Straw for garden mulch

Don’t Confuse Straw with Hay (Or Hay with Straw…) And what about “Straw Bale Gardening”?

Q. Mike knows a lot, and I love the show (I listen on KSFC; 91.9 FM), but on a recent program he referred to hay and straw as if they were interchangeable. Straw is a stalk, usually a waste product of wheat, that’s used as bedding for barnyard animals. Hay—typically alfalfa or a grass—is used as animal feed.

    —Mary Beth in Spokane (Washington)

A. I can think of a lot of times when I spelled out the differences between hay and straw, but never when I confused them. And luckily, I think I’m innocent this time as well, although I could maybe have used slightly clearer language. Mary Beth is referring to a phone call that aired on the show several weeks ago about ‘straw bale gardening’. I explained that one of my (many) objections to this method was the fact that the original material was almost certainly sprayed with lots of chemical pesticides and herbicides. But I added that if you knew an organic farmer who bailed hay, their straw would be clean of chemicals.

Wait a minute—did I just confuse the two terms again?

Nope. But it is a fine line. Straw and hay both begin life the same way—as a field crop. The word ‘hay’ refers to the entire harvested plant, including the seed heads. Most hay is grown to be used as animal feed, and is generally, as Mary Beth correctly notes, timothy, rye, alfalfa or a specialized grass. But cereal crops like wheat, oats and barley are sometimes grown for animal feed as well as human consumption.

When the plants are left intact and bundled up, it’s hay. But when the seed heads are removed, the plant stalk that’s left behind is straw, a hollow tube that has many uses, including animal bedding on farms and mulch in gardens. And if the hay was grown organically—say, to feed certified organic animals, any straw made from that hay would be free of chemicals.

In other words, you have to have organic hay (or grain) before you can get organic straw.

But the main point in any conversation about these topics is to warn people to be careful that they DON’T get hay when they buy ‘straw bales’. Straw and hay are often packaged up identically, and many garden centers—and even farmers who sell their extra bales on the roadside—use the term ‘straw’ whether the bale in question is straw or hay. And if you use hay—with all those seed heads intact—as a garden mulch, the seeds will sprout and you’ll become an unintentional grain farmer.

…Which happened to me once. I hadn’t yet learned that you have to visually inspect the bales for seed heads, and picked up a batch of hay that was labeled as ‘straw’. The plants that popped up a few weeks after I spread it as mulch taught me two important lessons….

One was to never trust signage. The other was that wheat is sharp. Not a good plant to grab in anger bare-handed. But enough old war stories; let’s move on to ‘straw bale gardening’ itself.

Q. It’s always a struggle to try and work our clay soil. I read an article about how this problem could be solved by using straw bales instead of my having to schlep bags of manure, peat moss, etc. to grow my tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers; but my husband disagrees. What’s your opinion?

    —Eileen in Langhorne, PA

A. I think it’s just another of the ‘trends’ that garden writers pick up on when they’re desperate for something ‘new’ to write about, and that they don’t subject to any critical thought. But I was raised by a homicide detective, and I’m always looking for the hole in the logic. And in this case, I came up with five right off the bat.

  1. The bales were almost certainly grown with pesticides—including hideous ‘systemic’ chemicals that are taken up by the plant itself. I only grow organically, and so I’m out before we even start.
  2. The bales don’t retain moisture well; in a dry year you’d have to be watering them every day—perhaps several times a day.
  3. But because straw is packed so tightly, the cores and bottoms do collect a lot of moisture that they can’t get rid of and tend to mold up—especially in a wet year.
  4. You have to buy new bales every year, which is far from sustainable.
  5. The system is lifeless; designed to avoid soil and compost in favor of chemically-laden straw and nasty chemical fertilizers.

And that last one is perhaps my biggest issue emotionally. My approach to gardening—forged in the fires of greats like J. I. and Bob Rodale, Sir Albert Howard, Eliot Coleman, John Jeavons, Mel Bartholomew and so many others—is that HEALTHY SOIL is the basis for all gardening. The answer to clay soil is not to grow in pesticide laden straw bales (which are really heavy, by the way—so the schlepping factor is not decreased one bit).

