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Mulching straw

Ever Had What Looks Like Grass Sprouting in the Garden from Straw Mulch?

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?

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.

Final Thought

If anyone has more questions about straw mulch (or any other kind of mulch) feel free to ask.

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10 Comments

  • I appreciate this post as I have had the same with quite alot of growth, way too much to pull out. I was wondering, did I get hay vs straw or what? Do I need to find sterilized straw or does that even exist? So perhaps I need to make some calls ahead of purchasing and hopefully be assured there aren’t a lot of seeds in what I buy ….

  • Graham, the notion that pine needles make the soil acidic has been around for a long time. It’s not accurate. It is true that pine needles are acidic when they fall from the tree, but when you lay them on the soil the soil life neutralizes them.

    In all the years I used pine for mulch I NEVER had it turn my soil towards acidic. The pH always runs around 6.8.

    I addressed this in my book on Organic Gardening on page 167.

    “When organic materials are added to the soil and decay, the resulting organic matter tends to change the soil pH towards neutral.”

    Cathi, indeed you may have gotten hay instead of straw. One indication of hay would usually be a variety of different plants sprouting. With straw — it will be the one plant (wheat,oats,or whatever grain it’s from).

    I don’t know that there is such a thing as sterilized straw.

    Calling ahead may help to one degree or the other. Depends on your source. I would call and ask as many questions as they’ll answer.

    My situation is an example of what can happen even with folks who don’t intentionally mislead you:
    As you and I know — once this sprouting event happens to us, we get rather paranoid about straw.
    I addressed it with the farmer from whose family I’ve bought straw for 40 years. He is very emphatic about it not happening with his straw BUT the fact remains that it has and did happen 2 or 3 times over 40 years.

    All we can do in any of life’s situations is “the best we can”. Do our homework and everything we can to make sure it turns out ok. That increases our chances of a good result, so most of the time things will be fine. But there always a possibility – even if small – that things won’t go according to plan. When that happens there’s nothing else to do but work through it.

    I hope you’ll keep me updated on what happens. If you have more concerns as things progress, just email me with questions.
    Theresa

  • I’m so glad you mentioned that pine needle mulch does not contribute to a lower pH. This year I had been neglectful about my asparagus bed so after cleaning it up I used left over pine needle mulch on top. Then I worried because I read that asparagus prefer a higher pH. Your information has eased my plant conscience. Thank you.

  • I was JUST dealing with this on Sunday. I’m thankful it pulls out easily. I looked at the bright side of the problem being happy it wasn’t crab grass.

  • About 30 years ago before I knew better I bought hay instead of straw to put on my garden.

    You are doing a great service to your readers. Thanks

    Don

  • Thanks for the response and I feel better somehow knowing I’m not the only one perplexed about this topic. I have considered using the kind of pine bedding around my garden beds that we put in our chicken coop. But that could get pricey and I worry it might just blow all over the place once I spread it….

    So is there really any cost effective way to avoid all the weeds that sprout up everywhere short of building a boardwalk? (Which isn’t a bad idea except for the cost and labor.) Sand maybe? We’ve used free mulch in the past but are so done with that by now. Eventually there are sticks everywhere! (And weeds… ) : (

    With my native landscaping ( in Colorado) I fight weeds pretty successfully with ground cover and prairie grasses. But of course around garden beds there would be too much foot traffic for most of those.

  • Thanks Theresa. It will be easier to throw the straw grass on top of the garden than to put it into a trash can. I just hope I can get to all of it before it goes to seed. I was anticipating a heavy rain this past weekend so I could cover my “de-strawed” garden with pine needles but it didn’t happen. Heavy rain is forecast again for this Friday so hopefully, I’ll get to put down the pine needles. Also, now that I know what to look for, I found a garden center that not only has pine straw but also seedless straw AND it also looks a bit chopped up. Yay!

    I’ll keep you posted on how things go and I hope to get some things growing soon.

    Susan in E Tn

  • Christine, your asparagus will love the pine mulch. Glad the topic came up so you can rest easy.

    Patricia, you’re right – that’s the bright side. Definitely not crab grass.

    I did the same thing those many years ago Don. Hopefully I’ve been able to help others avoid that mistake.

    Cathi, my reply – with several suggestions — is a bit long for the comment area. I’ll try to get a post up within a day or so. (See update in comment below this one.)

    I want to mention here however, that sand will not stop weeds. Neither will gravel.

    It’s excellent that you are fighting weeds with ground cover and prairie grasses.

    Susan, what great news that you found a garden center with pine and also seedless straw!

    Hope you didn’t get rid of your straw that was in garden. Assuming you still have it (I hope so)
    rake it to one spot and the seed will germinate and can be easily pulled. Then you can use the straw.

    Hope you’ll get that nice rain so you can get your pine down.

    Theresa

  • To Cathi and everyone —
    I started writing about all the things to do in order to have very little weeding and it can easily be a major piece — so I’m not going to try to do it now when I have so little time.

    Cathi, if you have access to wood chips (not chips of bark, but actual wood that has been put through a chipper) it makes a good mulch. And even better once it’s been aged. It works better than almost anything for border edges. It can have big chunks of wood in it, but for flower borders that’s usually not a problem.
    Theresa

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