In 40 years of gardening I’ve had it happen to me twice (maybe three) times.
The good news is that it’s NOT grass.
- What is Straw?
- Why Does It Have Seed In It?
- Know Your Source If Possible
- What To Do When It Sprouts
- Another Way to Handle Things
- Will Covering Them Kill Them?
- How About Using Pine Straw?
- Why Put Straw Over Grass Seed?
- The Benefits
- How Do I Know That I Applied The Straw Correctly?
- Things to Consider
- From Seed to Lawn: Part 2
- Using Hay to Grow Grass
- PLANTING GRASS SEED:
- A Guide for Homeowners With Step-by-Step Tips
- What You Need Before You Start
- Survey The Battle Field
- Are All Systems “GO”?
- Planting The Grass Seed, Finally Time To Sow!
- Rake The Seed Into The Soil
- Just Rolling A Lawn…
- Apply Seed Cover Or Mulch
- Water The Grass Seed
- Mark Your Territory
- What NOT To Do
The Questions People Ask Most About Grass Seed
- What Spreader Settings Should I Use?
- I Planted My Grass Seed and It Didn’t Grow. What’s Wrong?
- How Do I Know What Type of Grass I Have?
- What Is Overseeding? Why Should I Do It?
- How Do I Overseed My Lawn?
- How is Reseeding Different from Overseeding?
- What About Overseeding Bermudagrass?
- What’s the Best Way to Seed a Thin or Bare Spot?
- How Long Can I Store Grass Seed Before It Goes Bad?
- Straw vs. Hay: Which Makes a Better Mulch?
- The Difference Between Straw and Hay
- Straw Mulch vs. Hay Mulch
- Which Should You Choose?
- Straw Vs Hay Vs Wood Chips: Which is the Best Mulch?
- Why mulch?
- Wood Chips
- Hay Mulch
- Straw Mulch
- Bottom Line
What is Straw?
Straw is a by-product of growing grain. It’s usually the stems of either wheat, oats, rye or barley. So those sprouts that look like grass are one of those grains.
Why Does It Have Seed In It?
Seed of grain in bales of straw can be a result of it not being harvested properly. Or perhaps the grain head on the harvest machine was not set right.
Another reason can be the use of older combines that leave grain in the field that are then picked up by the baler (machine) collecting the straw.
There are probably other reasons that are beyond the farmer’s control.
Know Your Source If Possible
If you buy straw from various sources and/or big box stores you have no way of knowing the origin. There’s no way to even take an educated guess at what your chances are of getting seed-free straw.
I’ve gotten my (wheat) straw from the same family for 40 years. They know what they’re doing when it comes to proper harvesting, but in spite of that I’ve had seed sprout in the garden at least 2 or 3 times over 40 years.
What To Do When It Sprouts
It pulled out easily and I took out a little each day until it was all gone.
As long as you don’t let it form seed you can just pull it and leave it on top of the bed to decay.
Another Way to Handle Things
I’ve read that folks who raise rabbits often cut these clumps which encourages more growth. Each time they cut — that’s free rabbit food.
And while it continues to grow the roots mine nutrients from the soil.
Will Covering Them Kill Them?
In a recent comment left on this post, friend and reader Susan also asked if covering the clumps would kill them.
Probably would if the mulch was deep enough to smother it. The main thing you don’t want to chance is having it continue to grow and set seed. My preference would be to pull it.
How About Using Pine Straw?
I had a brief email conversation with Susan right after she left her questions which included “should I consider using pine straw this summer rather than straw from Lowe’s?”
Pine straw makes an excellent mulch. When Bill was alive he would go to a forested area and rake up as many pine tags (a/k/a pine needles or pine straw) as could fit in the back of the truck. Over the years they’ve always been my favorite mulch.
If anyone has more questions about straw mulch (or any other kind of mulch) feel free to ask.
This is a great time of year — when farmers are looking to get rid of old ones — to pick up one or two straw bales. You might also be able to buy bales at your local nursery or gardening store but they’ll probably cost more. They make great seasonal decorations … put a trio of various shaped pumpkins on one (or a stack of two or three) in a strategic place visible to passersby, balance a sheaf of corn stalks against it if you have them and voila: Autumn’s great visual symbol of harvest. Then, when the season is over, you can break them up and use them in your garden and compost pile. Or can you?
The problem with straw is that it often contains seeds. Hay, in our experience, is even worse; it contains more seed than a nursery in March (not everyone makes the distinction between “hay” and “straw” … see this article for the difference). The best straw for gardening comes from wheat or oats, if you can get it. Most of the seed has been removed depending on how effective the farmer’s thresher is and how much weed has grown in his field. But I still wouldn’t put it in your compost heap unless it’s hot enough to destroy the seed. Temperatures of 130 degrees will usually do it but hardy seeds will require 30 days of 145 degrees or better to take them out, according to the Weed Science Society of America, conditions that aren’t always easy to maintain. The WSSA also suggests turning your compost regularly to avoid any weed seeds surviving through the process in the pile’s cool spots.
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But using straw as mulch is a different story. The secret is to keep the mulch deep enough, say six to eight inches or more. This both provides enough cover to keep weed seeds from sprouting and makes those that do easy to pull from the moist soil. And everyone knows the benefits of using mulch, right? One of my favorite fall practices is to sow some hardy greens in late September or October and literally bury them under mulch. The mulch doesn’t have to be straw. It could be finely chopped leaf mold for that matter, just as long as it’s deep enough (but not too compact) to protect overwintering seeds and seedlings. Then pull away the mulch in the spring after the weather starts to warm. You’ll have harvests of kale, spinach and other greens weeks early using this method.
A new use of straw bales — at least to me — is the practice of planting crops directly into the bales, or straw bale gardening as it’s come to be known. Basically, a bale of straw becomes a container. You can plant seed directly into the bale with the addition of a little soil or compost, or you can scoop out a spot in the bale to fill with soil and then transplant starts directly into the bale. By the time the growing season is over, the bale is well on its way to becoming compost. The advantages are that the bale hold water — in this it’s much like hydroponic gardening — is usually disease free and supplies easy rooting for the plant. Or so I’m told. We haven’t tried this method but are looking forward to trying it next spring… if only my sweetie will let us drag a bale or two home and put it in the yard. Here’s a video with more details.
Why Put Straw Over Grass Seed?
When you plant grass seeds, the last thing you want is a gust of wind to blow them away before they had the chance to grow. Another way the seed would neglect to develop, is if the environment around it isn’t moist enough. One of the ways you can prevent these problems is to put some straw over the top of it.
So, why put straw over grass seed? To help your grass seeds grow and prosper while in a vulnerable state. A gust of wind or dry soil can hinder how the seeds grow, if they grow at all.