Raised beds and real containers are a much less toxic and much more sustainable response to clay soil; fill them with a nice mix of potting soil, screened black topsoil, perlite and compost. (NOT manure or peat moss; those are far from the best soil amendments.) Then you’re away from the clay, growing in a medium that isn’t pre-contaminated with chemicals, drains well in wet years, goes longer between waterings in dry years, and doesn’t need to be replaced every year.

And one that you can naturally nourish with compost, worm castings and other organic matter instead of salty chemical fertilizers.

Composting old straw?

You can successfully compost this straw and old manure, though it will take some time and plenty of water. In an out of the way spot, I’d mix and water the components well, and then build a windrow. I’d expect the windrow to be there for years. If you like, you can use rows of bales of old straw to act as sides for the windrow. For the Cadillac version, have one side one bale deep and the other side two bales deep – use rebar or gutter nails to hold the sides in place. Then cover with a tarp to retain moisture during the dry spells and prevent saturation during the wet spells. You might consider inoculating this windrow with red wigglers – either bought from a supplier or scavenged from an active manure pile. It will take quite some time for them to break several cubic yards of this material down, but it’ll be an investment in worm castings that you may come to appreciate.
I’m hoping that this will have used up all of the straw bales – my specialty is the chemistry and microbiology of composting – I’m not a good source for threats to animal health. Could you start with new straw?
Oh, another thing or two:
1. When you start watering this straw, you will get some weed seed germination – so have an eye out for this and make a plan to control sprouting weeds while they are SMALL. 🙂
2. A bale of hay or straw is made up of flakes. 🙂
Good luck with this – I envy you this organic waste resource. Please write in and let me know what you decide to do and how it goes.

Straw Mulch In Gardens: Tips For Using Straw As Mulch For Vegetables

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.

Best Types of Straw Garden Mulch

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.

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.

Tips for Using Straw as Mulch for Vegetables

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.

Place the straw in a 3- to 6-inch 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.

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, to help keep the weeds down and moisture in the soil during the hottest part of summer.

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.

How to Make a Straw-Bale Compost Bin

By Cathy Cromell, The National Gardening Association

Straw bales can be stacked to create a simple and inexpensive compost bin. As an organic material, straw breaks down and decomposes over time, and you can eventually incorporate it into your compost pile as a carbon ingredient. Straw is a convenient choice if you’re just getting into composting and aren’t sure what type of bin you want. You’ll gain experience without paying for a bin or materials that may not suit your situation.

How many bales to use depends on the size of individual bales available in your area, how high you plan to stack them, and how much square footage you want for composting. Bales stacked in two or three layers provide sufficient area for composting, although you could get away with just one layer if lifting the bales is a challenge.

If you want to turn compost regularly, stack straw bales to form three sides of a square or rectangular shape, leaving the fourth side open for access. You can also form an enclosed square, filling it full of materials to decompose on their own time schedule without turning. If you get the urge to turn, you can always pull out a couple bales to create access.

A straw bale bin is quick to build. It’s easy to expand (or shrink) your bin’s size and add adjacent bins. Bales provide good insulation to maintain moisture and heat within the compost.

However, bales can be heavy to transport and lift. If you can’t comfortably tote 50 to 80 pounds, straw bales aren’t the best option! As straw breaks down, it loses its tidy appearance. Stacks may lose their stability, sag, and look unkempt.

To create a straw bale composting bin, the only materials you need are five or six two-string straw bales. This simple structure uses five two-string bales to form three sides of a single-layer, open-sided bin. Its rectangular interior composting area is about 3 feet wide x 4 1/2 feet long x 14 inches high

  1. Place two bales end to end to form one side wall that measures 6 feet (1.8 meters) long.

  2. Place one bale perpendicular to the first wall as the back wall.

  3. Place the remaining two bales end to end to form the third wall.

One more bale completes the rectangle if you prefer to keep your compost contained in an enclosed bin. Set it against the outer edges of the side walls, making it easier to swing outward if you want to open the enclosure.

Another option for this bin is to stack another five bales for a second layer, increasing the height to 28 inches and providing you with more composting space. This design helps your heap self-insulate and retain more heat and moisture.

Use straw bales to create temporary composting sites. Surround the area where you want to add a garden in a year or two with straw bales and compost within them to improve the soil beneath. As the straw decomposes, work it into your compost, and as the compost decomposes, work it into the soil. By the time you’re ready to plant, you’ll be plunging your shovel into rich, dark soil and your “bin” will have disappeared, leaving you with nothing to move or store.

