Using Hay vs. Straw in the Garden

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Hay vs. Straw in the Garden: Which is Better?

Search the internet for info on using hay vs. straw as mulch and you’ll see statements like these: “I’ve never made the mistake of using hay”, or “Straw makes great mulch — or, for that matter, a great addition to your compost pile; hay does not”,  and “I inadvertently asked for hay instead of straw one year and that slip of the tongue turned into a nightmare.”

First, let me tell you the difference between straw and hay. Straw is the stalks or stems of grains like wheat, barley, or oats after the grain has been harvested. Hay is grass or legumes that have been cut and dried and is generally used as animal feed. Hay often contains seeds which sprout when used as mulch, which is why there are so many warnings against using it. Straw can also contain seeds if all of the grain was not removed, but in general it is less of a problem.

So, what do I do? I use hay! Here’s why: Hay is mineral rich; straw has little nutrition. My main concern as a gardener is to build my soil. As hay decomposes, it adds many more nutrients to the soil than straw. I also prefer to work with hay finding it much less stiff. I use it as mulch and as I build lasagna gardening beds. Alfalfa hay is particularly rich and I use it often.

So how do I get away with using hay, when there are so many warnings against it? What I do is try to anticipate how many bales I will need next year, and purchase them this year. I leave them out where they will receive rain and snow. Most of the seeds sprout, and the bales begin to decompose. By the time I use them as mulch, or to build a new bed, they already contain worms and other beneficial soil organisms. And weeds are a minor problem, if at all. If you have access to a farmer who has old bales around that he can no longer use to feed his animals, he may just give you the hay. It’s a treasure; take it!

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  1. says

    lol…you’re great. TOTALLY!
    ps.I love the way you right. You’re blog is such a pleasant and interesting place to visit! Thanks for all the great info!

  2. says

    Hey there, I’m a reader from Homestead Revival hop. I use hay also, but I let the chickens work it over first. They chow down on all of the seeds and those that are sprouting. After two weeks in the chicken run, I put it into the compost bin where it breaks down quickly. It makes a great balance to the chicken manure.

  3. says

    Thanks for the information! We bale our own hay, but have never used it on the garden. I have bought straw before, but did find it stiff, like you said. Also, it still had a lot of grain in it, and sprouted everywhere. I will give this a try this year! Thanks again!

  4. moyerles says

    If you live in the southern US & have the possibility of getting bermuda grass seed in your hay, I would NEVER use it as mulch–even using this method. Just ONE tiny seed can turn into a permaculture nightmare. It spreads by rhizomes and even a 1/2″ piece can spread & spread & spread &–ugh! Almost all “commercial” hay sold (i.e. anyone who raises hay to sell) in my area is specifically “improved” (i.e. sprayed with broadleaf herbicides) bermuda grass (i.e. they’re killing everything BUT the bermuda grass in their pastures), so not only would it have SOME bermuda, but would have a LOT of bermuda. Anyway–just saying that I agree in principle that hay has a lot of “good stuff” in it vs. straw, but in the southern US (& wherever bermuda grass is rampant) it just isn’t worth the risk.

    • says

      I disagree, I used to have a lot of crabgrass, bermuda and fescue in my garden, since I have been using HAY for mulch, it doesn’t last. Any weeds that come up in the early spring become more mulch. The bonus is I also have a lot less issues with bugs a well. One year my weeds were being annihilated by Japanese Beetles while my tomatoes were untouched.

  5. says

    Hay is all I have ever used in our gardens as mulch. It’s super cheap here in south Texas and does a great job of keeping the weeds out! I usually lay down several sheets of newspaper on the bare ground and then cover that with six inches of hay. LOVE the stuff!

  6. says

    One of the things that I love about blogging is that I learn so much from my readers. I’m getting the idea here that the most important thing is to know what works for you and your region!

  7. Manuela@A Cultivated Nest says

    I often use hay between my beds because that’s all Home Depot and Lowe’s has and normally don’t have problem with it sprouting unless we have an abnormally wet winter or spring. Which we did this year and it’s been in a pain to deal with. I prefer woodchips and fortunately was able to get a truck load to use this year.

  8. beckyjane2 says

    I’ve only used straw to break up clay soil. Using hay makes more sence because, like you said, it has more nutrients. And waiting a year to avoid sprouts is smart! Thanks for the tips!

