10 Mulch Alternatives to Consider

Mulching your plants is one of the most beneficial things that you can do in your garden. A layer of mulch can help to keep the soil cool, protecting the plant’s sensitive root system from temperature extremes. It can also help to deter weed growth and pests while improving moisture retention.

While synthetic mulches are a reliable choice, organic mulches have further benefits, breaking down over time and returning nutrients to the soil. They can also improve soil fertility as well as encouraging beneficial soil organisms.

Our list of 10 mulch alternatives are all easy to use and find. They can be used on their own or in combination, to improve the appearance of the garden.

1 Mulch benefits garden
Applied correctly, mulches both enhance and benefit the garden.

1 Compost

Our first entry on our list of mulch alternatives is also one of the most common mulching choices. As well as benefiting your garden, compost is an environmentally friendly solution that can be made at home. A compost pile is a great way to recycle much of your kitchen waste.

If you are making your own compost make sure that it has completely broken down and is weed free before applying to the garden. When applying the compost, try to spread it as thinly around the area as possible.

Compost can be a dry mulch. Plant roots below compost mulches may struggle to absorb enough moisture if conditions are too dry. Adding a second, wetter compost layer, such as leaves, on top helps to keep the compost damp and active.

Depending on its components, compost can also be acidic. A soil test kit is an easy to use tool which enables you to monitor the acidity levels of the soil.

You can also apply compost as a side-dressing during the growing season. If used in this way the compost insulates the roots while slowly releasing nutrients into the soil.

While you can make your own compost at home, this can be time consuming. A compost tumbler can also take up a lot of space, depending on how much waste you aim to compost. If you don’t have the time or space to make your own compost, you can buy it online or from a garden or landscaping store.

2 Compost heap
Full of nutritional benefits, a compost heap is also a good way to repurpose kitchen and garden waste. 

You can also purchase animal compost, such as Chicken Compost. While this is rich in minerals and nutrients, animal compost is often more expensive than other types of compost. Be warned, animal compost can not only smell bad but if it is applied fresh and not given time to break down, it can also burn the root system of plants.

The cost of compost depends on where you are purchasing it, what it contains, and how much you are buying. Typically compost costs between $1.5 and $5 per pound. Apart from initial start up costs, making your own compost is pleasingly inexpensive.

2 Leaves

One of the best mulch alternatives, a layer of leaves is a great way to attract beneficial insects such as earthworms to an area. Full of nutrients and a reliable weed deterrent, you can use leaf mulches everywhere, even on vegetable beds. A layer of shredded leaves can look particularly attractive if used in a natural or forest garden planting scheme.

Leaves are natural mulch alternatives that can save hundreds of dollars while also keeping your garden healthy and tidy. Un-shredded leaves can mat together in wet weather, repelling water. Regularly rake the leaves to separate them. If you want to shred the leaves before applying them to the garden, you can use a lawnmower with a bagger attached. Alternatively, a leaf mulcher is a great investment. Usually costing between $20 and $200, after the initial expense costs are minimal.

If applied in the spring flowers can grow around and through the leaves, giving your garden a natural appearance. If applied to vegetable beds in the fall, leaf mulches deter weeds while also breaking down, enriching the soil ready for spring planting.

3 Colorful leaves
Colorful leaves are a versatile, easy to apply solution that brightens up empty beds and borders.  

When gathering the leaves, be careful not to include leaves from diseased plants. Incorporating diseased leaves into your mulches can help the disease to spread around your garden, affecting other plants. If disease is present, and separating the diseased leaves from the healthy foliage is too difficult, there are many other mulch alternatives available.

While leaf mulches are not the most attractive of our mulch alternatives they are a great, natural option that is full of nutrients. It also helps to keep your garden looking neat and tidy as well as being environmentally friendly.

3 Grass Clippings

Rich in nitrogen, the next entry on our list of mulch alternatives is ideal for vegetable beds. One of the best mulches for weed suppression you can also leave your grass clippings in place after mowing your lawn. Here grass mulches break down, enriching the lawn and helping to keep your grass green and healthy.

Grass mulch alternatives are best prepared before use. Allow the clippings to dry out before use, or apply to a compost heap. Applying grass clippings before they can dry out may damage sensitive plants. When applying grass clippings, try to apply too thick a layer. This can take time to break down, potentially setting seed or allowing mold to develop.

High in moisture, grass clippings can become slimy as they decompose. They may also release an unpleasant odor. Like leaves, another of our mulch alternatives, grass clippings can mat together in wet weather, preventing water from reaching the soil below. Gently raking the clippings on a regular basis helps to break up any clumps that may be forming.

4 Grass clippings

Allowing grass clippings to remain on the lawn gives your grass a nutritional boost.

Never use grass clippings if you have applied chemicals or weed killer to your lawn. These can harm your flowers or vegetable plants. You should also never place any chemically treated grass clippings on the compost pile.

