Spring is upon us again, which means it’s time to give your yard a little TLC.
If you have bad memories associated with all of the bags of mulch you transported and spread last year, or you are simply looking for an eco-friendly alternative that won’t break the bank, we’ve got you covered.
There are plenty of eco-friendly and cost-effective alternatives that can be used in your garden or landscaping. In this article, we’ll explore the 7 best mulch alternatives available, as well as their respective benefits and drawbacks. Take a look at the options out there as you begin to prep and plant your chrysanthemums, vegetable seeds and other staples for this growing season.
Why Do You Mulch?
First, let’s dive into why you should be mulching in the first place. The primary purpose of mulch is to provide a protective layer on top of the soil. Mulch helps insulate the soil, protecting beneficial organisms such as worms, bacteria, and fungi from extreme temperatures. It also helps keep moisture in the soil so that plants can get the water they need to grow. In addition to keeping moisture in, mulch also keeps weeds out. A good layer of mulch will prevent weeds from taking root by blocking light and preventing their growth. Finally, mulch provides protection against erosion caused by wind or water while also controlling dust particles and improving air quality.
Now that you know why mulch is important, let’s take a look at some popular alternatives that will give your soil the same benefits without the hassle.
1. Wood Chips or Bark Chips
Wood chips have become a popular alternative to mulch in recent years, and many homeowners are turning to them as an eco-friendly way to maintain their gardens. Wood chips, as you can sense from the name, are made from wood that has been chipped into small pieces, usually using an industrial chipper.
Before you decide on a mulch alternative, it is important to understand the equipment needed to get the job done.
- Chipper/shredder to chip the wood into small pieces (if you do not buy pre-cut pieces)
- Leaf blower or rake
- Protective tarp, mesh cover or landscape fabric
- Wheelbarrow and shovels
- Gloves and safety glasses
- Wood chips are much cheaper than bark mulch.
- They hold their shape for years, so you don’t have to redo everything year after year.
- They decompose slower than other types of mulches.
- Wood chips retain moisture better and help suppress weeds and unwanted plants.
- They offer a natural and rustic look.
- The initial investment for installation could be steeper than mulch.
- Wood chips can attract termites if they’re not treated properly before installation.
- The color can fade quickly unless a preservative is used periodically, which can add extra cost in maintenance.
Overall, while there may be a steep initial cost for installing a wood chip bed around your garden, there is no doubt that it will save you money in the long run due to its durability and longer lifespan.
Straw mulch is another economical and eco-friendly alternative to traditional mulch options. It’s proven to be beneficial for many gardeners, as it keeps plants cool during the summer and warm during the winter while still providing a weed barrier and protection from soil erosion.
In order to install straw as a mulch alternative, you will need a few essential items.
- Large tarp or sheet
- Rake or shovel
- Large bales of straw
- Gloves and protective eyewear
- Straw is relatively inexpensive.
- It retains moisture well and adds organic material when it breaks down.
- Straw improves water absorption into the soil while increasing nutrient content.
- It can provide an aesthetically pleasing appearance.
- You can experience issues with drainage if layers are left too thick or not spread evenly.
- Straw can carry weed seeds which can germinate and create an infestation.
- Some varieties (such as wheat straw) produce a lot more dust than other types.
3. Grass Clippings
Grass clippings can be a great alternative to traditional mulch for garden beds and lawns. Plus, you can gather them and put them to good use after you are done mowing your lawn!
Grass clippings offer several benefits compared to traditional mulches, such as providing additional nitrogen and other nutrients that are beneficial for the soil.
Grass clippings increase moisture retention in the soil, helping keep weeds at bay and acting as an effective barrier against extreme temperatures.
To use grass clippings as an effective mulching material, it is important to ensure that they are dry when added to your garden or lawn area. Also, make sure that the layer of grass clippings is no thicker than two inches in order to allow for proper water absorption into the soil.
