Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Using Straw for Mulch in a Vegetable Garden: Pros and Cons

By: Zac Friedman

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Adding a protective layer of mulch to the soil surface can benefit your plants in many ways. One of the most popular and affordable types of mulch for a vegetable garden is straw. 

Straw mulch helps to retain water, suppress weeds, and insulate your soil. It also adds nutrients when it decomposes. Of course, there are some drawbacks to consider as well. Straw doesn’t last as long as other organic mulches. It needs to be replaced frequently.

This guide outlines the pros and cons of using straw as mulch. I’ll also outline several different types of straw mulch and explain how to apply it properly to your garden beds. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not straw is the right mulch for your homestead or organic farm’s veggie garden. 

How to Use Straw Mulch in a Vegetable Garden pin

What is Straw?

Straw comes from the stem of grain crops such as wheat, oats, barley, rice, etc. It is the dry stock of the plant that is left over after the grain has been harvested.

After the plants are harvested, the stocks are dried and then bundled into bales. The straw bales can be broken up and the material can be used as mulch. 

Straw is an environmentally friendly and sustainable material. It is a byproduct of the agriculture industry. 

There are several types of straw. Another popular type of straw that exists is pine straw. This is made from pine needles that have fallen from pine trees. For more info, check out my guide to pine straw mulch. Rice straw is also available. 

A homesteader rolling a wheelbarrow full of straw

10 Benefits of Using Straw Mulch

1. Straw is affordable

Straw is cheaper than most other types of mulch. You can buy a bale of straw for around $9. A bale will cover around 75-100 square feet with 2 inches of straw. To compare, a cubic yard of wood chips will cost around $80-$120 and will cover the same 100 square feet. 

This makes straw far more affordable than other mulches. It’s like 1/10th of the price of wood chips or bark chips.

The cost savings alone is a good reason to choose straw over other organic mulches. You can buy straw at most garden centers. If you have a large area to cover, you can save money by buying multiple bales from local farmers.

A plant with straw mulch

2. Moisture retention

Straw offers excellent moisture retention properties. When spread over the soil, the straw acts as a protective barrier. It minimizes the evaporation of water caused by the sun’s heat and the wind. This is helpful in hot, dry, and windy climates. 

There are several benefits of moisture retention. Most importantly, you don’t have to water as frequently. You don’t have to spend as much time watering and your water bill will be lower. Water conservation is also good for the environment. A consistent soil moisture level also helps in maintaining the health of the plants. 

3. It Helps with Weed Control

Straw can reduce weed growth in a couple of ways. First, it blocks sunlight from reaching the soil. This prevents weed seeds that are already in your garden from growing. The seeds that do manage to germinate won’t grow because they won’t receive any sunlight. 

Straw also creates a protective barrier over the soil. It prevents weed seeds from reaching the soil. If the wind blows in seeds or if birds drop seeds, they won’t be able to reach the soil and establish roots. 

When there are fewer weeds, you don’t have to weed as often. You also won’t have to use herbicides on your garden. This saves you time and money. It’s also more environmentally friendly. 

Having fewer weeds also helps to conserve soil moisture and prevents the depletion of nutrients from the soil. Weeds compete against your plants for resources. Of course, having fewer weeds also helps in maintaining the aesthetic appeal of your garden.

4. It Adds Nutrients to the Soil

Straw can be used as a soil amendment. As the straw decomposes, it releases nutrients into the soil. Straw contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are all important elements that improve soil fertility and support plant growth. 

The extra nutrients are also beneficial to the microorganisms living in the soil. These microorganisms help to break down the straw and make the nutrients available for your plants. 

In addition, the decomposition of the straw adds organic material to the soil. This leads to improved soil structure, promoting better water infiltration and retention. It also builds soil mass. 

Because straw breaks down so quickly, you can use the till method to add nutrients to the soil. When the straw mulch starts to break down, simply till it into the soil and add a new layer on top. This will make your soil healthier and more nutrient-rich. 

