A caller this week asked me to suggest a source of weed free straw so that he could put it on his garden to protect tender perennials from frost. The trouble in our crazy climate in Southern Alberta is that we frequently lack a snow cover in winter and gardeners are always trying to push the zones and grow risky plants. Of course I immediately called back to say there is no such thing as weed free wheat or barley straw because it is impossible to get all the seeds off the straw and the wheat or barley itself becomes a weed. Meanwhile the seeds attract and feed the hungry little mice who were wondering what they would eat now that the weather is cold.
The caller then asked if hay would work better. In a word - no. Hay just provides a cozy home for mice and comes with it's own fair share of weed seeds. The only viable straw for protecting gardens and not contributing to mice food or habitat is the very tough and difficult to spread Flax straw. It can be purchased in square bales and spread out in the fall over tender perennials. It is almost impossible to compost so it will still be there in spring and can be raked up for reuse in the fall. Trouble is that very few farmers grow flax anymore so I am not sure the average city gardener would be able to find a bale or two for their use.
Other options for fall protection of tender plants are piles of dry leaves. I have noticed a lot of those blowing up against fences lately. Once the soil is frozen solid - which it appears to be right now - the leaves can be collected and piled on the plants. Organized gardeners already have their piles of leaves in bags at the ready. The mice won't be able to burrow into the frozen soil and the leaves will give a bit of frost protection to the plants as the snow comes and goes this winter.