Hay or straw for the garden?

Nowadays people use the terms hay and straw interchangeably and in most cases it makes no difference whatsoever. For example we say we were on a hayride at a get together even though the wagons are filled with straw rather than hay. Straw ride just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In a garden however, getting the two confused can lead to problems in the future. Hay and straw are often both used as weed control mulch in the garden but the results you get can be quite different.

Hay is a crop that is grown and harvested as a feed crop for cattle, horses and other farm animals. Straw on the other hand is a byproduct of a grain crop, in our area it’s usually usually wheat straw that we see.

Why would that make a difference to us in the garden? The problem lies with hay. Hay often is made up of a combination of different plants growing in a field or meadow. Farmers will cut and bale the plants in a field like that to feed to dairy cows that are in their resting stage, called dry cows. That kind of hay is of low quality and is less nutritious than say alfalfa hay but that is fine for dry cows because they don’t require dense nutrition when they’re not producing milk.

Low quality hay often has a dull color and different kinds of plant stems can be seen.

You never know what plant combination you’ll get in a random bale of hay. More often than not they contain weeds that you can inadvertently introduce to your property. I’ve seen such tenacious perennial weeds like thistle come into a garden as a result of their seeds hiding inside a bale of hay.

Straw on the other hand, is much better for use as a garden mulch. Since wheat and other grain crops are so competitive in a field, they suppress the growth of many weeds. Farmers also will control weeds one way or another to ensure the highest yields they can get of valuable grain. That results in straw with no or very little weed contamination.

Clean wheat straw has an even, bright amber color.

Granted, there are exceptions to the rule. You can find weed-free hay such as one hundred percent alfalfa or timothy but these can be expensive. Sometimes straw can be highly contaminated with weeds if it was grown in less than optimum conditions.

Be aware of the difference between hay and straw when shopping for mulch.

Composting hay can reduce the number of weed seeds to a minimum but that has to be done the right way in order for the compost to reach a high enough temperature to kill the seeds. I’d be wary of composted hay unless you’re sure of how it was composted.

Sometimes you’ll see “spoiled hay” that may be high quality hay that was left outside in the weather and began to get moldy making it unacceptable as a livestock feed. That can be okay for use in the garden if you know it came from quality hay.



Reproduce forest floor soil for new trees

Spring is the best time of year to plant trees. During the winter the dormant buds and roots are in a kind of holding pattern until the right growing conditions happen in the spring. Then they have the entire growing season to establish themselves before next winter.

No doubt you’re aware of the requirements for a proper sized planting hole and the need to water the young tree after planting. Proper planting depth is also very important. I’ve mentioned in previous posts how important it is to remove the wrapping from the root ball, even though it can be a hassle.

I always set aside any sod and never use it to back-fill the planting. Actually, I don’t use the topsoil to back-fill either. I just use the subsoil from the hole for back-fill and save the topsoil for the very top of the hole. That way the original soil profile is maintained.

After I’ve taken great pains to get the tree into the ground, there’s one more thing I like to do to and that is to create an artificial forest floor covering.  It’s something I’ve been doing for decades and I like the results.

It’s really a way of mulching that small trees seem to respond to. I first apply a thin layer of partially decomposed wood chips around the newly planted tree, over the topsoil,  maybe a couple of inches deep. Then I cover that with a layer of chopped leaves. Chopping the leaves prevents them from matting down which can slow down rain water penetration into the soil.

The layering combination of subsoil in the hole, with topsoil over that then covered with the chips and leaves mimics the soil conditions of a forest. I don’t mix the layers, I let the soil microbes do their thing. Eventually as the mulch decomposes, humic acid and related compounds are formed providing an environment for a wide variety of beneficial soil microbes. All of that allows the tree to adapt to its new home and grow to its full potential.

The chopped leaves and wood chips here are applied about four feet in diameter.

Not everyone will want to fuss with their trees like this and some will say it’s overkill and I certainly wouldn’t expect a landscaper to do it. but it’s something I’ve found to work for me.


Burning tree leaves

A couple of weeks ago I was running behind in my fall garden projects including taking care of the fallen leaves all over my lawn. The early snow we had back then didn’t help either.

One weekend while driving back from up north, I spotted several people catching up on their fall tree leaf clean up. They were easy to spot because of the plumes of smoke rising up from their lawns and ditches. By the way, this was happening out in the countryside where leaf burning is still fairly common.