Once you have designed your straw bale house, you need to figure out how many bales will be needed to actually build it. There are a number of ways to go about doing this. One way is to simply make assumptions about the general size of your house and use a bale calculator based entirely on home square footage and roof design. This can work well with simple designs where a home is basically a square or rectangle; however, this method becomes fairly rough when a home has more angles, turns, and curves in the exterior walls as all of those construction details use more bales. Keep in mind, the more custom bales you need to tie, the more waste you will have to calculate into the estimate, even if you use the cut-offs of the bales elsewhere in the building. For a simple table based on square foot calculations, go to http://www.ironstraw.org/balecalc.htm.

Calculate the number based on square footage of the wall surface area

Another way to estimate your bale needs is to go a bit more in depth and calculate the number based on square footage of the wall surface area. In other words, you calculate the total lineal feet of straw bale wall and then multiply that by the height of the walls. This yields the square footage of wall surface. For a gable roof, measure one half the width of the building at the gable and multiply it by the total height of the gable end. That will give you the square footage of the entire gable as if you took the two triangles and glued them back together in the shape of a square at each gable end. You can then remove the square footage of window and door openings from this number. Once you have all of the openings removed, divide the total square footage by the square footage of your bales. For this, consider a 14″ tall by 36″ long bale would have 504 square inches or 3.5 square feet of bale surface area. This will give you the exact number of bales you will need to build the structure.

Never Build Your Straw Bale House with the Exact Number of Bales

I would never recommend anyone try to build a house with the exact number of bales, so add about 10% to the total number you just calculated.
An even more in depth calculator can be found at Harvest Homes’ website: http://harvesthomes.ca/resources/calculator/. This calculator takes into account the information outlined in the above paragraph plus the way you plan to stack your bales, i.e. on edge or flat, and deck framed or balloon framed. It also considers many aspects of the construction process outside that of the straw bales in the calculation. Therefore, if you build your home with the same techniques they use, you can get a full estimate of required materials. Although this is a very cool service, I don’t recommend using the calculator for anything other than the bales as the techniques used in the construction of their homes will likely differ from your own. Most importantly, I don’t recommend using the lumber calculations as your local building department may want to see actual beam and load calculations for the framing and will not accept a simple “this is what the website said would work”.

Summary

As you can see, there are a few different ways to calculate the number of bales you will use in the construction of your home. Try to get as close as you can to the “real answer but don’t skimp just to save a few dollars. At about $4 a bale, buying a few extras will not hurt nearly as much as running out and delaying the job while you try and locate bales of the same size to finish the home. You can always use any extras in your garden as mulch or to create landscape seating or walls. A little foundation, mesh and plaster and your scrap bales become a thing of beauty in the backyard.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Morrison has a passion for straw bale construction that is matched only by his desire to teach his knowledge to others. He has a wealth of experience in designing and building both conventional and straw bale homes. After years of building, he has moved his practice entirely to consulting and teaching. He shares his knowledge with thousands of people via his DVD series and this website and teaches roughly six-eight hands on workshops each year. For more on his workshops, please visit www.strawbale.com/store/category/workshops. Andrew received a BA degree from Hampshire College in 1995 for Glacial Geology. He also has a degree in construction technology.

NOTE: Remember, You’re welcome to “reprint” this article online as long as it remains complete and unaltered (including the “about the author” info at the end), and you send a copy of your reprint or the url to [email protected]

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Quality wheat straw is in high demand!

Posted by Kyle on January 20, 2017January 20, 2017

Straw is the residual material left in the field after wheat is harvested. The term straw is not exclusive to a single type. In fact, there are many different types of straw harvested each year throughout the world. Different crops include wheat, barley, oat, and soybean straw. This article is focussed on exploring different qualities and uses that are associated with wheat straw specifically.

Question: If wheat straw is nothing more than a residual material left in a field after the harvest of a cash crop, then why are millions of tons baled each year?

What is wheat straw used for?