An up close view of straw
A close up view of straw

5. Straw Helps Regulate Soil Temperature

Straw acts as a natural regulator of soil temperature. It provides insulation to keep the soil temperature more consistent. This helps to protect your plant roots from extreme heat and cold.

During the summer, the straw helps keep the soil cooler. It creates a barrier that shades the soil. This prevents the soil from overheating. This helps to reduce stress on the plant’s root system due to excessive heat. This is important on scorching hot summer days. 

During the winter, the straw creates a barrier between the soil and the snow and ice. The straw is also able to trap some remaining heat in the soil. This keeps the soil warmer.

In some climates, straw will prevent the ground and your plant roots from freezing. Your plants will remain dormant throughout the winter. They will be more likely to survive the extreme cold. 

Straw mulch can also extend the growing season slightly. Your garden plants will continue growing later into the season because the soil will stay warmer. It won’t freeze as early. This can improve yields. 

Straw also helps to reduce soil temperature swings between the day and the night. It keeps the soil cool during the day and warmer at night. This can reduce stress on your plants. This is important in regions that experience extreme temperature swings between the day and night. 

6. Straw is Easy to Spread

You can easily spread straw with your hands and a rake. Just break up the bale, grab a bunch with your hands, and scatter it over your garden at a depth of around 2 inches. Use a rake to smooth it out to the desired thickness. This is an easy way to mulch your gar garden. 

7. Straw is Easy to Transport

Straw comes nicely packed in bales. It is held together with baling wire or twine. Straw isn’t loose like other types of mulch. This makes it very easy to transport.  You could carry a bale in the trunk of a regular car.

8. It helps prevent soil compaction

Straw maintains its loose structure over time. This allows air and water to easily pass through to the soil. Your plants will receive the necessary nutrients for healthy growth.

Straw doesn’t easily compact. Even under various environmental pressures such as foot traffic or heavy rainfall. This helps in preventing the soil underneath from becoming compacted as well. 

Compacted soil can restrict the root growth of plants and slow the movement of water, oxygen, and essential nutrients through the soil. The resistance of compaction helps maintain healthy soil.

9. It reduces soil erosion

Straw protects the soil by absorbing some water and slowing runoff. This helps keep the soil particles in place during heavy rain. It also reduces nutrient leaching. Straw can be helpful in areas that experience erosion. It’s best not to leave bare earth. 

10. It’s environmentally friendly

Straw is a natural product. It is organic matter. It breaks down completely over time. In addition, straw is basically a waste product. It is not produced specifically for mulch. It is a byproduct of agriculture. Not trees need to be cut down for straw to be produced. 

A bale of straw

6 Drawbacks of Straw Mulch

1. It can attract pests

When you use straw as mulch, it can attract rodents. They enjoy burrowing in the warm and soft material. Straw is commonly used as animal bedding so it’s no surprise that rodents enjoy it.

A great way to keep rodents away is to regularly water. They won’t live in the wet material. If you have a serious rodent problem already, it’s best to avoid straw. 

One good thing about straw is that it can decrease the insect populations. 

2. It can contain seeds

Most garden straw that you buy will contain some seeds. After you apply the mulch, you may see some wheat or barley start to sprout. You can pull it pretty easily but it is another job you’ll have to do. 

To reduce the number of seeds, shake out the straw before you apply it. Most of the seeds will fall out. There shouldn’t be any seed heads because they will have been harvested. 

3. It can blow around in the wind

Straw is a lightweight material. In a strong wind, it can get blown around. Some of the straw might end up in your yard on your lawn. In this case, you’ll have to rake it back into your flower beds. 

The wind can also make the distribution of the mulch less even. There may be bare spots after a storm. You might have to use a rake to re-spread parts of it after heavy winds. 

4. Straw doesn’t last very long

Straw mulch decomposes much faster than other types of mulch such as wood chips or bark. This means it needs to be replaced more frequently.

Ideally, you should apply straw at least twice per year. You can put the old straw in your compost pile or simply apply a new layer over the old. The good news is that straw is cheap and easy to spread.