I enjoy the smell of burning leaves as much as the next guy. When I smell leaf smoke, it reminds me of my childhood when nearly everyone in the neighborhood burned their leaves. It actually was a pretty good tactic to get the kids out of the house. As a matter of fact, the neighborhood kids looked forward to raking the lawn because of the fire afterward.

Of course nowadays most communities have ordinances restricting leaf burning. And Michigan has a state law regulating open burning of leaves so we don’t see or smell much of it anymore.

As much as I enjoy it, as a gardener I wouldn’t burn leaves even if it were allowed. They are just too valuable as a soil amendment to let them just go up in smoke.

Burning destroys valuable soil builders.

I you think about it for a bit, trees have huge root systems that absorb soil minerals from a deep and wide area, nutrients that may not be available to other kinds of plants. Those soil nutrients, along with carbon from the atmosphere, are used by trees to make their leaves. That’s a lot of plant nutrients that trees make for us when you consider the shear volume of leaves each tree produces every year.

The mineral components of the leaves quite are valuable, providing much more fertilizer value than manure. Even more valuable than the mineral elements are the carbon compounds that make up the bulk of a leaf. When leaves break down in the soil they provide humus, that magical ingredient that experienced gardeners know is the secrete to a flourishing garden.

I remember several years ago a friend of mine used to pick up bagged up leaves from the curbside in the city and take them home to use because she didn’t have access to enough leaves. One day just as my friend was about to depart with a van full of bagged leaves, the homeowner came running out of the house shaking her fist and yelling, “put those leaves back!”  The funny thing is those leaves were about to be picked up by the trash collectors and taken to the landfill.

The biggest drawback to leaves is their tendency to blow around and not stay put where they are needed. That can easily be taken care of by cutting them up into smaller pieces. I use a leaf vac with a collection bag to shred and collect most of my leaves. Some of the heavier and tougher leaves like cottonwood, I run over with a lawn mower first to make them easier to vacuum up. Then they either go right into the garden as a mulch or into to the compost pile if there are any left over.

Instead of looking at leaves as trash that needs to be bagged up and hauled away, I like to consider them free soil builders provided by mother nature every year. In case you were wondering, my friend did manage to escape with her misbegotten load of contraband.


Mulch instead of staking tomato plants

Here we are, it’s the middle of July. The tomatoes have made good growth so far but some of them don’t have cages around them. Right now the plants are so big, you couldn’t get a cage around it no matter how hard you tried. What’s a gardener to do?

The first idea that comes to mind is to stake the plants to get them off of the ground. That sounds good, but at this point in time it is not the best thing to do for tomatoes.

Staking and pruning works great for small areas or when a gardener wants to cram as many plants as possible into a given area. In other words it makes efficient use of garden space.

In order for tomatoes to be staked properly however, they must be pruned from an early age. Pruning must continue regularly until the plant is fully grown or when the plant reaches the size you want. All of that pruning actually reduces the tomato yield per plant but it can increase the yield over a certain area because you can fit more plants per square yard.

If you haven’t caged your tomatoes by now, I’m willing to bet you haven’t been pruning them either, so for that reason alone, staking is out of the picture. Not only that, driving stakes next to a plant this time of year can cause serious damage to the roots.

In this case the easiest solution is also the best solution.

Tomato plants by nature have a sprawling growth habit, they don’t climb like cucumbers or melons. They don’t prop themselves up against objects to grow upward either, which is why we have to train them and tie them to supports.

You can simply let tomato plants do their thing and sprawl over the ground — if you mulch them. One of the best mulches to use for this is straw.

Mulch the plants by gently lifting the plant and tucking the straw beneath the foliage. Use about six to eight inches of straw and make sure you cover the entire space under the plant.The deep mulch will raise the foliage and fruit away from the ground and drastically reduce the possibility of disease and rotting fruit compared to letting it grow directly on the garden soil.

Tomato plants can take up a lot of “floor space” when left to grow over the ground. That means they may get crowded if they were planted close together with the idea of staking in mind.

There are some advantages to using this method. One is an increase in yield per plant. Another is less work because no pruning or tying  is required. Plus there is a reduction in cracked tomatoes and blossom end rot because of more even soil moisture in the root zone.

On the negative side, the fruit is more apt to have an uneven color on the side resting on the straw.  The fruit may somewhat smaller and not quite as even in shape compared to staked tomatoes.