Over the years wheat straw has gained popularity in a wide variety of industries, which in turn has created a competitive marketplace with rising demand. Some of the most well-known industries and uses include:

  • Erosion Control – Straw is used to make erosion control blankets and Wattles
  • Livestock Bedding – Straw is used as a material to trap moisture and keep animals
    comfortable
  • Dairy Farms – Straw is used in feed rations as a cost effective fiber source
  • Mulching – Straw is shredded and spread over land areas to lock in moisture and support growth of vegetation
  • Straw Pulp – Straw is used as a base ingredient in pulp manufacturing
  • Mushroom Farms – Straw is used in the composting process to grow mushrooms
  • Straw Bale Gardening – Straw bales are used as containers to grow produce
  • Straw Bale Houses – Straw bales are used as structural materials and insulation

Other benefits of wheat straw included, the ability to easily transport and store the products for long periods of time.

What do farmers need to consider before baling wheat straw?

Within the grain farming community, there has been the lingering question of whether to bale the straw or leave it in the field as organic matter to support future crops. The question seems simple at first glance, but there are actually quite a few variables to consider. One variable is determining the value of the straw if it were to be left in the field as fertilizer and then comparing it to current market prices for baled straw. In recent years, many farms have decided to capitalize on the opportunity to increase revenue by removing the straw and selling it commercially.

The final and most important item to know about straw is that it is NOT hay. That is a longstanding “pet peeve” in the hay and straw community.

Wheat straw production in the U.S. is being driven by a wide range of industries and new uses are frequently being explored. What was once an irrelevant byproduct is now considered a stable value generator for both the producer and end user. If you would like to learn more about wheat straw and how it could be utilized in your operation, please send me an email. [email protected]

“Nothing better becomes a well-bred man than agriculture.” —Cicero

In A Nutshell

They might look the same, but they’re very different products with very different purposes. Hay is a crop that is grown specifically for the purpose of creating hay, while straw is a byproduct of different kinds of crops. Hay is geared toward being a nutrient-rich food for livestock, while straw is more often used for bedding instead of food. Straw also has a wide variety of uses, for everything from a compost pile to an energy source.

The Whole Bushel

Like the old joke suggests, hay is for horses. When farmers plant a hay field, the field is harvested before the grains go to seed. This keeps valuable nutrients in the stalks and makes for a much more well-rounded diet for horses and other forms of livestock. Straw, on the other hand, is a byproduct of other types of grain crops. When crops like wheat, barley, and oats are harvested for their seed, the stalks are left behind. These stalks—which have been drained of most of their nutrients during the process of seed production—are harvested and baled to create straw.

There are different types of hay, and the different types have different nutritional values and usages. Alfalfa, red clover, timothy, bermudagrass and tall fescue are all types of hay grown as feed crops for animals from horses to rabbits. The nutrient value of the hay is also dependent on when it’s harvested—early maturity harvests will contain more of their nutrients than hay that is harvested closer to seed production. For horses, the type of horse and dietary needs will mean a difference in the type, quantity, and quality of hay that is used.

Straw can be made from a variety of grain crops, and regardless of where it comes from, its purposes are generally the same. Some farmers will leave the stalks behind after harvesting seeds, tilling them back into the soil and returning what nutrients are left. Straw is often used as bedding for large animals, but it also has non-farming uses. Straw is a highly valuable renewable energy source, and burning straw can be used to generate power. For example, many power plants in the UK fuel thousands of homes with the burning of straw. A single power plant in East Anglia burns about 210,000 tons of straw in a single year, and that provides enough energy to run about 80,000 homes—a huge number, especially considering straw is highly renewable.

While a hay crop is usually planted with only one end goal in mind—animal feed—straw is much more versatile. A bale of straw can also be used for composting into gardens or in place of dirt. Recent attempts at bringing a bit of home-grown vegetables and country living to the city have yielded some surprising results. A bale of straw can be used as a planting medium for garden vegetables. A wet bale of straw will decay from the inside out, providing a fertile bed for crops from potatoes to herbs.

Straw is often used as insulation for protecting crops that grow through the winter. A surprisingly significant amount of straw produced in the UK is used for the growth of mushrooms and the overwintering protection of carrot crops.

It’s also important to note that some crops—such as sudangrass—can be used as either hay or straw, depending on when they are harvested.

Show Me The Proof

US Forage Export Council: Straw vs. Hay
University of Kentucky: Choosing Hay for Horses
Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board: Straw — what is it good for?
NY Times: Grasping at Straw

The difference between hay and straw in the garden

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Be aware of the difference between hay and straw when shopping for mulch.

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.

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.

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