To keep the straw looking fresh, you’ll have to add a layer every couple of weeks. This adds a lot of work. 

On average, gardeners add a layer of straw once per season. Once in the spring, once in the summer, once in the winter, and once in the fall. 

Other types of mulch can last much longer. Most gardeners apply a fresh layer of wood chip mulch or bark mulch once every year or two. Some types of mulch, such as cedar chips, can last for 3-4 years. Inorganic mulches, like lava rocks last far longer. 

5. It doesn’t add many nutrients

Many gardeners add mulch for the nutritional benefit. Straw is mostly made up of carbon. It adds some nutrients as it breaks down but it is not a great source of nitrogen. 

One technique is to add a layer of nitrogen rich material before you spread the straw. For example, you could spread some compost, fresh grass clippings, or aged manure and then apply the mulch. This will provide your garden with the nitrogen it needs. 

6. It’s not the most attractive mulch

Looks are subjective but I don’t care for the look of straw on a garden. For this reason, I wouldn’t use it in my front yard. I only use it in my garden in my back yard.

If you live in the city, straw mulch might not blend in. It looks like a farm. For aesthetics, I prefer cedar mulch and pine bark. 

Straw Vs Mulch: Which is Better?

When most people think of mulch, they probably imagine wood chips, shredded bark, or compost. Straw is actually a type of mulch. 

The best mulch for your garden depends on your goals, your budget, and your personal preference. There are a number of differences between straw mulches and other popular types of mulch. 

Straw is cheaper, easier to spread, and provides better insulation than many other types of mulch.

Other types of mulch can retain more moisture, add more nutrients, and stay in place better. Some mulches are also more aesthetically pleasing. 

There are also some mulches that are very similar to straw. Hay is often confused with straw. Hay is a type of grass that is grown for animal feed. It is made up of a number of different plants. Hay is usually harvested after it goes to seed. It has similar properties to straw but it can introduce more weeds into your garden. It’s also a little more expensive.  

Pine needles are another similar type of straw mulch. One potential drawback is that they can be slightly acidic. They can lower the pH of your soil. Other than that, they perform similarly to straw. They are also affordable. You can get them for free if you have pine trees on your property.

Another type of mulch that is becoming increasingly common is rice straw. This is a byproduct of rice production. It is removed with the grains. The main benefit of rice straw is that it is clean. It does not have any seeds. It can attract pests. Rice straw offers the same benefits as regular straw.  

Pine needles
Pine straw (pine needles) can also make great mulch

How to Apply Straw

  1. Start by loosening the straw- Straw comes compacted in bales. Cut the bale open and loosen the straw so it’s not compacted. Straw is packed in layers. You can simply use your hands to pull it apart and loosen it. 
  2. Shake out the seeds- Straw often has some seeds in it. For best results, you want to remove as many seeds as possible so they don’t sprout up in your garden. The easiest way to remove the seeds is to shake the straw. Most of the seeds and chaff will fall out.
  3. Spread the straw- Use your hands to evenly spread a thick layer of straw over your garden. The layer of straw should be 2-4” deep. Be careful not to cover up an seedlings or plants so you don’t smother them. When your plants are seedlings, only apply a thin layer of straw. Add more when they’re larger. Leave a couple of inches between the straw and the stems of plants. This allows for airflow and reduces the risk of disease or fungus. If you’re spreading straw over old mulch or another type of mulch, the total depth of mulch should not exceed 4”. Don’t apply too much mulch or you can limit airflow and moisture 

It’s also a good idea to apply a layer of organic mulch such as grass clippings, manure, or compost before applying straw. This will help to increase the nutrients in your soil. This is particularly important if your soil is lacking certain nutrients, such as nitrogen. Before applying straw, consider doing a soil test to see if your soil is deficient in any nutrients. 

How Much Straw Do I Need?

Straw is sold in bales. The size of these bales varies. An average bale of straw measures 36” x 18” x 14” and contains around 20 cubic feet of straw. This is enough to cover around 80 square feet at a depth of 3 inches. 