The seeds cannot be buried too deep or else they will not get the right amount of heat and moisture. The seeds don’t need much soil to grow.
1st Class Gardening Ltd, a gardening company in London, explains, the straw helps protect and warm grass seed to promote its growth through a process called germination.
It can take up to three weeks for seeds to start growing, which is why it’s important to cover it so they don’t get blown away or not stay warm enough. Protect your grass seeds with some straw!
The straw will keep the in heat and moisture for your grass seeds. Like we mentioned earlier, grass seeds need both heat and moisture to grow and thrive. Without one or the other, the seeds will die. Using straw over grass seeds will give it that extra protection while it’s fragile. It will save you time and money from having to replant and reseed your grass.
It covers the seeds from sunlight. Too much sunlight can injure or even kill the grass seeds, which will force you to replant them. The extra coverage will protect the seeds from the sun. Which the seeds need, but not in excess. Too much of a good thing can become a bad thing for anyone or anything.
The straw will also keep the grass seeds from washing away. Surprise rain and storms can easily wash away all your hard work after planting grass seeds. The last thing you want is a surprise rain shower to wash away all your hard work. It’ll leave your lawn in patches if the seeds get washed away.
How Do I Know That I Applied The Straw Correctly?
You only need a thin layer of straw. A thin layer will get the job done for your grass seeds. If you put too much down, it will block out much-needed sun and water. It will also prevent the grass from growing if the pile is too heavy. Having a pile that is too light will cause the straw to fly away or be moved by water or gusts of wind. You have to find a happy medium!
You should put down the straw before you water the grass seeds. Putting down the straw first will guarantee that you don’t step in wet soil and disturb the grass seeds. It may not seem like much, but any disturbance to the seeds can possibly ruin them. It would be a waste of resources when you could simply lay down some straw first.
Things to Consider
Leave the straw where it is while the grass is growing. If you try to remove the straw while the grass is growing, you could pull out some of the grass by accident. This will ruin all your hard work and you’ll have to put more seeds down. The straw will naturally dissolve into the soil over time, so you can just leave it alone.
A weighted roller may push the grass seeds too deeply into the soil. A weighted roller may sound like a great option since it’s supposed to save you time while planting, however, it can push the seeds into the ground too deep. This can cause the seeds to be damaged, or too far down that they can’t access any nutrients from the sun or water to grow.
Decomposing straw provides nutrients to the soil. Another reason to leave the straw over your grass seeds, is that it can offer great nutrients to the soil around it. If you leave it alone, it will dissolve into the soil over time. This is something to consider when you set the straw on top of your grass seeds since the soil provides the seeds with vital nutrients.
We’ve discussed how putting straw over your grass seeds can help them grow. Hopefully, you will try this the next time you plant grass seeds!
Is it absolutely necessary to cover a newly seeded lawn with straw? If not, will it become a banquet for birds and squirrels? — Bud Maddox, Cleveland.
There are many reasons why straw is not the best choice for covering your newly seeded lawn.
Straw contains perennial weed seeds, such as orchard grass, that can be hard to control. Straw also has to be raked up once the new lawn comes in. Who wants to deal with that mess and risk damaging your new grass seedlings?
Leaving grass seed out in the open with no protection is only asking for trouble. What bird could say no to a buffet!
There are a few options that are far superior to straw and can offer tremendous success. The best choice is green mulch, which is made from recycled paper, polymers (think of the moisture-holding capability that polymers give a baby diaper) and starter fertilizer. The pellets expand in size and offer moisture, erosion and animal control; the pellets also will feed the new grass seedlings with a starter fertilizer.
Green mulch can be cost-prohibitive for people with a big lawn to establish.
The next best suggestion is sphagnum peat moss. Peat moss offers some protection from animals, contains no weed seeds, offers some moisture and erosion control and helps your new seedlings establish a healthy root system. Peat moss is also much more cost-efficient for the big jobs.
Apply fertilizer first and use the peat as a top dressing; about a half to three quarters of an inch should be sufficient. Make sure to water it in good so the wind does not blow the light peat away after application.
Topsoil is also an acceptable top dressing for a new lawn, but make sure it is a lighter, better grade of topsoil. Never use a lower-grade, fill topsoil to establish your new lawn, or you will be sorry.
Most of these products can be found at your local garden center, plus you also can get the benefit of a knowledgeable staff to help guide you through all the steps and educate you on the different products available. Good luck!
• Garden tasks for May from “Gardening Month by Month.”
Keep old newspapers handy for covering plants vulnerable to nighttime frost.
Fertilize established lawns.
Remove pond weeds. Get rid of duckweed with a long-handled pool skimmer, and twist blanket weed (looks like green cotton candy) by twisting it around a cane.
Tie in climbers, trim formal evergreen hedges and prune early-flowering shrubs.
Stake and support perennials. Deadhead tulips and feed spring-flowering bulbs.
Pat Donzelli is owner/operator of Gale’s Westlake Garden Center.
Got a question for the Ground Crew? Send it to [email protected], with Ground Crew in the subject line. Or, mail a letter to Ground Crew, Inside and Out, The Plain Dealer, 1801 Superior Ave., Cleveland, Ohio, 44114. Include your name, address and daytime phone number.
From Seed to Lawn: Part 2
By Jaime Staufenbeil – Milorganite Agronomist
June 30, 2018
The Adventures of One Homeowner
Experiences and lessons learned from starting a new lawn from seed
In my previous post on starting a new lawn by seed, I touched on the pros and cons of seed vs. sod, the best time to establish a new lawn, grading, and the most important factor of all, establishing a realistic budget—our’s wasn’t. Here I’ll cover the importance of selecting a good landscape contractor, topsoil, what to consider when selecting grass seed varieties, fertilizing, and watering, which happened to be the most stressful part of the entire experience.
Landscape Contractor, Final Grading
Through word-of-mouth and scouting the subdivision, we had a short-list of landscape contractors to contact. Some landscapers were half the cost of others and possibly less experienced. We looked at lawns the landscapers had installed at other properties. You could see the difference in the established lawns. We also knew we had to find a landscape contractor who could successfully work with a potentially difficult customer, one who knew a thing or two about turf, someone with very strong opinions on how to approach the project—me.
We decided on a local landscaper who knew the area, the land and had been involved in some of the subdivision’s development.
We’re grateful to have worked with a knowledgeable, reliable landscape contractor who walked us through the process of selecting topsoil, final grading, and seeding the lawn. His guidance was invaluable. We worked with him to decide the final grading of the property, to ensure we had the landscape we wanted and a proper slope so water to flows away from the house. We were grateful to have more input into the process than we expected.
