Using Hay as Mulch for Organic Gardening

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A guide to using mulch in your yard or garden

The method of mulching heavily with hay has enjoyed widespread if unpublicized use for many years.

Here is a list of some great ways to use hay as mulch in your own garden.

1. Planting — Sweet Corn can readily be sown by merely pushing the seed kernels into the ground through the hay mulch. A string to mark the rows make this kind of planting very quick and easy, and the yield is usually well above average.

2. Plant Residues — After trying many ways of disposing of corn stalks, ranging from composting to chopping and spreading, I have arrived at the nearly ideal scheme. As soon as the corn is harvested, I flatten the stalks to the ground by bending them over and stamping on them. Then I cover the flattened mess with hay. In the spring, any kind of plants can be set with a trowel through this cover. By spreading a little compost, loam or peatmoss on top, even small seeds can be started, and the roots will penetrate into the decaying mass below. The results are astonishing to anyone who has not tried the method, and the work is reduced to almost nothing. I should add that I am not troubled with corn borers at all, and of course use no sprays or dusts of any kind.

3. Fall Clean-Up — My annual fall “clean-up” consists of leaving everything in the garden exactly where it is, and covering all crop residues with hay. I prefer to keep this cover fairly thin. If it is only four or five inches deep, it will be reduced close to ground level by spring, and seeds can be planted on and through it without moving it around. This not only saves work, but it also makes it possible to put rows very close together and far more into the same space. Row spacing is mainly a question of the gardener’s convenience. For most crops, I place the rows the same distance apart as the plants are to stand in the rows. Sweet corn spaced six inches each way will do just as well as it will with the rows three feet apart, and you get six times as much corn from the same area. Three rows of onion plants occupy a space only a foot wide, and son on with all the rest. Narrow paths separating crops of different sorts give you ready access.

4. Weeding — Hay is a marvelous substitute for thinning and weeding. Instead of pulling unwanted plants out of the ground, and disturbing the roots of others, I bend the weeds flat and pull hay over them.

5. Tilling — On most new ground, a few inches of hay in the fall will make it possible to plant any kind of crop the following year without disturbing the sod. With the Stout System, spading, plowing and cultivating are all unnecessary, and do more harm than good. If a heavy hay cover is laid on even the toughest sod in the summer, plantings can be made through it the following spring. No other preparation of the soil is required.

6. Transplanting — Strawberries, tomatoes and other plants are incredibly easy to set through thin hay mulch. With a string to mark the row, and a box or basket for the plants, you can move easily along, stabbing a trowel into the ground to make a deep slit. Shove the plant into this slit, step on the raised surface, and move on to the next. I can set 100 strawberry plants in a half hour without hurrying much. And they grow admirably, too.

7. Growing Potatoes — Large crops of the highest quality potatoes can be grown laying the seed (preferably small whole potatoes) on top of the remains of last year’s mulch. I make mounds of last year’s mulch. I make double rows, fourteen inches apart, with the seed the same distance apart in the rows. The idea of this is not only to get a heavy yield, but to make it easy to inspect the vines from both sides occasionally, and take care of a rare potato bug or a bunch of eggs that the ladybugs have missed. Having laid the seed in straight rows with the aid of a string, I cover the rows with six or eight inches of hay, and do nothing more until several week later.

After the blossoms fall, I begin moving the hay carefully to see how things are progressing. Small potatoes an inch or two in diameter can be separated from their stems without disturbing the parent plants, and the hay then replaced. The yield in pounds is reduced, of course, but the returns in satisfaction are maximized. Irish Cobblers are the best to eat this way, I think, but any variety with plenty of butter and home-grown parsley is a treat that few people have ever had.

8. Acidity Alkalinity — If you use hay mulch continuously for a number of years, you can practically forget all about acid or alkaline soil problems—along with dusting and spraying and the use of chemical fertilizers and “soil conditioners.” I grow everything from beets to blueberries under this system, and pay no attention to acidity or alkalinity any more. My experience has been that ample organic matter acts as an effective buffer and helps to neutralize extreme of pH in any soil.

9. Soil Temperature — Piling a heavy hay mulch onto the cold wet ground early in the spring is not a good way to start. Unless the soil is very sandy, or unless it is well supplied with humus, hay will give poor immediate results. Hay applied for the first time does little more than insulate the soil for several months, and if a beginning is being made in the spring, seeds should usually be well started before the mulch is spread. To improve germination and prevent washing, there is nothing better than a very thin sprinkling of peat moss over each row of seed. This light cover also serves to mark the rows, so hay can be spread in just the right places. If peat moss is thus used, the mulch can be applied between the rows at any time after planting.