The best way to determine how much straw you need is to measure your garden. Divide the square footage by 80 to determine how many bales of straw you need. You may need to adjust based on the depth that you want to apply the straw. 

If you have a small garden, you can buy smaller quantities of straw. You don’t have to buy a full bale. There are companies selling straw mulch by the box online. A box may cover 40-60 square feet. You can have it delivered to your door. 

If you have a large area to cover, like several acres, you may need tons of straw. On average, you’ll need 1-2 tons of straw mulch per acre. 

It’s important to note that not all straw is the same. Quality varies. Look for straw that has not been treated with pesticides or herbicides. Any chemicals that are on the straw will end up in your garden. There is organic straw that is pesticide free.  This is important if you’re an organic gardener. You should also look for bales that are advertised as weed-free straw.

Before buying straw, take a look at the bales. Make sure that they are clean and dry. They should be free of mold. If you spot any defects, go somewhere else. 

This tool can help you calculate how many bales of straw you need to cover your garden.

Large bales of straw on a farm
If you have a large area to cover, you can buy large bales of straw

How Much Does Straw Mulch Cost?

On average, a bale of straw costs around $6-$10. The exact cost will depend on where you live. 

If you have a 200 square foot garden, you will need 2-3 bales, depending on the depth that you want. This will cost you anywhere from $12 to $30. 

One important thing to keep in mind is that straw needs to be replaced more frequently than other types of mulch. To keep it looking fresh, you’ll have to apply it 2-4 times per year. This is the case because it degrades quickly. This adds to the cost.

Other types of mulch will last 1-2 years or more. Straw is still cheaper but not by as much as you might think. 

For example, a cubic yard of bark mulch might cost $50 and cover 80-100 square feet. Bark mulch will last for around 2 years.

For the same coverage for 2 years worth of straw, you would need 4-5 bales if you were to apply fresh straw 2 times per year. That would cost you around $40. As you can see, the savings is not that significant.   

When to Apply Straw Mulch

You can apply straw mulch in any season. The best time to apply it depends on the climate you live in and what you’re growing.

  • Fall- The fall is a great time of year to apply straw. It will help to insulate your plants from the frigid winter. You’ll also be ready for the spring. Try not to mulch too early. Ideally, you should wait until the first freeze then apply your mulch. Fall is the ideal time to mulch if you live in a cold climate with winters where the weather is regularly below freezing. 
  • Winter- You can also wait until the winter months to apply straw. This can be a good time if you live in milder climates. It makes a great winter mulch. Don’t wait until too late into the winter to mulch. You should apply your straw after the first hard frost. This can prevent heaving. Heaving is when large temperature fluctuations cause the plants to uproot. This happens when the water in the soil continuously freezes and thaws. If the ground is insulated with straw, this won’t happen. If you mulch too late, the straw can keep the ground too cold. This can kill your plants.
  • Spring- Spring is an excellent time to apply straw. Particularly if you live in a dry area. If you mulch in the spring, try not to mulch too early. Let the ground warm up naturally. If you mulch too early, the straw can insulate the ground and keep it too cold. Mulching in the spring helps to keep the weeds down and gives your yard a nice clean look.
  • Summer- The summer months can also be a great time to apply straw. The straw will help to retain moisture so you don’t have to water as often. You can use around 30% less water if you mulch with straw. It will also help to keep the weeds down and help prevent rot.  

Because mulch degrades so quickly, you may choose to mulch 2-4 times per year in different seasons.

Final Thoughts About Straw Mulch

Straw mulch is affordable and easy to spread. It also helps to suppress weeds and retain moisture in your garden. 

Sometimes, another type of mulch is the better choice. There are other mulch options to consider such as wood chips, bark, or inorganic mulches. In some cases, these mulches can perform better than pine straw. They may last longer and add more nutrients to your garden.

At the end of the day, the best mulch option for your vegetable plants comes down to personal preference and the climate of the region where you live. Whichever type of mulch you choose, I hope this guide helps you in making your decision. 

Do you use straw mulch? Share your experience in the comments below!

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