We had several final grading options, including building a retaining wall. When we found out it would cost $20,000 or more, we opted to grade the backyard toward the lake as a long, gently sloping hill.
Originally, I envisioned putting down a mix of topsoil and high-quality compost. We quickly discovered that topsoil was all our expanding budget would allow. Our landscaper recommended a blend he normally uses and has always had good success. He’s had far more experience with topsoil than me. I trusted his choice.
We needed a lot of topsoil—far more than we ever expected. For a 2-inch layer on our property, the landscaper brought in over 200 cubic yards of topsoil. Around here, the cost of quality topsoil, delivered, is about $25-30 a yard.
If you’re making the decision on topsoil without the guidance of a landscaper, work with a reputable supplier. Cheap topsoil may contain residual herbicides, pesticides or weed seeds, all of which can impede grass from growing. If the soil came from an old, overworked farm field, for example, the nutrients could be significantly depleted. Check with the supplier to find out from where the soil came before you buy it.
The soil was delivered, dumped in piles, spread using a skid steer, then fine-tuned using hand rakes.
Seed and Seeding
There are several factors when selecting the grass species to use, the first of which is determined by where you live: cool-season grasses in the North and warm-season grasses in the South, as well as combinations in other diverse climates throughout the country. Consider the growing conditions on your property and lifestyle as you select the type of grass seed to use. There are grass species better suited for shade or sun, soil composition, as well as wet or dry conditions. If you have a lot of traffic from kids and pets, consider a more durable grass species. If your goal is a showcase lawn, other species will work better.
Take a look at the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program map to help you narrow down your choices for grass varieties good for your area. You can also search online for other turfgrass climate zone maps for information. Probably the best source of information and advice on grass varieties specific to your area will be your local extension agency.
The time it takes for grass seed to germinate varies by species. Knowing this will help you manage your expectations and not think everything has died when it’s not even supposed to be sprouting yet.
We relied on our landscaper and his recommendation of what seed was best suited for our property. It was a combination of rye and fescue grasses, which germinates in about 7 days, and bluegrass, which takes much longer to germinate—about 21–36 days.
After distributing the seed, it was raked in by hand to ensure good contact between the soil and seed.
I’ve never been a fan of mulching newly seeded areas with hay. I was concerned about the potential for weed seeds being mixed in . I’ve changed my mind.
We used hay mats that were rolled out like carpeting and staked in place. The hay helps to keep the seed in place and the soil moist and cool—keys to success. There’s no need to rake up the hay; it’ll decompose and add organic matter to the soil.
Our landscaper decided to fertilize before seeding, but you can also do both at the same time. Milorganite can be mixed with grass seed before it’s broadcast—four parts Milorganite mixed with one part seed by weight—which is particularly helpful with smaller, finer grass seeds. I also mix grass seed with Milorganite when overseeding. It makes the process easier and saves time.
It’s best to provide newly seeded lawns with all the nutrients it needs from the start, so we also used a starter fertilizer, which is blended specifically for new lawns. It provides nitrogen to help with germination and top growth, and a quick shot of phosphorus for better root development. Milorganite is a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer for prolonged feeding would be a good choice. It won’t burn the emerging seedlings and significantly reduces the risk of runoff.
Application rates vary depending on grass variety, soil type, organic material present, and local fertilization restrictions. In general, use 50–100 lbs. of Milorganite per 1,000 sq. ft. for sandy soil and 25–50 sq. ft. for native soil. Also use the higher rate for soil that would benefit from additional organic matter and grass varieties that prefer higher amounts of nitrogen, such as Kentucky bluegrass and Bermuda grass.
Watering a newly seeded lawn sounds fairly easy, right? Well, it was the most challenging part of the process.
Maintaining even moisture for the first couple of weeks is critical for grass seed to germinate and grow. There are several options for irrigation systems and costs vary greatly.
We got a quote of $2,500 to rent an irrigation system for only a few weeks. By comparison, the investment in a permanent irrigation system would have been between $2,500 and $5,000. A rental certainly didn’t make sense considering the cost comparison. We also decided to not install a permanent irrigation system, since I prefer to allow my lawn to go dormant during periods of drought. If you’re the same, you may even consider opting out of an irrigation system in warmer climates if you don’t need to have a pristine lawn through winter.
We opted for a low-tech irrigation system: an oscillating sprinkler and more than 150 feet of hoses.
We purposely waited until mid-September to seed the lawn when “the weather got cooler.” What we didn’t expect was two weeks of unseasonably hot temperatures in the 90s, which is completely unexpected where we live. Watering doesn’t sound stressful, but for us, because of the heat, it was.
The soil was drying out very quickly. Watering became a second job for us—a nine-hour-a-day job. The thought of possibly losing our investment because of hot weather just made me sick. We had to go to extremes to keep our lawn watered. I’d water before leaving for work and come home to immediately water again hoping it had survived the day. My husband and I took days off from work to stay home and move sprinklers. There were even times we had to ask our parents to “babysit” the lawn to make sure we maintained our frantic watering schedule.
Watering was the topic of a few “lively discussions” between my husband and me. Whoever thought we would fight over how long to run a sprinkler.
I’m the agronomist!
There are a lot of options to consider when installing a new lawn by seed or any other method. Your budget will likely be your most significant criteria for making final decisions. The best rule-of-thumb is to purchase the highest quality product and hire the best landscaper your budget allows.
Part 1 – Budget, Timing, Rough Grade, Seed vs Sod
Part 2 – Final Grade, Topsoil, Seeding, Fertilizing, Watering
Part 3 – Dog spot, Disease, Overseeding, Weeds, Settling
Using Hay to Grow Grass
grass, image by Greg Pickens from Fotolia.com
Growing grass from seed is often difficult, usually because homeowners don’t keep the seeds sufficiently watered during germination and in the early stages of growth. With the use of mulch, you can help the soil maintain moisture because evaporation is reduced. You can apply many types of mulch to newly seeded lawns. Although straw is recommend over hay because hay contains seeds (which grow into weeds), you can still use it. However, use old hay, such as bails that are a year or two old, rather than freshly harvested hay, which is more likely to cause weeds.
Separate the hay with your hands so you do not apply it in clumps.
Lay the hay over your newly planted seeds. Use 50 to 80 pounds per 1,000 square feet, which is equivalent to about one to two bales.
Look over your lawn and make sure that you can still see 50 percent of the ground. Add or remove the hay so you have 50 percent coverage evenly spread out across your lawn. If you cover your lawn more than this, remove half of it after the grass reaches about 1 to 2 inches so the grass can continue to grow well.
Replace the hay as it is removed by the wind. Also remove or respread clumps of hay if they accumulate in your lawn due to the wind.