10. Garden Boundary — I like to keep several extra bales of hay along the side of the garden. In the course of a year or two they break down into moist black humus, filled with earthworms that enter from below. Meanwhile, they smother grass that would otherwise continually be creeping into the edge of the garden.

11. Rotations — A rotation of strawberries, corn and potatoes are very interesting. These three crops all present special problems, because they ordinarily require so much space. For the backyard gardener to manage all of them is usually out of the question, and I have experimented for many years in an effort to solve the problem. The answer I have arrived at works very well, but it may be subject to further improvement, and I hope that anyone with a better system will let me know about it.

Since this method is a rotation, we may begin at any stage of it, so let us start with the strawberries. I will try to show how some of the ideas I have already mentioned apply in this scheme. Let me say at this point that I have eaten strawberries prepared in every way I could think of, and that my notion of perfection is to pick the berries dead ripe after the sun has evaporated excess moisture, and eat them immediately when they are still warm, but swimming in heavy chilled cream. If you have not tired organically grown strawberries this way, you may still be wondering if they are worth the time and trouble they require.

Now for the rotation. I set a new bed every year, buying 100 virus-free plants, and spacing them in four rows one foot apart, with the plants also one foot apart in rows. The plants are set through a thin mulch left from the previous season, and more hay is added as growth occurs, and as weeds need to be smothered. Since I want results, not only on the strawberries, but on the corn to follow, I spread 100 pounds of Bovung and 50 pounds of bone meal over the bed as soon as the plants are well started. I remove all runners the first year, which sounds like a lot of work. Actually, however, it takes about ten minutes a week. A walk down each side of the bed, with a pair of grass shears in hand, will take care of the runners about as quickly as you would ordinarily inspect the plants anyway.

As early as possibly the following spring, before the strawberry plants are getting into full leaf, I seed sweet corn between the rows along each side of the bed. A string keeps the corn rows straight, and I push the kernels into the ground with my fingers, spacing them closely, and taking account of the way the strawberry plants are developing. When the berries are ready to pick in June, the corn should be four or five inches high, and easy to avoid in the harvesting. The corn should be an early and strong-growing variety. I count on the five 25-plant rows of corn to yield at least fifteen dozen fine ears, and have not been disappointed yet. While the corn is growing it needs no attention at all. The strawberry plants continue to live and to shade the corn roots, and the corn thrives on the extra Bovung and bone meal applied earlier.

After the corn has all been harvested, the stalks are simply flattened to the ground over the surviving strawberry plants and covered with several inches of hay. The following spring, potatoes are laid on top of whatever remains of al this, and mulched with a heavy hay blanket. Again, nothing remains to be done but to gather potatoes, as they are wanted. According to the chemical school, everything should be riddled by insects and diseases, but I have barely enough evidence of these to realize what is supposed to be destroying my crops. I harvest all my potatoes with my bare hands, because it is so satisfying to handle the living soil and to discover one handsome tuber after another growing in it. The potato harvest thus leaves the whole space in perfect condition for the next crop. I merely cover the ground with hay, and wait for my strawberry plants to arrive.

Learn more in this article about how much mulch to use.

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  1. This is a great article, very informative, exactly what is need put in simple terms. I am working on my first organic garden and this is so helpful. Lori miles

  2. I live in central Maine and am trying to establish an organic garden. I read and re-read your article and have one question…..are you using “hay” or “straw”. There is a difference and the picture here seems to show straw. Could you please verify which you used? I put straw down on all my gardens last fall for protection as they are all new gardens. I’d like to establish a vegetable garden like the one you describe but need to know if it is hay or straw you put down.

    Dave in Maine

  3. I am also wondering if you meant to say straw instead of hay. Just recently I mulched my tomato plants with hay because straw was very scarce around this area and twice as expensive as hay. Since the day I mulched with hay, I have read many articles saying “NEVER use hay for mulch because of the many seeds that is embedded in the hay”. Therefore resulting in tons of unwanted weeds in my garden. Gosh, I hope this is not true. I even thought I would simply just go out there and remove all that hay. But if I did that then there would still be all those seeds left in the soil.
    So, if using hay instead of straw as your article states is indeed correct, then laying down the hay might turn out to be a blessing instead of a curse. Very anxious to hear back from you. Thanks!

  4. I would have to bet they are talking about using straw. I purchased potato seed and along with my order came a “booklet” giving directions to cover the potato seeds with HAY. I took them up on their advice and placed HAY over my seeds. BIG MISTAKE! The HAY has now taken over my garden, squeezing out my seedlings and has spread like crazy over areas I never even had hay! It was the worst mistake I have ever made in my garden and I am so unhappy that I took their advice. I have been trying to battle this wild hay for a year now and my summer garden is suffering from it. I wish the potato company had never suggested the use of hay, and I hope you do not put hay in your garden either! Please dont do it!

