The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Straw Mulch

May 12th, 2009 · 8 Comments · Posted in Blog, garden

The broccoli plants are very cozy in their straw beds

The broccoli plants are very cozy in their straw beds

I like to mulch with straw in our vegetable beds. It sets off the plants nicely and gives the garden a clean look. It does everything else a good mulch should do as well, retaining moisture in the soil and holding down weeds. Eventually straw just seems to melt into the soil, adding more organic matter for the plants to feed on. And at less than $6 for a whole bale at the farm supply, straw seems like a bargain mulch.

Straw has just one drawback: it’s not so easy to work with around small plants. The long, stiff stems are always getting in the way. Sometimes trying to spread straw in tight places is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. But I love straw so much that I found a way to make it more workable: I run it through my leaf shredder.

I originally bought the leaf shredder (really a weed whacker in a can) for making compost. It turns bags of fallen leaves into crumbs. It does much the same thing with straw, taking those long, tough stems and breaking them down into little bitty pieces.

Now spreading mulch around my tomato plants or broccoli plants or squash plants is a joy that takes no time at all, like stuffing goose down into a pillow. It’s such a pleasure, and the plants are so happy you can almost hear them purr.

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  • ppolischuk

    Ed, I picked up on your shredded straw technique when you mulched your garlic earlier this year. You’re right, it’s a joy to apply. The soil beneath the straw is moist, crumbly, and happy.

    I’m a shredded straw believer.

  • skylarkmountain

    We use old hay that is no longer usable for feed, but perfect for the garden. Our neighbors are glad to give it to us for free, just to get rid of it. We like hay because it adds more nutrients back into the soil than straw does, and because it’s old it isn’t as likely to seed as new hay would be.

    We do a “No-Dig” Garden and spread a heavy layer of hay on in the fall. Come spring we’ll add more to cover any weeds that come up. To plant my seedlings I use a dibbler and make a hole through the mulch to plant the seedling. It’s planted and mulched at the same time. Usually I don’t need to add more mulch until the plants get bigger and so it’s easy. This is just our second season of not tilling and using the heavy mulch method, but so far it’s very successful and a much easier way to garden.

  • Ed Bruske

    PP, I’m glad this method is working for you. Hopefully you don’t have too far to go to get your straw. I usually pick mine up when I’m visiting the in-laws in Annapolis, at the farm supply. But for D.C. residents, I know there is a small garden center on New York Avenue NE, at Montana Ave., that sells straw. But you might also ask your local hardware store to order you some.

    Skylark, I like your method. I don’t have access to old hay, and of course weed seeds are a big issue with hay. But I like the idea of planting seedlings through the mulch. Most of my garden is grows from seeds planted directly in the soil. I just don’t have a lot of room for growing seedlings. Plus, I have been banking on crops planted close together mulching themselves, meaning, they create so much shade on the ground the weeds don’t have much of a chance. Still, we do a lot of weeding. I continue to evaluate. There are definitely advantages to having the soil covered with a thick layer of mulch as quickly as possible.

  • skylarkmountain

    Have you read Ruth Stout? She was big I think in the fifties and her books are out of print, so you have to buy used. The no-dig method seems to be having a bit of a resurgence and we’re still working out some of the logistics. I planted my peas with a dibbler instead of laying out a row with the hoe as we used to do. For the beets I raked back the loose hay and lay the seed on the ground and then covered with hay. Same with the potatoes, and we’re building them up with hay instead of dirt. Beans will be the dibbler, carrots — I’ll let you know :-)

  • Ed Bruske

    Skylark, the name Ruth Stout is ringing some bells, but not because I own any of her books. No-till is making a resurgence, because it retains carbon in the soil and preserves the soil ecosystem. I don’t completely understand the details (I spent a day trying to pick lettuce on a friend’s no-till farm–it wasn’t easy), but then I really don’t need to because I don’t till my garden. At the beginning of the season I sink my forked spaid into the soil and give it a gentle little heave, just to loosen it a little. But I’m finding that loosening is less and less necessary as the years go by, the compost we add with each no planting works wonders to keep the soil friable. I also am building up around the potato plants with straw instead of soil. It hasn’t produced more potatoes in the past. But then I wasn’t shredding my straw then–it wasn’t as dense. We’ll see.

  • ppolischuk

    I picked up two bales in a zipcar over the winter from the place out on New York Ave. NE. At the time they were an Obama merchandise superstore, but they still had a few wet bales of straw they were willing to sell for $6/bale. I think Old City Green might be selling straw now. If they are, they’re close enough to attempt a cargo bike straw bale adventure.

  • ken

    I like to use grass clippings as well. Grass clippings have a higher N:C ratio. To make straw easier to work with run it through a lawn mower or shredder first. If you can get old alfalfa hay that works well too.

  • Joyce

    Ruth Stout was the first person to publish her findings on mulching her garden with straw. She was popular in the 50′s 60′s and 70′s until her death. She wrote for Organic Gardening magazine and published several books. She also described her method of slow cooking which was to put a roast or turkey in the oven at the desired internal temp of the final product and cook it all day and it would never overcook. She and I both cooked meat in an oven in a large brown grocery bag. They meat was flavorfull and fell off the bones. I would put meat from the freezer into the bags, too. I used a bale of straw for mulch and had great results but dug out alfalfa all over the place the next year. Am trying to figure something elso out.