Remove the hay the second year, if desired. The hay will eventually decompose or blow away, if it hasn’t already, but removing it from an established lawn is okay.
PLANTING GRASS SEED:
A Guide for Homeowners
With Step-by-Step Tips
Planting grass seed is relatively easy, once the necessary preparation is done.
It’s like getting on an airplane after packing, rushing and enduring the hassle at the airport. The journey isn’t finished, but you can breathe a sigh of relief.
Now it’s time to sow and grow that lawn!
if you are wondering… “WHAT PREPARATION?”….
Please stop and review this entire series of articles on planting grass.
Don’t skip a step and waste all the effort you put into your lawn project. Then return to this point.
If you are ready… Planting grass seed is the most temperamental part of the process of growing a new lawn. Grass seed can be very particular about how it is treated.
Read on for all the details you need to ensure a successful transition from bare soil to green lawn.
What You Need Before You Start
Check this list as you plan your project, and prior to actually planting grass seed, to help things go as easily as possible. Details for use will follow the list.
- Grass Seed. Select a variety appropriate to the location, and compatible with any existing grass. Check the package for application rates. It is better to have extra on hand rather than not enough, once you start planting grass seed.
- Mulch. Use fine-screened compost or weed-free steer manure. One cubic foot will cover about 50 square feet at ¼” thick. Or use straw for very large areas. A bale may cover 500 – 1,000 sq. ft. depending on its size and density.
- Rake. A wide landscaper rake or a gardeners bow rake was necessary to prepare and level the soil. Use this or even a leaf rake to mix the seed into the top layer of soil. Large areas may require a drag, like a piece of chain link fence, behind a tractor.
- Lawn Roller. This was used in soil preparation to level the ground. Use it now to press the seed into the soil.
- Irrigation System. If a built-in system is to be used, check it first and make all repairs and adjustments prior to planting the grass seed.
- Hose, soft-spray hose nozzle and hose-end sprinkler. Use a quality sprinkler that will provide even coverage without puddles. (Even with a built in system, some areas may require extra water.)
- Stakes and String or survey marking tape. To restrict unnecessary activity in the seeded area during germination and early growth.
- Personal Items. Hat and/or sunscreen. Ice tea or lemonade. (No beer until finished!) Two or more supervisors who know nothing about planting grass seed so you can feel good when you kick them off the job! (Just kidding!)
Survey The Battle Field
Before you start the attack, take a look at the condition of the seed bed. This is likely just a cause for concern if you have been proceeding with this project in stages, rather than powering through from start to finish.
Has the soil crusted over since you finished the final leveling, raking, and rolling? A hard crust will break loose in chunks when you mix seed in with the soil. This can cause uneven results with the spreading and some seed will get buried too deep.
If the soil is crusted, try a light watering to soften the top layer. This works better with some soil types than others, but is the easiest solution. Otherwise you may have to rake again.
The soil can be moist, but not muddy. If rain or irrigating too much has left the soil so wet that mud sticks to your shoes, it is too wet for planting grass seed. You can not mix it well with the soil. It is better to wait.
Also, muddy soil will make it impossible to move around when planting grass seed without getting seed stuck to your shoes. It is better to wait.
Have weeds started to sprout? This can happen easily if it is a multi-weekend project. If you leave the weeds and go ahead with planting the grass seed, the weeds have a head-start.
You may be able to clear the area of new weeds easily with a hula-hoe (swivel head hoe). Then rake the debris off and make sure all is smooth. This will have you planting the grass seed right now.
If you need to spray the weeds to kill them, use a non-selective, glyphosate type killer (like Round-up or equivalent). You should wait about a week after spraying before planting grass seed. The size of the weeds will determine if they need to still be removed before spreading the seed.
Are All Systems “GO”?
This project may be at the mercy of your schedule. Do you have the option of selecting one day or time period over another? If so, consider current weather conditions and predictions for the near future.
An extreme hot spell will challenge you to keep the soil and seed moist enough during the germination period. Remember, the seed cannot be allowed to dry out, or it will die.
Rainy conditions could be a blessing to keep the seed moist. But a hard rain or long duration of rain that causes puddles may redistribute the seed to the point of requiring re-seeding later.
In the early spring, rain may keep soil temperatures low. This, plus no sunshine, can slow germination. Extended moist conditions without sufficient warmth can cause seed to rot.
If conditions are good, then proceed.
Planting The Grass Seed, Finally Time To Sow!
Sowing the grass seed is probably the first part of your project that is actually enjoyable. Now you feel like you are on your way to having a wonderful lawn. This part is not hard work. However, it will have a major impact on the final result, so take care.
Planting grass seed can be done by hand, with a hand-held spreader, or wheeled spreaders, either a drop type or rotary/broadcast type. Tips for selecting and using spreaders will be supplied in a later article. The ultimate objective is to produce even distribution when planting grass seed.
Different grass types vary in size, and have different amounts of seed per pound. The seed container should display how many square feet to cover with each pound of seed. Effective coverage, producing a thick lawn, should be achieved by an application that leaves about 12 to 16 seeds per square inch.
Divide the amount of grass seed to be used into two large portions, with a little bit left over. Apply half of the grass seed, walking back and forth over the entire area. Then take the second portion, and walk back and forth in a pattern at right angles to your original path. This will produce better coverage than trying to get it evenly spread in one pass over attempt.
Rake The Seed Into The Soil
Planting grass seed requires more than just sowing on top of the soil. Seed germinates best when it is mixed in with, or pressed into, the soil. Some people do both, some do one or the other. The goal is to improve germination by contact with moist soil.
Raking the seed lightly will mix the soil and seed together. Some seed will become buried, while some remains exposed. Seed should not be buried more than ¼” so do not dig into the soil with the rake. Just lightly move over the surface.
Try to develop a technique that will leave the seeds evenly distributed over all areas. Avoid dragging them all to one spot. Work back and forth in a consistent manner until you have mixed the entire lawn area. It may actually work easier to use the back, flat edge of the rake, rather than the tooth edge, for mixing very shallow in the soil.
Look for spots that seem a little thin with seeds after raking. Use the extra bit of seeds that you set aside. Broadcast thinly, by hand, over those areas, or save it for later application.
Some lawn projects may be able to skip the raking. If you have just prepared the soil, and done the final leveling, the soil may be soft enough to just spread the seed and press it into contact with the soil using the lawn roller.
If the soil has crusted over, it is best to rake the seed into the soil. Read the section above on checking the condition of the seed bed.
