Straw Mulch versus Plastic or other Mulches

Straw Mulch versus Plastic or other Mulches

Materials to Mulch: Some materials like straw mulch I really love, and they are very beneficial.  Others- like plastic, I wish they didn’t exist.  Everyone has a prerogative to use what they like. Since I’m into organic gardening and healing the planet, I will write of those that make no impact on the environment. Some of the advantages of those that, although they have their purposes, should not be used as regular mulch. 

Mulching with straw

Straw Mulch:

Using straw mulch has so many benefits, and they far outweigh the few problems that it may cause.  Here is a list of benefits and the various uses:

  • Everyone knows straw is great for mulching. I’m not sure you can get a better product than this in northern climates.  It allows water to percolate right through to the plants.
  • Straw mulch keep the soil at a moderate temperature in the heat of summer.
  • Prevents soil from drying out and does not increase its temperature like plastic or other black mulches.
  • Readily available and reasonable priced.
  • Decomposes and can be incorporated into the soil or removed and placed in the compost bin.
  • Straw mulch is one of the best things to protect plants over the winter. Some plants, like asparagus crowns, can heave if they have been recently transplanted. By applying a cover of straw over the winter, it will be protected against heaving. It will also protect the roots close to the surface from frost damage.
  • It protect plants that have germinated in the fall and have grown some – like garlic. I like to apply a layer of straw to help them overwinter.
  • You can cover any one area or the bed you will be using in the spring with straw. Mark it well so you know where it is located- and mark the perimeter as well. Once the spring season approaches, you can remove the snow from the bed along with the frozen straw on top of the soil. Then the bed will get direct sun and be ready to plant that much sooner.  You can pick up a good two to three weeks of planting season this way. 

To learn greater understanding about mulches and other techniques purchase my Book ‘Garden the Organic Way’

There Are a Few Problems With Straw Mulch:

  • Some animals, like voles, can hide under straw but they can also do a great job of hiding under black plastic and black cloth. Even more so with plastic or cloth, as there are no cracks in them, so there is no way for predators to get at them.  Back plastic and cloth are considered to help increase the vole population due to their ability to hide under these materials. To read more about voles

When you think of all the benefits versus this small disadvantage, I see no reason not to use straw.  Instead, inspect the area for voles or other insects hiding underneath the straw, and see if you can find a method to control these.

Black or Clear Plastic Have Some Advantages and Uses:

  • It can be used to help heat a bed faster in the spring. Apply a layer of plastic for a week to ten days and it will cause the soil to defrost from the winter, allowing you to start your spring garden as soon as possible.
  • You can use clear or black plastic to sterilize the soil, or solarization, which is its official term. They recommend clear plastic for the best effect but I have seen it done with black plastic as well.  It is best you do this when you have an infestation of a particular disease caused by a bacteria or fungi in the soil or if you have some bad nematodes. Read more about this in y book ‘Garden the Organic Way’
  • Plastic can be very effective as a weed preventative but it will increase the soil’s heat and can be detrimental to the root system of the plants during hot summers.


  • Must use a drip irrigation to allow watering of plants.
  • The biggest disadvantage of plastic is that it’s not recyclable. It’s made from oil, which is a non-renewable source.
  • Creates a lot of garbage and has to be disposed of.
  • Harbors voles and other potential rodents.
  • Doesn’t allow rainwater to water the bed and only where the hole of the plant is located can water enter, not sufficient usually to maintain the plant.

There are many other mulches. Depending on the region or continent, some can be easily decomposable and thus used for mulch. I have spoken regularly on using partially decomposed compost as mulch.  See my blog on compost to read about the benefits.

Then there are waste materials that prove excellent for mulching, like compost, ground coconut husk, dried fallen leaves, dried grass clippings, black or soy ink newspapers.  I’m sure there are many great and decomposable materials that I have missed listing here.  Feel free to comment and add them.