The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Straw vs. composted leaf mulch

Straw mulch around cornWhich is better for the vegetable garden, straw or composted leaf mulch?  I'll have to wait a few more months before I can tell how each mulch impacts the biology of the soil, but I'm already getting a feel for how our two mulches are working.

When it comes to ease of application, each type of mulch has its pros and cons.  Straw is extremely easy to lay down around large plants, but is difficult to work between tender young onions.  I also tend to wait to apply straw until seedlings are three or four inches tall since the straw stalks can move around and overshadow youngsters.  In contrast, the composted leaf mulch takes more time and effort to shovel into the wheelbarrow and back out, but is much easier to use around seedlings since it stays where you put it and the soft particles can rain down around young plants without hurting them.

Leaf compost mulch around onionsPrice per bed seems to be nearly identical for straw mulch and leaf compost mulch --- $1.40 per bed or around 8 cents per square foot.  The trouble with making this comparison, though, is that I can't tell how long each mulch will last before I need to reapply.  My gut says that the leaf compost might last longer, but only time will tell.

Of course, the real deciding point will probably be how the vegetables perform surrounded by each type of mulch.  The amount of organic matter added to the soil (measured using a worm test) will also be key.  Maybe by this time next year, I will have decided on a favorite type of storebought mulch (and put some thought into how to grow it myself.)

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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From experience, the straw lasts better as a breaks down/gathers sprouting weed seeds a lot slower. I tend to use the composted leaf mulch as a soil amendment.
Comment by Geoffrey Wendel Sun Jun 19 10:54:05 2011
I haven't tried leaf mulch yet, but I love straw. You can leave a bale or two out in the rain for a few days and it will start composting and sticking together, which makes it much easier to put around small seedlings.
Comment by Everett Sun Jun 19 11:33:38 2011

Geoffrey --- Thanks for chiming in! It's great to hear from someone who's had firsthand experience with the composted leaf mulch. It does look like it would be a great soil amendment, almost like peat moss.

Everett --- I think you're right about letting the bale precompost for a few weeks to put around seedlings. I'll bet that if I was smart, I'd pull a few bales out of their circus tent every week and cycle through them that way.

Comment by anna Sun Jun 19 13:37:40 2011
I suspect it is even better than peat moss for gardening puts a lot more minerals in that are needed (like calcium....I misplaced the notes I had on what it adds in, actually, that one pops into mind) My brother has really clay soil, and he had about a dumptruck or three brought in. His garden is...impressive.
Comment by Geoffrey Wendel Tue Jun 21 00:08:28 2011
The kind of micronutrients you get will depend on the kind of tree leaves that go into the compost, but you're totally right that you'll likely get a lot more than in other types of compost. I think that maple leaves are one of the common sources of calcium, although I can't seem to find my post on that topic. (Maybe I never posted the information, just filed it away in my brain? Bad idea!)
Comment by anna Tue Jun 21 07:35:51 2011
Any updated opinions on leaf mulch vs. straw? I bought 20 bales early this spring for the first time this year. I've been using it and so far it's working well as a mulch. I have access to composted leaves for pretty cheap, but I think my straw was cheaper at $4 a bale. Also, what do you think about straw for deep bedding in the coop? Too coarse or good?
Comment by Dave V Wed May 2 08:50:01 2012

Dave --- I'm glad you asked that because I'd been meaning to post a followup, but didn't have any good photos so haven't turned it into a post. :-) I'd never turn away mulch of any kind, but have decided that given the option, I prefer straw. The leaf mulch is slightly problematic in the garden since it looks like topsoil, so I tend to forget to rake it back before planting seeds, and then the seeds don't do well. At the same time, weed seeds are more likely to germinate there than they are beneath a straw mulch. So, we'll be focusing on straw as long as we keep a good source.

Straw is okay for deep bedding, but I prefer tree leaves. The chickens don't scratch through straw as much, and it's lower in carbon, so you need to use more of it to keep the manure from smelling. I tend to use straw when I'm pressed for time and don't want to take a half hour to rake leaves out of the woods. :-)

Comment by anna Wed May 2 13:21:39 2012

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