Just Rolling A Lawn…
After planting grass seed, should you roll over the seed or not? The next step is optional, but recommended. Lawn rollers are necessary for leveling the soil when you prepare it. They are just as important for good seed germination. Five dollars a day for rental is a worthwhile investment. If you plan to haul it in the trunk of your car, the handle will stick out the back, so take a blanket and a tie-down to protect your car.
Go over the grass seed planting area with the lawn roller. One pass in any direction is adequate. The roller only needs to be filled about one-fourth to one-third full. This is enough weight to press the seed into the soil
Handy Tip: An easy way to know the amount of water in the roller. Instead of filling with the plug on top, add water when the plug hole is on the side at a position that corresponds to about 4 o’clock on a dial. (3 o’clock would be half full.) Just hold the hose up to the hole until it starts to run out. Do this away from the lawn area to prevent a mess.
If you choose not to use a roller, the seed may have poor contact with the soil, which makes it more difficult to absorb and hold moisture. It is then essential that you rake the seed into the soil, cover with a mulch, and water more frequently.
Apply Seed Cover Or Mulch
A seed cover will help keep the seeds moist during germination, protect them from birds and limit seed movement or erosion. A fine screened compost is the best choice, but most expensive. Steer manure is commonly used. It is cheap, but smells for 2 or 3 days. Be sure any manure product is labeled weed-free. One cubic foot of either will cover about 50 square feet at ¼” thick.
Spread the mulch loosely over the entire area. Try a shaking motion with a shovelful to distribute it. Or toss it by hand from a bucket. A commercial spreader is available to rent. It looks like a lawn roller made out of wire mesh.
Straw is more economical for very large areas. The size of bale varies and may cover 500 – 1,000 sq. ft. Shake this loosely over the area. The benefit comes mostly from shading rather than holding moisture, so the straw does not have to completely cover all the soil.
The grass will grow up through it, so break up any clumps of straw. Only use bedding straw, not hay, which may have seeds in it. The straw may look like it will be a permanent mess, but it will soon break down or get chopped up when you mow.
Water The Grass Seed
The first watering after planting grass seed will require more water than it takes later to keep everything moist. You want to get adequate moisture in the soil for the seed to start soaking it up. Once this happens, lighter sprinkling will maintain the moisture.
Use caution with the first watering to avoid puddles or run-off. It may be necessary to use several short watering periods rather than one long cycle. If watering by hand, use a soft spray wand. Be careful about dragging a hose across the seedbed. Avoid moving the seed and mulch out of place.
When watering with a hose-end sprinkler, invest in a quality unit. The cheap ones frequently leak at the connection and will spray in patterns that do not evenly distribute the water. Don’t take a chance on poor seed germination after all the work you’ve put into planting grass seed.
Follow these complete guidelines for Watering New Grass Seed.
Mark Your Territory
It may feel a bit like planting a victory flag after conquering a mountain! Pound some stakes in the ground. Stretch some bright marking tape that is found at hardware stores, or use string and strips of cloth. You’re done!
Putting up a barrier around the area after planting grass seed is optional. If people don’t have access to it, don’t bother. Yet, it is good to have a reminder that you want to limit walking on the planted area.
If you must cross the seedbed, don’t wear lug style soles that can capture the mulch and soil and walk off with your seed. Don’t walk on it if the soil is so moist that you will make depressions. (They’re depressing!)
What NOT To Do
Planting grass seed may be a small or large project for you. Either way, it isn’t something most people want to repeat, if avoidable. Ensure your chances for success with these tips.
- Don’t guess at how much seed you need. Measure the area. Then calculate the amount according to the recommended rate for your seed variety. Buy extra, for filling in bare spots that will happen sooner or later.
- Don’t apply fertilizer at the same time as the seed. It can burn the new seedling. Read more information in Getting New Grass To Grow.
- Don’t let young kids and pets help when planting grass seed. The seeding and mulch distribution is too important to entrust to children. Let them plant some seed in a pot and watch it grow. Make arrangements to keep your pets off the entire area. Watch for cats that like the new potty box.
- Don’t get in a hurry and try planting the grass seed first, and then wonder how you will keep it irrigated. Plan this first! Guarantee that watering will be done every time it is needed. Make sure that whatever watering method you use will give sufficient coverage.
- Don’t water too heavily at one time. Erosion, mud, and spongy soil are difficult problems to correct.
- Don’t neglect the other valuable articles available with key information on planting grass seed. Learn more before starting!
Congratulations! You now know how to plant grass seed! Get out there and become an expert! Make it look like this!
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Go to Planting Grass for a full series of articles on this topic.
Go to Watering New Grass Seed (as mentioned previously)
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The Questions People Ask Most About Grass Seed
What Spreader Settings Should I Use?
Spreader settings can vary, depending on what grass seed type and spreader you are using. Our Spreader Settings Tool can help you determine what spreader settings to use. Spreader settings for our Scotts® Elite Spreader can be found on the product page under the Details and Usage tab.
For Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed, select the product you’re interested in, and then look under the Details and Usage tab. You’ll find your spreader settings there.
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I Planted My Grass Seed and It Didn’t Grow. What’s Wrong?
There are many things that could have happened. Too much or too little water, weather conditions, use of weed control products, and/or poor soil conditions can all be possible causes. Because each situation is different, it is best to call and speak with one of our experts to help diagnose the problem. 1-800-543-TURF (8873)
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How Do I Know What Type of Grass I Have?
Grass types can vary, depending on where you live. Cool-season grass types are found predominantly in the north, and warm-season grass types, in the south. Our Identify Your Grass Type article can help you determine what type of grass is growing in your lawn.
What Is Overseeding? Why Should I Do It?
Overseeding simply means spreading grass seed over an existing lawn to thicken the turf. Over time, seasonal stresses such as heat, drought, winter conditions, and pests can cause your grass to become thin and weak. Overseeding is a fast, inexpensive way to help bring your lawn back to its lush, green self without tearing everything out and starting over.
This article provides an easy how-to guide on overseeding.
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How Do I Overseed My Lawn?
To overseed a lawn, start by mowing your lawn short and bagging the clipping. Then, rake the lawn to loosen the top layer of soil and remove any dead grass and debris. This will give the grass seed easy access to the soil.
If your lawn is a cool-season grass type, use a spreader to apply Scotts® Turf Builder® Thick’R Lawn™, a product developed specifically for overseeding that combines high performance grass seed with fertilizer and a soil improver to create an easy-to-use product you apply with a Scotts® Spreader.
If you have a bermuda, centipede, zoysia, or bahiagrass lawn, select the appropriate Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed and apply it over your existing lawn using a spreader.
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How is Reseeding Different from Overseeding?
While overseeding is thickening up a thin lawn, reseeding is a complete lawn renovation. When there is more bare soil or weeds than grass in your yard, it’s best to just start over from scratch. The process for reseeding the lawn is the same as installing a new lawn.
