ice. This helps keep the soil a little bit warmer during the winter. It acts as insulation. Mulch can also be beneficial in the summer months. It helps shade the soil to keep it a little cooler. Mulch can also reduce temperature swings between the day and night. This can reduce stress on the plants. 

Mulching has a number of other benefits for strawberries. Most importantly, it adds valuable nutrients to the soil such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. This can help improve yields. As the mulch degrades, it also adds organic matter. This improves the soil structure, making it more fertile.

Mulch also helps keep the weeds down by blocking weed seeds from reaching the soil. It helps retain soil moisture so the plants always have enough water. In addition, it can help with erosion control. It can also help prevent soil compaction by absorbing impacts from rain and people walking on the soil. It’s easier for the strawberry roots to spread when the soil isn’t compacted. 

Another major benefit is that mulch keeps your strawberries clean. Instead of resting directly on the soil, the strawberries rest on the mulch. You can simply rinse them off before eating. They aren’t exposed to contaminants in the soil. Mulch can also help prevent disease and fungus from spreading from the soil to your strawberries. 

The Best Mulch for Strawberries

Strawberries growing with straw mulch

Straw

Straw is the best and most common type of mulch for strawberry plants. It’s cheap and widely available. All garden centers carry it. It’s also easy to apply. Just grab a bundle and scatter it around the base of your plants. A 4-8” thick layer of straw is ideal. It settles down to 3-4″ over time. When you’re mulching in the winter, you can completely cover your strawberries if you choose. This can help keep them warmer.  

Straw acts as an insulator and helps keep the soil temperature more consistent. Straw can help trap snow, which helps insulate strawberries during the winter. It’s a good winter mulch.

Straw also helps retain moisture in the soil. It also keeps the weeds down. Straw also breaks down quickly. When it breaks down, it provides valuable nutrients for your strawberries. It also adds organic matter to the soil, improving soil quality. Straw can also help to protect your strawberry plants from disease. 

A bale of straw
Straw is usually sold in bales

Wheat and rye straw are both good choices. You could also use rice straw. It’s best to avoid hay because it can contain seeds. These can sprout and take nutrients from your strawberries. Straw can also contain weed seeds. It’s best to buy straw that’s made for mulching. 

When buying straw, look for chopped straw instead of baled straw. Chopped straw is usually cleaner. Clean straw doesn’t contain as much dust. It will also have fewer seeds. Straw that is designed to be used for mulching is sometimes advertised as seed-free straw.

One potential drawback of straw is that it can blow around during heavy winds. After it snows, it will usually freeze in place.  It also degrades quickly. You will need to add a fresh layer several times per year.

For more in-depth info, check out my guide to mulching with straw. 

Shredded Leaves

Leaves
Leaves can make great mulch for strawberries as long as they’re shredded first

Shredded leaves also make great mulch for strawberry plants. They are easy to apply. They help insulate the soil and keep the soil temperature more consistent. In addition, they help with moisture retention. When they break down, they introduce nutrients and organic material into the soil. This is all great for your strawberries. 

Maybe the best thing about leaf mulch is that it’s free. You can use the leaves that fall from the trees around your home. Just rake them up then shred them and scatter them around the base of your plants. Check out my guide to shredding leaves for mulch for more info.

It’s important to shred the leaves before applying them. If you apply whole leaves, they can prevent water and air from reaching the soil. They can also trap too much moisture in the soil and cause molding and disease. Whole leaves also take too long to degrade.

Pine Straw (Pine Needles)

Pine straw is another free type of mulch that works great for strawberries. It helps insulate the soil, retain moisture, and suppress weeds. It’s also easy to apply. Before you apply pine straw, let it dry out. Apply a layer 2-3” thick around the plants. 

Pine needle mulch won’t add many nutrients to your soil but it is still a good soil cover for strawberry plants. It can also help keep certain pests away, such as slugs. It can also help insulate your plants from cold temperatures. Maybe the best thing about pine straw is that it’s free if you have pine trees on your property. It’s one of the best mulch materials for strawberries. 

One potential drawback of pine straw is that it can make your soil more acidic. This is only an issue if you apply fresh pine straw.

For more info, check out my guide to the pros and cons of pine straw mulch.

Wood Chips or Bark Chips

Wood chips mulch

These aren’t the best mulches for strawberries but they can work fine if it’s all you have. There are lots of different options when it comes to bark and wood chip mulch. They both come in a range of different textures from small shreds to large nuggets. Different trees are used including pine, cedar, hemlock, oak, and more. These mulches come in different colors from dark brown to red.