  9. says

    I am going to buy a few bales and try it this year. You are so right about it being full of nutrients, plus it is alkalizing.. I have been drinking wheatgrass juice for a couple of weeks now and have noticed a big difference in my body. I can feel how alkaline it is becoming.

    • says

      We found a craigslist ad today for hay that is being given away. It has begun to decompose and is no longer useful for animals. No one else has called about it and we were told we can take all we want! Yay for hay!!!!! We juice, but have never had wheatgrass. Do you like it?

  10. says

    I use all of the above! I’m lucky enough to have horses that I alternately bed on straw and shavings, and, of course, feed hay. So when everything goes into the compost pile it becomes a delightful mixture. As you mentioned, as long as it is all composted correctly, the weed seeds won’t be a problem because the process (heat, growth) puts an end to all the seeds before it ever hits your garden.
    I do use the hay I can’t feed to the horses for whatever reason in the gardens. If you are capable of transporting it (or having it delivered) a lot of farmers have many, many unused, rotting, well-composted huge round bales sitting around they’d be happy to have you haul away. That’s about 1,200 pounds of good, rotting hay for free!

  11. says

    hmmmm…..interesting. We just use straw bales that we bale ourselves.
    What about the cost factor?
    Is hay very expensive where you are from vs. straw bales?
    I wonder since the droughts and such as affected pastures in many ag areas hay is a dear commodity.

    • says

      Well, if I was baling straw myself, I would most certainly be using straw. Using what we have available is the wisest course of action, I think. In our area (NEPA), I would say that they cost about the same if you buy from a garden center. Hay is less expensive if you purchase it directly from a farmer. Farmers in this area do a lot of haying, but we don’t grow much grain around here, other than corn. Do you have access to manure? That would boost the nutrients in your soil.

  12. yourgardeningfriend says

    Just came across your site (via Prairie Homestead). Very interesting! I know the difference between the two when it comes to animals and which to use for eating and bedding, but this post is a new angle.

    Love this post, and I’m getting ready to share the link to it on my Facebook fanpage. (Hope to see you link up on Friday’s Photo with your next post. :) )

  13. says

    I’d suggest going the cover crop route before using hay or straw if you are looking to soil build. Hay and straw do make nice mulches on top of the soil. Be aware that they are both very carbon heavy and need nitrogen to break down. They will tie-up the nitrogen in your soil, depriving your garden for up to three years after incorporation (tilling). If you are going to compost beforehand that would work as long as the straw/hay was composted to a nice finely textured, dark organic matter. Here in the Midwest, we are talking a couple of years.

    Cover crops might be a better option. They can be hugely beneficial. I work with a farmer’s market farmer and the local CSA they use a combination of oats, annual winter rye, buckwheat and forage radishes (sometimes called tillage or oil radishes).

    Cover crops along with adding composted manures in the fall are how they manage soil fertility. They have some of the richest soils I’ve ever worked. (I spent the last 8 years as a horticulturist for a variety of public gardens or arboretum and these farmers are way ahead of the public gardens that are for collection or beauty.)

    We are buying our first house this year! It has a nice big vegetable garden plot. I won’t be planting vegetables this year, I’ll be working on soil building and getting ready for next year’s harvest.

    • says

      Thanks for your input! I do also use alfalfa and blood meal which are both high in nitrogen. I’ve shied away from cover crops because I don’t want to have to dig it in. Am I accurate with that? or can they just be bent over to act as a mulch? My understanding with high carbon mulches is that only the point at which the soil meets the mulch is there a drop in nitrogen. It’s only when the mulch is dug into the garden that it ties up the nitrogen. I practice no dig gardening and have had wonderful results. How exciting that you’ll be able to have a garden of your own after working so long with other growers! Your wisdom will pay off in the years to come.

  14. Ann says

    Also, if you like your garden to be more organic, straw will not be. It will most likely be a GMO crop that has been chemically dumped on. I have used straw in the past, but will be looking into composting hay this year. Great idea!

  15. Melodee Brymer says

    What about the herbicides sprayed on the hay? I have used hay for mulch before that had herbicide residue and it killed most of my vegetable crops it came in contact with. Do you think leaving it out to rot for a year would help?

