The weather outside is definitely cold in most of the Northern Hemisphere right now and there is little gardening going on. But, shortly those that like to start early gardens will begin their preparations for the new year. This will include working in the bed or garden plot to prep the soil, adding compost or fertilizers, and starting early plants like lettuce and broccoli. Another action that some gardeners use to begin their season early and to extend their fall crops is using straw as a ground cover.
How to Use Straw
If you decide to use straw in your garden, keep in mind it’s best used as a mulch. Spread a good layer of mulch, about 2-6 inches (5-15 cm) in-depth, over your garden area. This may be done just in the rows or across the garden so that it can be worked into the soil. As you begin planting sprouts or seeds, pull back the straw and plant the plants or seeds as you would normally. After planting replace the straw and water thoroughly.
So what’s the big deal about straw and why should you use it in your garden? Straw has several beneficial characteristics that make it a good gardening material; this includes insulation, water retention, creating a good top environment for things like worms, and a source of carbon.
Straw’s use as insulation may be the most beneficial property and the reason why many gardeners use it during early spring and late fall. Straw acts as insulation in several ways. First, it’s pithy, which means it has innumerable air pockets to trap air. This trapped air is warmed by the sun and remains warm even during the night. This allows plants to stay warm even during periods of cool weather. This can extend the growing seasons of plants by several weeks even in areas that have bitterly cold winters.
This can benefit cool weather plants which include: broccoli, cauliflower, kale, lettuces, and carrots. Furthermore, in some areas warmer weather crops such as tomatoes and squash can be planted earlier because of the added protection.
Straw is also good for water retention and again, in part, to its pith. These air pockets can also trap water after irrigation or rainfall and allow water to slowly be absorbed into the soil. Straw in the garden also slows water evaporation from the soil through solar heat. This allows gardeners to reduce the amount of water used and the frequency of watering.
Straw also creates cover for worms and other beneficial garden organisms. Worms, for example, help keep the soil loose for good root growth and they feed on the material in the soil. This also increases soil fertility.
Finally, straw used in gardens can be a good source of carbon when if it is eventually tilled into the soil. As the straw composts and decomposes, it releases into and replenishes the soil lost carbon stock. Furthermore, it can be used to amend high clay soils that may clump.
Negative Straw Attributes
While there are many benefits to straw there are a few negative attributes as well. First, unless you know local cereal farmers straw can be expensive, somewhere around $7 USD a bale is not out of the question. It can also create habitats for garden pests as well including slugs. Finally, straw can be somewhat abrasive and scratch the skin when you work with it, and therefore you may want to consider wearing gloves and long sleeves when working with it. However, the pros of using straw as a garden cover vastly outweigh the cons.