This article provides any easy how to guide on how to replant lawn grass
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What About Overseeding Bermudagrass?
If you live in the deep south or southwest and your bermudagrass goes dormant and turns brown in the fall, you may want to try overseeding your dormant bermudagrass lawn with ryegrass for a temporary green lawn all winter long. You might want to try Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed Quick Fix Mix or Scotts® Turf Builder® Grass Seed Perennial Ryegrass Mix.
This article provides an easy how to guide on dormant overseeding.
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What’s the Best Way to Seed a Thin or Bare Spot?
There’s no need to overseed your entire lawn if you’re only worried about a few thin or bare spots. Fill them in quickly and easily with Scotts® EZ Seed® Patch & Repair, a powerful combination of high-performance seed, super-absorbent growing material, and continuous-release lawn food that’s guaranteed to grow anywhere*. Just follow these simple steps:
- Remove any dead grass and loosen up the soil.
- Evenly apply EZ Seed® so the area is covered but the ground is still visible.
- Water deeply, stopping only when the product is saturated and won’t absorb any more.
- Water again whenever EZ Seed® begins to turn light brown.
- Keep kids, pets, and mowers away until the grass reaches 3 inches high.
Be sure to read the label before using.
*subject to proper care
This article provides more information on seeding bare patches.
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How Long Can I Store Grass Seed Before It Goes Bad?
If stored in a cool, dry place, grass seed can last for 2-3 years. However, the germination rate (the number of seeds that will grow) will decrease over time, so you may not get the same results you would if you were using fresh seed. For best results, use fresh product and try to plant it within a year.
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Straw vs. Hay: Which Makes a Better Mulch?
Straw mulch vs. hay mulch: In the battle to control weeds, add fertility, and improve the water retention of your soil, is one really better than the other? Well, in a word . . . yes!
The Difference Between Straw and Hay
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the difference between straw and hay? Or are they essentially the same thing?
Many people think they’re identical because they’re both often tied into square or rectangular bales, but a closer look reveals that they’re actually quite different. Understanding these differences may help in your decision about which material better suits your gardening needs.
Characteristics of Straw
Straw is the stalk of a cereal crop such as oats, barley, wheat, or rye after harvesting has removed the seed heads. Usually a big machine called a combine harvester will come along into the field. In one smooth operation, it chops off the top portion containing the grain and sends the grain in one direction for processing, and then cuts the straw and collects it until a bale-sized block is formed. The straw bale is automatically tied and is then dropped out of the machine, back onto the field for later collection.
In many parts of the world, straw is seen as a waste product—a secondary by-product of the cereal crop—and is sold for practically nothing. But where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, it is actually more expensive to buy straw than it is to buy hay, because not much straw is produced locally. What straw we have is quickly purchased for animal bedding. We just don’t have the climate for mass cereal crop production.
Characteristics of Hay
Hay refers to grass that has been cut while green, dried, and then made into square or round bales. Hay is used mainly for feeding animals when no fresh grass is available. It provides bulk, fiber, sugar, and nutrients to animal diets.
The best hay smells sweet, and if you take a handful and get it wet, it still looks like grass. (Straw has an almost exclusively yellow color when it is baled, and just a hint of a smell.) Hay bales can look like a greenish coarse grass, fine grass, or even flowery and weedy grass; it entirely depends on what plants were cut and dried to make the bales. The quality can vary hugely depending on the skill of the farmer making the bales and the quality of his hay fields.
It is very important to get hay that has been dried to the optimum level, so that it’s not crumbly but is dry enough to discourage mold growth. Overly dried hay starts to compost quickly when it is damp, and composting hay bales have been known to heat up and start barn fires.
Straw Mulch vs. Hay Mulch
So now that you know the difference between straw and hay . . . why would you choose one over the other for mulching your garden? I mean, it’s just mulch, right?
The benefits of mulch in a garden cannot be overstated and, if you’re reading this article, I assume you already know how terrific it is for controlling weeds and providing walkways.
A good mulch also helps the soil to remain cool and moist longer in summer and can insulate the soil in colder weather. Mulch creates a microclimate over your soil by essentially acting as a blanket to protect it from the harsh drying effects of the sun and wind.
All mulches perform this action, including our straw and hay—but did you know that other mulches used around the world have included wood chips, bark, shredded leaves, and even rocks?
The inhabitants of Easter Island recognized that mulching prevented the wind and rain from eroding the valuable topsoil, so they used volcanic rocks spaced out on their fields as a lithic mulch to slow runoff and wind erosion. (But I can’t imagine most of us deliberately placing rocks in the garden, can you? I know that in my own garden, I’m constantly doing the opposite, because every year my garden seems to grow a new supply of rocks.)
Surely some of these mulching methods work better than others, wouldn’t you think? Do some work better in areas of wind or rain? Are some better suited for slopes? What about availability? These are all questions you need to answer for yourself. Then, experiment to see what actually works for you.
Planning is a huge part of having a successful and productive garden over the long term. You should choose the location wisely, taking into account the sunlight, type of soil, and climate.
But, in reality, most of us just have to use whatever we’ve got. Not everyone has 20 acres and can pick the perfect spot. So, let’s just say that you are growing in a typical home garden and the mulches you can most easily and economically get are hay and straw.
The Pros of Using Straw Mulch
Straw is a terrific insulator. The hollow stems retain air and their chopped, light, fluffy texture allows for easy spreading. In fact, the principal uses for straw in the U.S. over the past 200 years have been as animal bedding, for insulating walls in homes (or building straw bale houses), and for covering the ice in ice houses to act as insulation so that the ice is available for use during the summer.
When used in a garden, it also tends to remain lighter and fluffier than hay, and it keeps a beautiful golden appearance for quite a long time.
The surface remains dry even as the lowest layers touching the soil begin to decompose. Have you ever picked strawberries in a field? Almost certainly there was straw around the bushes and it gave you a good clean place to sit or kneel that felt soft and cushioned.
The Cons of Using Straw Mulch
Straw can be expensive depending on where you live, and you might not be able to grow it yourself. Straw can also act as a home to rodents because of its fluffy texture. It has a higher tendency to blow away in strong winds when it is first laid, unless you try very hard to pack it down.
Straw does add some bulk to your soil, but it is mostly composed of cellulose and fiber that are left over after the plant puts all its nutrients into the seed heads that were harvested for grain. Consequently, straw adds fewer nutrients back into the soil when it decomposes, and soilborne bacteria tie up the available nitrogen for a longer time to break down the tougher stalks.
Because straw is fluffier and makes less direct contact with the soil, it takes longer to decompose . . . which is both a plus and a minus. If you want to add nutrients, this is a minus, but if maintaining a cover or walkway is important, then it’s a plus.
