Living

Ask a Gardener: Should I use straw and hay for garden mulch?

Linn Schnell of Spokane feeds hay into an an antique thresher during a threshing demonstration at a tractor and machinery show July 30, 2015, at Berthusen Park in Lynden. Hay makes excellent mulch, especially if it’s composted first.
Linn Schnell of Spokane feeds hay into an an antique thresher during a threshing demonstration at a tractor and machinery show July 30, 2015, at Berthusen Park in Lynden. Hay makes excellent mulch, especially if it’s composted first. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Question: What’s the difference between straw and hay?

Answer: Many gardeners like the look and efficiency of straw or hay for mulch. Straw consists of the dried stems and leaves of a grain crop such as oats or wheat. Hay is usually cut green from fields that are a mix of grasses, legumes and weeds.

It seems like a no-brainer on what to use, right? Use straw and avoid weeds. Yet it’s not so simple. Hay is higher in nitrogen than straw: 0.1-2 percent vs. 0.3-1 percent.

In addition, there’s the problem of supply. Straw is less available and harder to find than hay and always more expensive to buy. So, what to do? The best solution is to compost hay before you use it in the garden or as mulch so the weed seeds will be killed in a heated composting system. Or, if you have chickens, let them clean up the weed seeds in hay. My chickens consider them a delicacy. Or, if you love to weed, go ahead and use hay without composting. The weeds that come up are easy to see and easy to pull. If you stay on top of the weeding, you can eliminate them permanently within a few seasons.

Q: I have stockpiled tons of rocks of all sizes unearthed while landscaping my new yard. Would rock make good mulch?

A: Stones have many advantages when used as mulch. They are good at conserving water, they warm up the soil quickly, and they protect plants during cool nights. For those who all too often have to replenish their woodchip mulch, they’ll find that permanent rock mulch is both a time and a labor saver.

To stone mulch successfully, every inch of soil must be covered. Fill cracks between larger stones with gravel or smaller stones.

Kathleen Bander of Bellingham is a life-long gardener. Her column will appear in The Bellingham Herald weekly through the summer growing season. If you have a gardening question you’d like answered in the column, please email it to newsroom@bellinghamherald.com. For more gardening information online, go to whatcom.wsu.edu/ch/mg.html.

  Comments