Hay or Straw – Which to Use for Mulch

Everything considered, I’d recommend straw for most gardeners rather than hay as mulch to use in your garden. Here’s why.

Hay – What is It?

As far as the farmer is concerned, the main use of hay is to feed animals in seasons when grasses are not growing. He will want it to have the highest nutritional value for the animal. Because of this he will harvest (cut) the various grasses, legumes and other herbaceous (non-woody green plant) plants that make up hay after they form seed heads.

Most Frequent Effect of Using Hay for Mulch

Herbaceous plants are called weeds when they get into your garden. :) And that is usually the effect (result) of using hay as mulch.

I inadvertently asked for hay instead of straw one year and that slip of the tongue turned into a nightmare. I had weeds everywhere!! It took what seemed forever to get rid of them.

Hay can be an Excellent Mulch if

If you have enough property to grow your own hay for mulch, you can harvest before the seed heads develop. If you can do this — you’ll be good to go using hay to mulch your garden. This is the way I would choose if I had enough property and the means to harvest the hay. An EXCELLENT source of mulch and organic material.

Examples of What Others who use Hay Have Done

_I’ve read of gardeners who let the hay bales sit for a year allowing the seeds to sprout. Then they use it to mulch their garden. I would think there would still be many seeds that would lie dormant until the following year. Considering how long most weed seeds are viable, it still might be chancy even after letting it sit a year. Unless of course, you have time pull up the resulting weed growth.

_Other gardeners open the bales of hay and let their chickens have at the seed, then use the hay for mulch after that.

_Years ago I remember reading of Ruth Stout using hay — probably because it may have been cheaper than straw. If weeds sprouted she just piled on more hay to smother them. In theory that sounds like a great plan. It certainly worked for her. But the weeds from hay seem to get the better of me — so I don’t use it. (In case you don’t know, Ruth Stout was probably the first gardener to publicize what she had discovered about gardening being so easy.)

(Note added March 2013 – After I wrote this post I found out that it was salt marsh hay that Ruth Stout used. Salt Marsh Hay is made from the grasses that grow in coastal marshes, and it contains no weed seeds.)

Straw – What is It?

When farmers grow grain like wheat, oat, and barley the grain is harvested first. Then they bale the stems (stalks) that remain which are called straw. That’s the byproduct of the grain harvest and farmers use it for animal bedding.

Why it Makes a Good Mulch

It makes a good mulch because it doesn’t contain all the weed seeds that hay might have.

Seeds that Do Get in are Easier to Deal With

When straw is baled sometimes some of the grain gets into the bales. (And possibly a few weed seeds now and then.) So if you see what looks like green grass coming up at various places where you have your straw (mulch), it’s the newly sprouted seeds of grain. They’ll be easy to pull out and not a big problem if you do it in right away. And that will be the end of them. It will be much easier to deal with than weeds from hay.

Final Words

As with everything, there can always be the exceptions to the rule. But – all things considered – I’ll go with straw to mulch my garden.


I’m adding this note after receiving an important comment by Beppy.    You need to be aware of residual herbicides, so please read her comment to this (below) and my post on residual herbicides so you’ll be prepared.

At the beginning of the season I have at least 4 rolls of straw, but I always try to keep at least 1 roll on hand.

Related Posts:
10 Reasons to Mulch

Mulching Your Fruits, Vegetables, and Perennials

Why Mulch your Garden Paths

3 Things to Keep in Mind When You Mulch

Compost – Mulch – Residual Herbicides – What you Can Do About Them in Your Garden

Organic gardening is easy, efficient, effective and —- it a lot healthier!


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  • Also, the farmer may have sprayed the hay field with herbicides to get rid of the weeds. If so this could be death to your garden plants because it is still in the hay and will either kill them or affect their growth. It happened to me.

  • I appreciate your adding this point Beppy. I even added a PS to the post so folks will be sure to read your comment. So many gardeners pay no attention to this possibility and I think that’s a mistake —– because as you say —- it does happen!

    For those interested in reading more
    Thanks so much for the great input!

  • What about the grains now grown
    with GMO seed. Would the straw be contaminated?

    Thank you so much for your newsletters they have been such an encouragement considering I always believed I had two brown thumbs.

    Ann (from Kansas)

  • Ann, your question is such an EXCELLENT one and one I wish I really knew the right answer to it.