Blown-in weeds won’t land in a moist environment and sprout but, on the other hand, in-ground weeds are more easily able to push through a straw mulch from the bottom due to its fluffy nature. You can counteract this effect by weeding, putting down some newspaper before laying the straw mulch, and using a thicker layer—perhaps 8 inches thick or more—to provide a darker environment that most weeds simply don’t have the energy to get through.
The Pros of Using Hay Mulch
Hay is readily available and it’s possible to get a scythe and cut your own if you have a grassy area on your property. You don’t need to bale it—just cut it, let it dry, and then fork it into your wheelbarrow and wheel it over to where it’s needed. Even long grass clippings can function the same way as hay, because they’re essentially the same thing.
Hay left over from a previous year is often considered garbage by farmers who want to feed their animals the most recent and more nutritious hay. Consequently, hay is sometimes available for free during hay season in the summer. You can find it by looking at your local online advertisement site, such as kijiji or craigslist, or by asking your farming friends.
Hay contains a variety of grasses and legumes, plus often clover and other flowers (including both the leaf and stalk), so the plant nutrients are all there.
When hay decomposes, it adds significant nutrients to the soil to increase its fertility. It adds a balanced ratio of NPK, as well as all the trace minerals that were contained in the plant.
Hay tends to lay flat and pack down, so it decomposes fairly quickly.
It also has more of a sponge effect than straw does, which means that in heavy rainfalls, it buffers or slows down the amount of rain that soaks into the soil to help prevent erosion and leeching of nutrients.
Because hay packs down densely, the weeds from underneath get smothered and die very quickly. But weed seeds that blow in can sometimes sprout, especially in an older hay mulch that is very damp.
The Cons of Using Hay Mulch
In moist parts of the world, hay mulch has more of a tendency to harbor slugs and snails, so you need to keep a good eye out for them and have a method of removal ready. Hay generally doesn’t harbor mice, because it’s too dense. Hay takes on a packed and spongy texture that holds water, so sitting after wet weather is likely to leave you with a wet bum.
Hay holds moisture, allowing seeds on top to sprout, which is why some consider hay bale gardening to be such a great thing. But if you’re trying to suppress weeds, do you really want this? And often the hay itself contains seeds that will sprout once they get wet, so you could end up with a living pathway until the dry weather dries out the topmost layers of your mulch again.
Read More: “Straw Bale Gardening: How to Succeed”
Read More: “The Hidden Dangers of Straw Bale Gardening”
As hay decomposes, it is broken down by various bacteria and other organisms that all use nitrogen, just as we discussed for the decomposition of straw. So what happens is that these organisms get a new food source (your hay compost) and they multiply rapidly, which depletes the soil of nitrogen. As they run out of food, the organisms die and the nitrogen is once again available for the plants to use.
So planting directly into a hay mulch without any supplemental nitrogen source available probably isn’t the best idea.
Which Should You Choose?
Now that you know more about hay and straw as mulches, which one are you going to choose?
In a perfect world, the solution is to use both—a thick layer of hay mulch on the bottom, where it will decompose and act as a spongy reservoir for moisture, topped off with a few inches of straw that will be a dry layer, preventing blown-in weeds from sprouting and giving you a lovely, dry, golden walkway.
But we don’t all live in a perfect world, do we? We’re just trying to make the best of what we’ve got, and that’s what makes a great gardener or homesteader—the ability to problem-solve. So, I’d suggest that if you have a choice of only one type of mulch, you use hay simply for the fertility it will add to your soil.
As all practical gardeners know, you use what you have or can easily get. Why pay money for straw if a local farmer will give you hay in July for nothing? If you can get it free, but you don’t need it all at once, then simply put the extra bales out by your garden, throw a tarp over them, and save them for next year. If the hay gets wet and starts to compost itself, it really doesn’t matter. It’s all going in the soil in the end anyway, and the pile of bales can act as a windbreak while it waits to be used.
A garden is a living, breathing thing. It evolves from year to year and, as gardeners, we are the stewards of the fertility that is in our soil. It depends on us to pay attention and make sure that we don’t take out more than we put back in. After all, we want our gardens to feed us for many years to come and to be places where we can teach our children and grandchildren the mysteries of growing their own food, too.
Gardens are places where families and communities come together to work, talk, and visit, so we should try to make sure that, in addition to teaching the value of work, we also find pleasure in being outdoors. Planning the best method of mulching your garden is important for fertility and moisture retention, and it will also significantly reduce the amount of time you spend watering and weeding, which will in turn increase your enjoyment of your garden.
A well-mulched garden also makes better use of the precious water resources that are becoming scarce in so many places. As a fellow gardener, I encourage you to try new things and experiment with mulches to see what works for you. But most of all, have fun in the garden!
What is your favorite mulch to use in your garden, and why? Do you have any other tips for getting mulching materials inexpensively or for free? Let us know in the comments!
(This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on July 20, 2015. The author may not currently be available to respond to comments, however we encourage our Community members to chime in to share their experiences and answer questions!)
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One could also run the hay through a chipper/shredder and have a fan “winnow” out the seed. This would take forever, but it may be effective and perhaps—with a big enough shredder and a big ass fan—could be efficient. Please take video if you try this and send it to me at notillgrowers at gmail dot com. I would love to see it in action.
I came across one idea, solarizing the bales. Essentially, you wrap the bales in clean plastic and set them in the sun for a few days. Where you would get that much plastics (besides a used high-tunnel/greenhouse) I have no idea—individual garbage bags would be a mess. But, there is potential here. Perhaps, instead of tarping, solarize the hay while it’s down on a hot few days. Of course, this idea would need some testing. I would also probe the bales to make sure they get up to 120 Fahrenheit.
Last, mulch and mulch and mulch some more. The approach has been used successfully before (check out this NOFA talk with Liz Josep, and if you know Liz, tell her we’d love to talk with her). It may help prevent a grass takeover, though—arguably—the advantages could be outweighed by the labor and sheer amount of mulch. I might also argue that I’ve been wrong before, someone do the math.
Compared to compost as a mulch, hay can be pretty cheap, especially if it’s not feed quality. We have received square bales for as low as $1 and as high as $4. You get the better price if you pick it up in the summer when it is abundant. Winter hay is always more expensive. I find it takes about 7 to 10 bales to cover one 100 ft bed enough for one season (though it may be fully broken down by the Fall in long growing seasons, which can be good for fall seeding). In contrast, I feel it takes at least 1 to 1.5 yards of compost to cover the same bed. So, even at full price hay would be $40 a bed versus compost which can run $30 a yard at $45 per bed. And $15 more per bed really adds up when you’re talking 100 beds or so.