- Lawn mower or garden shears
- Gloves and face mask
- Grass clippings are easy to source and are inexpensive.
- It retains moisture while improving the soil’s water absorption and nutrient content.
- Grass clippings provide good coverage and help to prevent soil erosion.
- Your clippings may contain weed seeds which could lead to an infestation.
- If not cut into small pieces, the clippings may create clumps that interfere with drainage.
- Grass clippings can be too acidic for certain plants or vegetable gardens.
Shredded leaves are another cost effective mulch alternative for your garden or yard. Leaves can be used as mulch all year round, helping to smother weeds, retain moisture and improve soil drainage. They also add nutrients to the soil as they degrade over time. Additionally, leaf mulch can protect and insulate plants from cold weather climates during winter months and keep the roots insulated from extreme temperatures.
- Something heavy like bricks or stones to help keep them in place
- Gloves and a face mask
- Depending on where you live, leaves are free and easily accessible.
- You’ll experience fewer weeds and improved soil drainage than you would with straw or grass clippings.
- Leaves add nutrients as they break down, improving soil structure.
- They provide a protective layer for plants from extreme temperatures.
- Leaves may be dusty, dirty or wet when collected.
- If not installed properly, leaves can blow away or become impenetrable by water or sunlight.
- Leaves will eventually decompose, meaning they will need regular replenishment.
Compost is a great DIY mulch alternative that offers long-term protection. Compost helps to smother weeds, retain moisture and improve soil structure by adding organic matter. It also adds beneficial nutrients to the soil as it breaks down over time. Compost also has the advantage of being easy to source and, in many cases, free when composting household waste.
- Heavy bricks or stones
- Compost reduces weeds and improves soil structure due to organic matter.
- It adds nutrients as the compost breaks down.
- It provides protection and insulation from extreme temperatures.
- Compost can be free and easily sourced.
- Compost is often dusty or dirty when handled.
- It can blow away or become impenetrable by water or sunlight if not installed correctly.
- Compost will eventually decompose, meaning it will need regular replacement.
6. Pine Needles
Pine needles provide excellent protection against weeds, retain moisture and improve soil structure like other mulch alternatives on this list.
They are also high in acid and low in phosphorus, providing beneficial nutrients to the soil as they break down over time.
- Pine needles
- Something heavy like bricks or stones to help keep them in place
- Face mask
- Pine needles are usually free and easily sourced.
- They provide enhanced water retention due to their waxy coating
- Pine needles improve soil structure as it breaks down because it adds important nutrients to the ground.
- They are long-lasting.
- Needles may be sharp when handled, requiring gloves and a face mask.
- They could blow away or become impenetrable by water or sunlight if installed improperly.
- Pine needles are lighter in color compared to other mulch materials, so they can look washed.
7. Rocks or Gravel
Rocks, pea gravel or small stones can provide excellent protection against weeds, retain moisture and do not require replenishment like some other mulch materials. Rocks also add texture and color to the landscape, making them an attractive option for many homeowners, especially in a drier climate.
- Something heavy like bricks or stones to keep them in place
- Face mask
- Rocks reduce weed growth.
- They provide enhanced water retention due to their porous nature on the soil.
- Rocks provide an attractive addition to landscapes.
- They don’t need regular replenishment like other organic matter.
- Rocks can be sharp and heavy.
- They don’t provide nutritional benefits to the soil.
- Rocks can make it more difficult for plants to root.
- They are cumbersome to spread and keep in place.
- Rocks can be costly, depending on the type of rocks or stones.
Ready, Set Mulch!
Mulch alternatives are a great way to add texture, color and style to your yard, flower bed or garden. They can also provide additional benefits, such as improving soil quality by providing minerals and aiding in water retention. However, before you install any mulch alternatives, make sure you have the necessary equipment on hand.
Additionally, be aware of any potential issues associated with any alternatives to mulch you are installing. With the proper research and preparation, your yard or garden will look amazing. Here’s to a happy and healthy plant growth season!