    The last time I got straw from my farmer I asked him if he was growing GMO wheat. He said no. I told him I did not want straw from GMO wheat if he did grow it. He said he would give me barley straw if he decided to grow GMO wheat.

    I know he grows GMO corn from time to time and I can’t help but wonder if some of that doesn’t end up in my garden. I hate the thoughts.
    The thing is — a lot of research has been done — and we do know that GMO products ingested are harmful to animals and humans. We know that ingesting animals that eat GMO is harmful.

    We really are not sure about residue from crops that decay in the soil. However, I would like to err on the side of caution. I want to stay as far away from them as I can —- because if damage is done because of them — we probably can’t undo it.

    That’s another thing that is so awful about what Monsanto and the others are doing with all the GMO stuff. With nature — when something goes wrong — it can be fixed. With GMOs — that are taking the very DNA of one species and crossing it with another —– they are upsetting the very balance that was built into things. This might be beyond us to deal with.

    I will write more in future posts about how I am looking ahead and planning other things I can do for mulch rather than buy straw from my farmer if GMO stuff becomes the only thing available. I’m not able to grow ALL of the mulch I need, but I am going to start growing some. One small step.

    I will continually look ahead and plan and continue to take one small step in the direction I want to go —– My goal being to stay as far away from GMO stuff as possible and become more self sustaining than I am now.

    Look to as many other sources for mulch as you can. Pine tags, wood chips, straw from other grains, etc.

    If you love gardening — I can almost guarantee you do NOT have brown thumbs! That thought — rest assured — is the result of the marketing you are bombarded with all the time. Don’t give in to it. Look to nature —- and if she is not being cooperative the day you need her — write to me with your question and I’ll try my best to help.

    Thanks for the great question Ann and for letting me know that what I write has been encouraging to you.

  • Hello,

    I just stumbled upon your excellent web site while researching Tomato blight. Since I am a bit afraid of using hay or mulch since I do not know the source could I use leaves, in my case this being mostly white oak leaves with some red oak and hickory mixed in. I have heard both good and bad things about this. Some say they would be too acidic and too many tannins while others say they work just fine. Your thoughts?

  • Forgot to say I am also a Virginia gardener! I live in Stafford near Fredericksburg.

  • Several years ago, there was a problem with residual herbicides in cow compost for gardening. Seems the digestion did not “weed” out the herbicides and it was killing vegetables. Google “killer compost”. Hopefully the problem has been fixed. I’m still cautious when using commercial compost. Also about GMO products. When you think about it, just about everything we consume is GMO including seeds we buy. Gmo isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you consider higher yield, disease and insect resistance, better all around crops, veggies etc. When I grew up in the 50’s in Hawaii, there was much research done by Dole to produce a better sugar cane and pineapple. Think about it, Luther Burbank and G.W. Carver pioneered GMO b4 it was GMO.

  • Residual herbicides surfaced about 1999 -2000. I’ve written about them numerous times and have given lots of details in various posts. And no, the problem has NOT been fixed. When buying commercial compost you have a 50- 50 chance that it contains residual herbicides. Here’s 4 posts:

    And yes, there is much that the public consumes that contains genetically modified ingredients. We have to be very current on information to try to stay away from them, but it can be done.

    The seed that gardeners have access to is NOT GMO seed. GMO seed is sold to commercial growers (farmers) and they have to sign papers to even buy the seed.

    There is a big difference in hybrids (a cross of two varieties of the same species) and GMO, where
    one species is crossed with another — for example a fish with a tomatoe.

    Burbank and Carver did not pioneer GMOs.

    GMOs do not produce higher yields and are not disease and insect resistance. That belief is a result of heavy marketing by companies like Monsanto. The facts are out there, you just have to look for them.

  • Hi Theresa,

    This was the second year that I bought and used straw from Lowe’s but this time, to my dismay, I have green grass growing all over my vegetable garden plots. My husband says they reappear almost as fast as he picks them. We’ve had a LOT of rain this year already. I was thinking about sowing buckwheat but with all this grass (not gone to seed yet but I’m worried whether I can keep up with it’s removal), now I’m not sure what to do. Is there any way to kill the grass by covering it or do I need to keep pulling it up? Then, do I throw it on the ground or into a trash can?

    Also, the various field peas that we inherited when we moved here will probably be coming up soon. I will try to cut them many of them down and let some grow. In the meantime, should I consider using pine straw this summer rather than straw from Lowe’s?