Assuming you’re not using some sort of fancy (and kinda dangerous looking) hay-spreading implement, fresh hay is relatively easy to spread—relative, that is, to filling up wheel barrows of compost, wheeling them out to the beds, dumping them, and spreading it with a rake. That said, you cannot seed directly into hay so you would have to pull it back and expose those weed seeds you’re attempting to mulch, or let it break down fully first. That is absolutely something to consider—no direct-seeding into fresh hay mulch. Also consider there is no harm in hybridizing mulch systems.
Remember, the goal of hay is to cut the grass while it is still high in nutrients to give later to livestock when the grass is dormant. I can’t site a good study study on it, but at least versus straw, which is mostly just carbon, good hay is full of protein and would arguably make a better food for the garden. If you know of a good study, or reference in a book, I’d love to read it.
So, Should You Use it?
It is hard to pass up a great resource like hay, and for that reason we are experimenting with it on our farm to see if we can’t work it into the system. However, you have to have a plan in place for managing the weed seeds. That is going to be your biggest obstacle. Your second obstacle is going to be direct-seeding. Seeding is borderline impossible in hay unless you pull it aside.
Oh, Soil Temperature & Moisture
Hay keeps your soil cooler and wetter. If it’s the middle of the summer? Great. Spring? Maybe not so much… unless you are living somewhere that is perpetually hot and dry (Southwest-ish, in the US). The moisture and temperature element is something to consider, and also why we usually recommend a hybrid system, maybe even a sort of lasagna option Jared Smith described in his episode—some mulch, some compost, all good soil things.
Is it worth it?
I think hay can work for certain growers or certain crops on a commercial scale under the right management. I do not think hay is a great option for all growers in all areas. Have a plan in place for dealing with potential weeds before you put it down. Maybe even a back-up plan, as well.
Straw Vs Hay Vs Wood Chips: Which is the Best Mulch?
As our tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, and squash plants are starting to germinate, it’s time to start thinking about preparing our garden for planting. Depending on where you live, that could be sooner rather than later.
If you aren’t sure what to plant or when you can find your planting zone here.
Many home gardeners know that mulch has its benefits for a vegetable garden. However, there’s a lot of disagreement about which kind of mulch. Whether you’re a hay, straw or wood chips mulcher, you’re all right. Each has its benefits.
But we all can agree that the best mulch is the one that is available in your area. Often you can find it for free.
Here are a few reasons why mulching will help your garden:
Mulching helps add organic matter to your garden. When mulch is decomposed by microorganisms the nutrients in the soil increases. When you mulch your garden, nutrients are released as the organic matter breaks down.
Mulch suppresses garden weeds. Weed seeds stay dormant and do not germinate because of the lack of sunlight.
Mulching helps your plants to grow healthy and strong. There are fewer weeds and therefore the plants can get the nutrients they need as well as they have space to grow.
Mulching your garden beds means you won’t have to water as much because water doesn’t evaporate as easily. This is great for areas of drought. Mulch does this by keeping the sunlight out which reduces evaporation and keeps moisture at the roots.
Plant roots, which would be sensitive to temperature fluctuation are better insulated.
So now that you know why it’s important to mulch, which kind should you use?
Wood chips are a heavy mulch choice and therefore pack down better. They are also less likely to have slugs, which is a great bonus.
You have to be careful, though, some wood chips can be toxic and cause damage to your plants. This is because some trees are poisonous to other plants. For instance, black maple will kill tomato plants. When you pick up the chips be sure to find out what kind of wood they are or if the wood has been treated with chemicals or pesticides.
Wood chips may affect the pH level of the soil. Maintaining proper acidity is important for most vegetable growth. There is some debate that long-term use of wood chips may increase the number of fungi in the soil. For the first few years, this is good, but over time this will inhibit plant growth.
It has three times the amount of carbon than what’s needed to grow vegetables. Vegetables need to have a balance of 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio.
If you have wood where you absolutely know its composition, and that it’s free of toxins, go ahead and use them. Just be sure to add a lot of compost.
If you’re not quite sure of its composition, wood chips look great on garden paths and will reduce weeds.
Hay is grass that has been cut while green. It is then dried and made into square or round bales. Hay is readily available, so much so, that it is sometimes available for free, especially during hay season in the summer. You can find it by looking at your local online advertising site.
Hay is often a blend of a variety of grasses and legumes, clover and other flowers. It includes both the leaf and stalk, so the plant nutrients are all intact.
Hay is an excellent choice because as it decomposes it gives rich nutrients to the soil. It adds a balanced ratio of nitrogen and carbon and many trace minerals.
Hay decomposes fairly quickly and absorbs moisture more than straw does. This means that in heavy rainfalls it slows down the amount of rain that soaks into the soil. This helps to prevent erosion.
Hay also holds moisture really well, allowing planted seeds to sprout. But it’s not a good mulch choice if you’re trying to suppress weeds. And often the hay itself contains seeds that will sprout once they get wet.
If you live in an area that is very wet and humid you’re likely to get a lot of slugs or snails in hay mulch. But mice don’t typically hang out in hay mulch, because it’s too dense.
As hay decomposes it has a tendency to deplete the soil of nitrogen, because of the bacteria it harbors. As these organisms run out of food they die. The nitrogen is once again available for the plants to use. So planting directly into a hay mulch without any supplemental source of nitrogen is not a good idea. Like wood chips, you’ll need to add a healthy layer of compost.
Straw is the made from the stalk of a cereal crop, oats, barley, wheat, or rye after the seed heads are harvested. Straw, although not as heavy as wood chips, is a terrific insulator.
The hollow stems are light, retain air and are easy to spread. Straw also has a lovely golden color that it retains for a long time. It remains dry even while the bottom layer touching the soil begins to decompose.
However, straw can be expensive. Unlike wood chips, it has a tendency to blow away in strong winds. Straw is mostly composed of cellulose and fiber. All the real nutrients were cut off when the seed heads that were harvested for grain.
Straw takes a while to decompose, which is both good and bad. If you want to add nutrients, straw won’t help. But for maintaining a cover or walkway it works well.
In an ideal world, the best garden mulch includes a layer of hay on the bottom and straw on top, mixed with compost. Then use wood chips for your walkways and flower beds.
If you don’t use all the mulch in one year, it can be stored covered in your backyard. Even if it gets wet and starts to decompose, that’s okay. You can use it as compost.
With a little planning, mulching your garden will help with its fertility and moisture retention. It will also significantly reduce the amount of time you spend watering and weeding. Your vegetables and your family will thank you for it.
For more great tips and resources for your home and garden, check out our blog.