Another of our cheap mulch alternatives, mixing grass clippings with compost helps to make your mulches last even longer. If applied correctly this is one of the most effective mulch alternatives. As well as grass, you will also need a lawn mower. Prices can vary depending on the size and brand. Mowers with clipping collectors on the back typically cost between $100 and $200.

4 Newspaper

Increasingly newspapers and printers are using organic dyes and lead-free inks. This has made shredded newspaper a safe mulch alternatives choice. While newspapers and cardboards are largely safe to use, avoid colorful or waxy pages. These can still sometimes contain ingredients or metals that are potentially harmful.

As well as good mulch alternatives, papers and cardboards are also a good insulating choice in the garden. Here they can be used alongside or instead of Agfabric Floating Row Covers to protect plants from cold weather or to insulate the soil. Keeping your soil as warm as possible during the winter months enables you to start planting earlier in the spring.

To apply a layer of newspapers, place 4 to 8 damp sheets around your plants. Newspaper can be applied in the same way as any other of the mulch alternatives on our list. Dampening the paper before applying helps it to stick together and stay in place. While sheets of newspaper can be applied whole they can also be shredded.

5 Shredded newspapers
Not the most visually attractive solution, shredded newspaper can be used alongside other mulches to improve the appearance of your garden.

Damp, shredded papers suppress weeds and aid moisture retention. Adding a second mulch, such as leaves or grass clippings on the top helps to improve the visual appeal as well as helping the newspaper layer to last longer. You can also use newspapers to jump start your vegetable bed. Just lay a few sheets down before covering with soil and sowing seedlings.

While newspaper isn’t the most attractive of our mulch alternatives, it is an eco-friendly option. A great way to use up old newspapers, instead of just recycling them, the only other cost here is a paper shredder. These typically cost around $50, but a sturdier option that can deal with cardboard may cost between $70 and $200.

5 Straw and Hay

Our next mulch alternatives, straw and hay, are slow to decompose. This means that one application is often enough to last throughout the growing season. Mulching with straw or hay also provides a home for beneficial insects, which further boosts your garden and plants. When the growing season is over any remaining hay or straw can simply be raked up and dug into the soil, where it continues to decompose further enriching the soil.

A great choice if you want a rustic look, like many of our natural mulch alternatives straw and hay not only release nutrients into the soil they also help the soil to retain moisture and suppress weed growth.

As well as providing reliable mulch alternatives, you can also use these materials to create or line paths, making them less muddy. Straw can also be used to create flower and vegetable beds, this is known as a straw bale garden.

6 Straw has many uses
A straw bale has a number of potential uses in the garden.

A cheap and easy way to cover large areas, apply these mulch alternatives thickly to ensure the best possible result. Be sure that you use weed or seed free hay. If you dont it may set seed in the garden. You should also be careful when handling straw or hay mulches. As well as beneficial insects, snakes may also view them as a good hiding place.

If you want to use straw or hay, a 10 pound package typically costs between $15 and $30. This can cover around 200 square feet.

6 Pea Gravel

Unlike regular gravel which can be uneven, pea gravel is typically small, round and smooth. This makes it one of the most attractive mulch alternatives on our list.

Further adding to the attraction, pea gravel comes in a range of colors including rust, gray, ecru and white. A reliable means of suppressing weed growth, pea gravel is also permeable, meaning that water can still access the soil beneath it. While pea gravel doesn’t decompose like other suggestions on our list of mulch alternatives it is an attractive and effective option. Pea gravel is also a good choice if you want to line a path or driveway.

7 Gravel is attractive

A gravel mulch is visually appealing.

Despite its many visual benefits, pea gravel can be difficult to apply and keep in place, especially if the area is not lined or closed off.

Commonly available in many home improvement and garden stores, pea gravel ranges in price from $25 to $60 per cubic yard. Small 5 pound bags can be found for between $10 and $30 if you only want to apply the gravel to a small area.

7 Pumice Rock

Pumice rock, also known as lava or volcanic rock is one of the most popular mulch alternatives because as well as helping the soil retain moisture it also helps to aerate the soil. This prevents fungi or mold from developing as well as deterring potentially harmful insects.

Pumice rock compliments ornamental plants, thanks to its rusty color, helping to elevate planting schemes. Unlike many organic mulch alternatives, pumice rock is resistant to weathering and breaking down.

Pumice rock is one of the more expensive suggestions on our list. A 2 quart bag can cost between $15 and $20. This covers around 115 cubic inches of space.

8 Pumice rock
An expensive solution, pumice rock is visually attractive.  

Be careful when choosing where to apply this pumice rock. Pumice rock can heat up in the sun, particularly if exposed to long periods of sunlight. This heats the soil, potentially damaging sensitive or weak plants.

8 Wood Chips or Bark

Wood chips are one of the easiest to apply mulch alternatives. Simply spread along a path, flower or vegetable bed for a natural and effective covering.