    Thanks. I’m so glad you’re feeling better and dancing! And I appreciate all that you do to share your knowledge and expertise with us!


  • Here in 2019, it’s my understanding that farmers will spray their wheat (and other non-gmo) crops with round-up (glyphosate) just to get a good/strong harvest. It seems even if a product is labeled non-gmo, it could still be contaminated with glyphosate. Sprayed just before it’s consumed by livestock and humans. This is the reason I’m big on natural gardening.

  • You are correct Bill. Thank you for posting. Any wheat product that is not organic is most likely to have glyphosate residue in it since this practice is widespread.
    Farmers use the glyphosate to dry out the grain and to get a bigger yield.
    Another reason to eat organic.

  • We have recently learned that the straw we used for mulch this year is what is growing in our garden. We are told by the garden supply store to leave it grow, that it will in the end break down in the soil and not re-grow. However, as they grow larger than the veges we started to pull them. It is tedious to remove each one by the root. What to do? How long will this straw keep growing anyway?

  • Kathleen,
    The folks in the garden supply store are either not gardeners or they’re conventional gardeners who don’t understand the process of what happens when you let the “straw” (usually wheat seedlings) grow. Fortunately, you saw that you needed to pull it up and did.

    The post that will give you a lot more detail on what you need to know is this one

    As the post will point out – while the plants that are growing currently won’t regrow – they can set seed and drop the seed in your garden. And that will definitely regrow!

    I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who have emailed me with this problem. The post I linked to will tell you why this happens and other things you need to know.

    You might be encouraged to know that over my 41 years of gardening this has happened to me twice. One of the two times, the straw was from the farmers that have been my source of straw for 4 decades. Which shows this can happen even with farmers who know what they’re doing. Circumstances that year were out of their control. So I understood — but it’s still not fun to deal with.

    The seed dropped in your garden this year by the straw will sprout out at different times. So it may continue to come up throughout the season. And maybe a probable few might even make it to next year. If you pull them when you see them coming up it’s much easier.

    Once you get through this and get straw from a reliable source you should be good to go.

    I can’t even count how many people have emailed me with the exact same problem. I’ve been through it twice in 41 years and that’s twice more than I wanted. It’s not fun. But you just have to work through it.

    Again, I urge you to pull up the seedlings when they first come up. They’ll come up very easily.

    If you read the recommended posts and still have questions, feel free to ask.

  • Love how informative, and like a great teacher, patient you are with your commenters.

  • Hi,
    First thank you for this post and info.
    This is my first year with my garden and i decided to put straw down that said certified weed and seed free and after the first week i now have wheat, oats, rye or barley growing and fast. I tried pulling it but as soon as i pulled it all in one lane the in the next couple of days it was back and its everywhere. lol

    Not sure what to do so i figured i would ask for your professional opinion.

    Also a couple questions

    What happens if i just leave it to grow?

    Can i use it for anything if so?

    Is there a easy way to get it out?

    Thank you and have a great day, week and year!

  • Once you pull each plant Bret— it’s not coming back — but rather another seed is germinating and growing.

    Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for this nightmare that many of us have experience. You just keep pulling until finally there is no more.

    Don’t allow any of it to set seed because if it drops the seed in your garden you’ll have to start all over.

    Assuming each plant has not set seed you can drop it anywhere on top of your beds or in your paths and let it decay. The soil life will eventually pull it into the soil.

    If you get a pile of it you can use it for mulch.

    If you allow it to grow it will eventually set seed and as I mentioned previously — you’ll be starting all over again.

    The easiest way to get it out is pull it out.

    The seed that is there will germinate at different times so you’ll need to be on the lookout. You might even get a few seeds germinating next year. So be aware.

    Keep at it and you’ll win in the long run.

    Evidently their “certified weed and seed free” was just a lot of deception.
    Sorry you had to experience it, but you’re in good company. : – )


  • I am from Alaska and one of the nurseries there, which also furnished food for dogs, cats, large farm animal, sold bales that were labeled seed free and others not. The seed free was more expensive. Maybe it was really hay bales.

  • Mary,
    I explained in the post that since farmers use hay to feed animals and want the most nutritional value — they harvest (cut) the various grasses, legumes and other herbaceous (non-woody green plant) plants that make up hay after they form seed heads. Thus, hay has loads of seed in it.

    So I’m not sure why you thought the bales in Alaska that were labeled ‘seed free” were hay bales. Can you explain please?


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