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The difference between hay and straw in the garden

Clean wheat straw has an even amber color. (Photo: Bob Dluzen)

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.

Low quality hay often has a dull color and different plant stems can be seen. (Photo: Bob Dluzen)

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.

Hay and straw are often both used as weed control mulch in the garden but the results you get can be quite different.

Putting Wheat Straw on Your Lawn

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When you’re trying to establish a new lawn or fill in large bare spots in an existing lawn, you can use wheat straw to cover the seeded areas and act as a layer of mulch. Finding the right coverage balance is key to the success of your seeds, and it can save you time later when the grass peeks through the straw.

Purpose

Grass seed is typically planted in freshly tilled soil. This soil should be kept moist and at a fairly consistent temperature, and spreading wheat straw over the newly planted grass seed can help with both these issues. Also, the straw helps hide the seeds from hungry birds who can devastate your lawn before the seeds have a chance to germinate. When you’re trying to grow grass on uneven or hilly ground, the straw can help reduce erosion and hold the seeds in place.

How to Use Straw

Depending on the size of your lawn, you can spread wheat straw by hand or rent a bale chopper. To spread it by hand, cut the strings holding the bale together and grab a handful of straw. Shake it over your yard, then grab some more. With a bale chopper, you typically need two people. One person pushes the bale of straw into the machine and the other holds the hose that shoots the straw onto the ground. Shoot for about 50 percent coverage; spread the straw out with a garden rake if necessary to separate it and allow some dirt to show through. The seeds need sunlight as well as moisture to grow. The straw degrades quickly, so it should get chopped up as you mow and decay into the soil, adding nutrients.

Problems

Laying wheat straw on your yard isn’t without its complications. If you spread the straw too thick, it can keep the newly budded blades from finding their way to the sun. Also, wheat straw sometimes contains viable seeds, especially when it’s fresh — less than a month since it was cut. The wheat seeds can grow along with the grass, rising up in taller, thinner sprouts. Although the wheat should die off during the winter, it can cause you to mow more often in the warmer months.

Other Options

Wheat straw is the most common type used on seeded lawns, but you can also find barley or oat straw. Compost also works as an effective mulch, as does loose peat moss and a thin layer of sawdust. Fresh pine straw can inhibit the growth of the new seedlings, but old pine straw — so old it doesn’t have a scent — can work if it’s spread with the same 50 percent coverage as wheat straw.

  • Danny Lipford: Benefits of Spreading Straw or Mulch Over Grass Seed
  • Seedland: General Seeding Rates For Fescue Grass
  • Walter Reeves: Fescue – Wheat Sprouts
  • Walter Reeves: Bermuda – Planting Seed

Based outside Atlanta, Ga., Shala Munroe has been writing and copy editing since 1995. Beginning her career at newspapers such as the “Marietta Daily Journal” and the “Atlanta Business Chronicle,” she most recently worked in communications and management for several nonprofit organizations before purchasing a flower shop in 2006. She earned a BA in communications from Jacksonville State University.

Putting Wheat Straw on Your Lawn. When you’re trying to establish a new lawn or fill in large bare spots in an existing lawn, you can use wheat straw to cover the seeded areas and act as a layer of mulch. Finding the right coverage balance is key to the success of your seeds, and it can save you time later when … ]]>