 Bark chips and wood chips are popular choices for those who care about aesthetics. These are some of the most attractive mulches. This makes them a good choice for your front yard. They can enhance the curb appeal of your home.

Bark and wood mulches also don’t break down as quickly as other types of mulch. This means they last longer so they don’t have to be replaced as often. They can last several years.

The main drawback is that they don’t add as many nutrients to the soil as other types of mulch. They are also a bit more expensive. 

Another drawback to consider is that some wood mulches can make your soil more acidic (lower the pH). Strawberry plants like soil that is slightly acidic but not too much. They prefer a soil with a pH of 5.3-6.5.  If you already have acidic soil, you might want to avoid wood mulch. 

Wood and bark mulches can also temporarily deplete nitrogen from the soil. Microorganisms use the nitrogen in the soil for fuel. After the mulch decomposes, the nitrogen is released back into the soil. As long as you don’t mix the wood or bark into the soil, you don’t need to worry about nitrogen depletion. 

Cedar mulch can be a good choice for strawberries because it has some insect-repellant properties. Cedar contains natural oils that some pests don’t like. 

Compost

Compost bins

Compost is another great mulch for strawberries. You can use either homemade compost that you made from kitchen scraps and yard waste or you can use storebought compost like manure. Apply a layer of compost around 0.5-1” thick around your strawberry plants. It’s best to apply it in the spring. You can then apply another mulch, like straw, on top.

There are a number of benefits of compost. Most importantly, it provides plenty of valuable nutrients to your strawberry plants. Compost is high in nitrogen and other important nutrients. These nutrients will slowly be released into the soil to feed your plants. This will improve yields. 

Compost also improves the soil structure by adding organic matter to the soil. This helps the soil retain more moisture and resist compaction. This makes the soil more fertile.

There are a couple of drawbacks. Compost can be smelly. It also takes a long time to make your own compost. 

Cardboard or Newspaper

Cardboard and newspaper are great mulches for weed control. They break down over time, unlike landscaping fabric. They can also be found for free. 

Before applying cardboard, make sure you remove all tape, staples, and stickers from the boxes. Don’t use any glossy cardboard or newspaper. Apply a layer around your strawberries to smother the weeds. You will need to apply a layer of another type of mulch on top to hold the cardboard in place. 

For more info on this technique, check out my guide to sheet mulching. 

Shredded Paper

Shredded paper can help retain moisture, keep the weeds down, and insulate your strawberries. It’s also environmentally friendly and available for free. 

Simply apply a layer around your strawberry plants and add some heavier mulch on top to hold it in place.  This is important so it doesn’t blow away in the wind. 

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are another great free source of mulch. When you’re mowing your lawn, catch them in a bag or rake them up then lay them out to dry. After they’re dry, you can use them as mulch around your strawberries. 

It’s important to let grass clippings dry before applying them because they can hold too much moisture and mold if you apply them when they’re green. When this happens, they can get smelly and they can potentially spread mold to your plants. They can also form into a mat that blocks air and water from reaching the soil. When they’re dry, they are looser and less likely to mold. 

Grass clippings are an excellent source of nitrogen. They also help keep the weeds down. You can also mix them with another type of mulch such as straw or leaves if you don’t have enough. You will need to add fresh grass clippings periodically throughout the growing season because they degrade quickly. 

Living Mulch (Cover Crops)

A cover crop is a crop that is planted in the late fall, early winter, or in the early spring. It helps control weeds. The crop is tilled under before it goes to seed. This provides nutrients for your strawberries. A few popular cover crops include ryegrass and clover. This is a modern mulching technique that is becoming increasingly popular among gardeners.

Ramial Mulch

Ramial mulch is a type of wood chips made from young green tree branches. The branches usually come from pruning fruit trees. You can make your own ramial mulch from trees on your property or you can buy it. 

Ramial mulch provides lots of valuable nutrients. The young branches contain more nutrients than regular wood chips. It improves soil fertility. This mulch also helps retain soil moisture, keep the weeds down, and slow erosion. 

Chop and Drop Mulch

Chop and drop is a method of mulching with plant leaves. You chop off the green tops and use the material as mulch. You can use pretty much any type of plant. Some popular options include rhubarb, lemongrass, comfrey, etc. Use whatever is growing in your yard, including weeds. As long as it hasn’t gone to seed, you can use it. Just chop it up and lay it around your strawberries in a layer 2-3” thick. 

This is a great free source of mulch. It’s a great way of keeping yard waste out of the landfill or your compost pile. The plants will provide plenty of nutrients as they degrade. 