If you don’t have your own chipper, decorative wood chipping or shredded bark is easy to find in many garden or home improvement stores. Community yard waste collection sites and local tree-care companies may also be able to provide you with larger amounts. In fact a community yard waste collection scheme is particularly useful if there is one near you. A great way to get rid of your garden waste, they are also a good source of cheap or free chipped garden debris.

9 Wood chips

Wood chippings are easy to apply and visually attractive.  

Like wood chipping, bark  is appropriate for use anywhere in your garden. However, bark is best used around ornamental plants, such as shrubs and trees or on beds that won’t be dug over regularly. This is because woody mulches are often slow to decompose, meaning that if you want to dig the bed before the bark has broken down you will need to remove it.

9 Pine Needles

Pine needles or pine straw are a fresh, dried out alternative to bark. More pleasant to look at than grass or leaf mulch alternatives, pine needles are also easier to spread around the garden.

Like many of our mulch alternatives, pine needles help the soil to retain moisture while restoring nutrients. Pine needles are rich in acid, this makes them particularly effective when placed around:

For other plants, allow the pine needles to dry out before usage. Dried out needles are less acidic.

10 Pine tree needles
The needles from your Christmas tree can be dried out and turned into an effective mulch.

While attractive, pine needles are a costly option because they decompose. This means that fresh layers need to be regularly applied. To cover a square foot of earth it can cost between 50 and 70. Typically, the longer the needle the more expensive the product.

10 Cocoa Bean Hulls

Cocoa bean hulls, like pistachios and peanuts, need to be hulled or shelled before use. Instead of discarding them, the empty hulls can be used as an alternative to wood chip mulches. Not only do hulls help the soil to retain moisture they also smell sweet and look nice.

Some gardeners avoid cocoa bean hulls, instead favoring other mulch alternatives. Cocoa bean hulls can attract pests. They may also kill certain animals or pets such as dogs if consumed.

11 Cocoa beans
While they are attractive, cocoa bean hulls may not be suitable for every situation.

A 10 pound bag of hulls can cost between $10 and $30. This is enough to cover 2 cubic feet. If you are aiming to cover a large area, cocoa bean hulls are an expensive option. There are more affordable mulch alternatives that are just as effective.

Synthetic Solutions

Many of the mulch alternatives outlined above are organic solutions, breaking down and enriching the soil over time. If you want a long lasting mulch, a synthetic option may be your best choice. For some plants, such as heat loving tomato plants a black synthetic fabric layer helps to keep the soil warm during the day. It also helps the soil to retain heat throughout the night, helping to protect sensitive plants from temperature drops. Melons and strawberries also benefit from this.

Be careful when applying synthetic mulches. During the summer months the soil may get too hot. Cutting small holes or using a permeable landscape fabric, such as JessYo Permeable Landscape Fabric, allows moisture to enter, cooling the soil.

The long lasting quality of synthetic mulches makes them a good choice for foundation planting as well as use around trees and shrubs that require little regular attention such as fertilization. A functional choice, if you want to improve the visual appeal of synthetic mulches, a decorative layer of bark or stones can be placed on top.

Landscape fabric or geotextiles typically come in rolls 3 to 4 ft wide. The rolls can be between 50 and 300 ft long. Depending on the size the fabric can cost between $20 and $50 per roll.

How to Apply Mulches

Whichever of our mulch alternatives you choose to apply, ensure that the area you are covering has been thoroughly weeded first.

In shady areas aim to apply a 3 inch thick layer. In sunnier spots this may need to be doubled. If your soil is particularly weed heavy, double mulching helps to ensure no weeds will break through. To double mulch, apply a layer of newspaper followed by grass cuttings or leaves, this is a particularly effective and attractive combination.

Mulches are best applied in mid or late spring. You can also apply in the fall as long as the soil is warm and moist.

Don’t apply mulches in the winter. If applied in the winter mulches can prevent the soil from warming up, meaning plants are slower to grow. In the spring, once the last average frost date has passed, remove any remaining organic material from around your perennials and bulbs to encourage new growth to emerge.

Never apply mulches in the summer when the soil is hot. Mulching the soil when the weather is at its hottest prevents much needed water from reaching the plant’s root. This can cause plants to dry out and fail.

Whichever mulch alternatives you choose to apply, there is no real skill to applying. Simply spread evenly around your flower beds. Don’t allow mulches to touch the plants, wet material contacting stems can cause them to rot. It may also encourage rodents. Aim to keep your mulches around 1 inch away from stems or crowns. When applying, you should also be careful not to smother low growing plants. After applying, water the soil well.

Once organic mulches have rotted down they can be removed or worked into the soil.

Easy to apply and full of benefits, our list of mulch alternatives are suitable for gardens of all sizes and styles. Mulch alternatives 1 Mulch alternatives 2


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