  16. dennis says

    i am on 2nd year of making my compost,we have dumped lots of food scraps,cardboard,paper.i was wondering if adding hay would enhance my soil cause its really not to loomy loose for root systems.along with blood meal and bone meal added for nit,phos.please advise me thanks

  17. Robin Lambert says

    I am so happy to see this, I get so much of the same comments about seed growth. I use my hay as bedding for my goats and chickens, throw it in a big pile during the winter and use it for my garden every yr. I learned this from my grandma. I get my hay from my neighbor who does not spray anything on his hay so herbicide free. I heavy mulch and drip irrigate and have no problems with weeds at all.

  18. says

    Straw may have been treated, when growing, with a persistent herbicide such as Picloram, Aminopyralid, or Clopyralid, that will poison your garden for years to come, making it unsuitable for growing anything except grass (including corn and other variants). Animals grazing on forage sprayed with this stuff will pass it on in their manure, and it retains its potency. Beware.

    • Susan Vinskofski says

      I understand that hay can have the same problem. We’re poisoning ourselves and not too many seem to care. :( Thank you for the warning!!!

      • Barb J says

        Thank you so much for this article. I just planted my cool weather Veggies & the we got a bitter cold snap & snow. I mulched with prarie hay & later was told I’d regret it. This makes me feel much better. Oh & all the comments make me even happier, as we don’t use many chemicals in our farming & ranching, never anything on our prarie hay! So blessed to live on a farm that I know what goes into my food, grass fed beef & free range chickens

        • Susan Vinskofski says

          If the hay has seeds, you could have a problem with weeds. That’s why I always let the hay sit and rot a bit to be sure all the seeds have sprouted.

  19. says

    Yeah, I was gonna add too that Alfalfa (hay) was approved for GMO a while ago, so yeah, a sprayed and non-GMO hay from a decent and caring, small famer may be loaded with more minerals, but if it’s NOT from an eco conscious farmer it is GMO by Monsanto with a built in BT toxin and coated in RoundUp. You do NOT want to support that or use that on your garden!

  20. Doris Rives says

    I have enjoyed reading all the comments here. I am wanting to try straw bale gardening this year. My problem, straw bales are not available in my area. Hay is plentiful. In reading these comments here, it sounds as though the bales are being broken up and used in beds. I want to leave the bale intact and plant in the bale.. So, can this be done with hay, with good results? Thank you in advance.

  21. Susan Vinskofski says

    Hi Doris, I don’t have any experience with straw bale gardening, but I love the idea. My only concern is if the hay has seeds, your garden will be full of weeds. Otherwise, it should work just fine.

  22. says

    Hello, We just got about 20 bales of hay for our chickens and garden. They were new from this years crop. We live in Northern WI and the soil, is well, sand up here. So, can I do a two week getting ready period to get the hay bales ready like all the straw bale websites say to do? Straw here is 5.00 a bale and we got these hay bales for 3.00 a bale. HELP!

    • Susan Vinskofski says

      Hi Kim, I don’t have any experience with straw bale gardening, although I love the idea. Personally, if I were going to try it, I would probably use the hay. Having said that, I don’t want to go ahead and tell you what to do. I don’t know if there are weed seeds in the hay, but of course, there can be weed seeds in straw as well, although many people will tell you otherwise. Leaving weed seeds out of the equation, do I think that hay will perform well in a straw bale style garden? I do!

      • says

        Thanks for getting back with me so quick. I’ve never done a garden or chickens. My husband grew up on a farm but hasn’t worked with the bales in a garden either. SO, I will try and remember to let you know how it went.
        Have a Great Sunday…

  23. says

    I don’t know how I originally missed this post but it is awesome. It just takes the planning of leaving them out, which I won’t be able to incorporate this year, since I’m starting my beds as soon as this silly snow melts! (We’re on our way with that, thank goodness.) However, I love planning and I have farming friends so I should be able to get some hay to leave out this year, particularly once haying season starts and people are trying to offload their old leftovers from last year. Thanks, Susan.

    • Susan Vinskofski says

      Rosalyn, we also check Craigslist, and can often get hay that is beginning to spoil very inexpensively.

  24. Stephanie says

    We have horses and some of our bales got real wet and molded producing a lot of heat. We put it in a pile since spring and haven’t touched it. Would we be able to use that in our garden? The weeds are ridiculous!

    • Susan Vinskofski says

      Hi Stephanie, that would be wonderful for your garden as a mulch, and it will build soil as well!


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