There are some drawbacks to consider. You can accidentally spread weed seeds if you apply plants that have gone to seed. It can also look messy. This method also doesn’t provide much insulation for your strawberries. 

Plastic Sheeting or Landscape Fabric

Plastic mulches can be a good option for growing strawberries in colder climates and dry climates. Black plastic mulch absorbs heat from the sun, which helps keep the soil warmer. It also acts as a barrier to reduce evaporation. This is helpful in areas that experience drought. 

Because plastic sheeting is inorganic, it doesn’t add any nutrients to the soil. It can also degrade over time and introduce microplastics into the soil. Many organic gardeners don’t like using synthetic materials in their gardens. Plastic sheeting and landscape fabric can also become an eyesore once it gets torn.

Rock Mulch

Rock mulch can offer a nice aesthetic for your garden. It can also help with weed suppression. There are a few different types of rock mulch to choose from including lava rock, pea gravel, and river rock.

There are quite a few drawbacks. Rock mulch does not add any nutrients to the soil because it’s inorganic. It does help regulate soil temperature but it can hold heat. Rock mulch is also difficult to remove. It can get pushed into he soil and mix with it. 

For more info, check out my guide to rock mulch.

Strawberries growing on a farm

When to Apply Mulch to Strawberry Plants

The best time to apply mulch depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re mulching to protect your plants from the cold, the best time to mulch is in the late fall after it starts to frost. Early November is a good time to mulch strawberries in most of the U.S. You want to apply mulch before it gets too cold and the soil starts to freeze. You could also mulch in the late summer or early fall.

If you’re mulching to provide nutrients to your plants and keep the weeds down, the best time to mulch is in the early spring before the weeds start coming up.

If you use straw mulch, you may have to apply another layer during the year. Straw mulch degrades pretty quickly. 

How to Mulch Strawberries

  1. Select the right type of mulch- I think straw is best. You could also use any of the other mulches outlined above. When choosing a mulch, make sure it doesn’t contain any chemical treatments such as herbicides. Also, make sure it doesn’t contain any weed seeds or other contaminants.
  2. Clear the area around your strawberries- Before you apply mulch, remove any weeds around your strawberry plants. If there is grass growing around them, remove it.
  3. Add some compost (optional)- If you choose, you can add a layer of compost or manure before applying the mulch. This will help add some nutrients to the soil. If you do this, be sure not to cover the crown of the strawberries because it is susceptible to rot.
  4. Apply a thick layer of mulch around the base of your strawberries- The mulch can go right up to the plant. Ideally, you want your mulch to be 2-4 inches thick. If you’re applying straw, pile it 4-6” thick when you apply it. It will settle down to around 2-3”. If you choose, you can cover your strawberries with a thin layer of mulch in the winter. Make sure the mulch is loose. Some types of mulch can get compacted and block water and air from reaching the soil. This can be a problem with shredded leaves. 
  5. Water- After applying mulch, water thoroughly. After watering, stick your finger through the mulch to feel the soil underneath. Make sure it’s wet. If it’s not, your mulch may be blocking the water flow. Remove some. It’s also a good idea to check the moisture level of your soil periodically. Mulch can retain too much moisture. Overly moist soil cause root rot. If the soil stays too wet for too long, remove some mulch.
  6. Apply fresh mulch as necessary- Add a fresh mulch layer after it decays. Some mulch degrades faster than others. For example, straw degrades quickly. You may need to add some fresh mulch a couple of times each year. If you apply straw in late November, you might need to add some more in the following spring. Wood chips degrade much more slowly. Ideally, the mulch should never exceed 4″ in depth.
Strawberry plants

My Experience

I use straw mulch for my strawberry patch. It’s cheap, easy to apply, and it works well. I also like the way it looks in my garden. If I don’t have any straw, sometimes I’ll use shredded leaves. They work well and they’re free. I just use my lawnmower to shred some leaves.

Mulch can protect your strawberries all winter long. Early in the season, it protects them from the cold before the snow arrives. In the late winter, it protects them after the snow melts away. In mild climates, you may not need to mulch but it can still provide many benefits.

The best type of mulch for strawberries is straw but you can really use any type of mulch you have on hand. Strawberries are tough plants. They aren’t really picky. One thing to avoid is covering the crown of the plant with material that holds too much water. This can cause rot. 

Mulching helps your strawberries survive the winter. In addition, it helps prevent weeds, retains moisture, and provides nutrients for your strawberries. It can help increase yields. There is really no drawback to mulching strawberries. If you take care of your plants, you’ll end up with a nice harvest in the summer.

Do you mulch your strawberry plants? Share your tips in the comments below!

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The Best Mulch for Strawberries

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