    • Kay – I’ve been mulching with straw for 30 years with great results. This year I ordered my usual 25 bales of straw and they made a mistake and delivered hay, which I didn’t notice before I spread it. I now have the same mess you describe and think my garden will be wiped out because it’s become a hay field. I don’t know what to do. I wonder if mulching with straw over the hay will help. -mahniah

      • @mahniay, You may be fine with the hay, I would not get to excited yet. Yes, you could mulch with straw over the hay.

        • Steve -I was wondering about that – if putting straw over the hay will do the trick. The hay is so thick and strong it seems to be crowding out the plants, so that’s good to hear – I’ll try it and thanks for writing. Have you ever had this happen? -mahniay

  5. it is definitely “hay” . I have Ruth Stout’s original book “No-Work Garden Book”. It is fantastic! I read it when I was young, get sick and couldn’t use the system until now. I am 70 years young and having a blast with a 20′ by 30′ garden this year. It is good to hear the book has been retitled and is available to gardening lovers.

  6. I have found this article to be of SO MUCH INFORMATION – I am ready to re-do my home garden!!! I am just a 2nd yr gardener still trying to find the right combination of things. I did not know about the Corn stalks, I usually pull them out. So after reading everyone’s comments, I am still confused IS IT HAY or IS IT STRAW that is to be used??? The title of this article says HAY. I tried potatoes this year with tublers, buried 6″ deep, as they grew I covered them with straw, as instructed – didn’t get a lot, still had to dig in the dirt – I thought they were suppose to grow in the straw – was disappointed. Another question: After laying the Hay/Straw over stalks, etc. in the fall can I add a compost mixture on top of it? Thanks soooo much for sharing this information. I look forward to hearing back from you. L.Fox

    • @ L. Fox, Both straw and hey will work, and no they will not grow above with the stray they will still grow in the dirt. As for adding the compost, I would recommend raking back the straw or hey, then adding the compost and pulling the straw and hey back over the area.

  7. Hi Steve.

    Is it okay to mulch with straw over seeds that were just planted? I am planting carrot seeds, cabbage and herb seeds on the surface of topsoil, covering with 1/4–1/2 inch of compost, watering well, then lightly mulching (2-4 inches) with loose straw to keep in the moisture in our very dry climate here in Northern Colorado. Will the seeds come up ok with the straw mulch? Thanks.
    Shari

    • @Shari, Yes, you can mulch over seeds but it may slow the growth just a little. Maybe wait a few days to allow the seed and soil to warm up. Once the seedling sprout apply the mulch.

  8. You can ask for certified weed free hay. In some areas it’s required within city limits so as to avoid the spread of non native grasses.

  9. There are different kinds of hay. I think that hay made from pure alfalfa will probably have fewer seeds in it than hay made from timothy and grasses. Straw is made from the stems of oats or wheat, after the seeds have been harvested as grain. It is primarily used as animal bedding. Hay is for the animals to eat.

  10. I have a drainage ditch on my property that the county had dug for an over flow. Its about 20′ wide and 150′ long. It is over ran with weeds of all types. County wont allow me to fill it in. It does not serve its purpose for they did not make a channel or tunnel that would connect to the drainage ditch that is beside the road. They wont cut these weeds down when they come to cut the ones along the roadside for I was told its not on county property. Over the years I have burned and sprayed and wasted money. I am close to the point of dumping diesel fuel in this ditch and let it sit. I really don’t want to do this not for the fact it is illegal but I do care about the land and don’t want to contaminate it. I will if all else fails, I’m tired of it.
    I just got done burning it and went through with a machete, again. If I were to place hay covering the area will this help cut down the massive weed growth? If it does and there is a chance of hay growing in its place I believe hay is easier to mow on down than these tree like weeds. Any insight from you I will try before diesel, Thank you

    • @Nick, I suggest looking for an invasive ground cover that will work well in your climate and one that you think looks most attractive, then buy some and allow it to take over.

  11. I used straw as mulch this year.

    Apparently in this part of the world, oats and barley are cut and baled without running through a combine. It was full of seeds! The weeds from the oats and barley were worse than all the other weeds. It was awful. I googled for mulching with hay to see if folks got better results with it (even though I know hay should be full of seeds too).

  12. I just started using hay as mulch about 6 weeks ago after reading Ruth Stout’s book and it’s great except that the hay is sprouting in places. Any suggestions?