Mulch is an essential component of every garden. They help gardeners conserve moisture, stop weeds from growing, prevent soil erosion, and fertilize the soil.
While the traditional wood chips and barks are good, there are a lot of other alternatives that are more eco-friendly and cost-effective. Some people also find the potential army of termites that they come with too big of a risk to take.
In this article, we’ll provide you with the best mulch alternatives that you can use for your garden, porch, and indoor houseplants! Say goodbye to those same old wood chips and say hi to these game-changing alternatives.
Gravel or Rocks
Gravel and rocks are among the most popular mulch alternatives out there. Their color doesn’t fade as much as traditional mulch, so they can make the garden look more visually appealing.
They also last longer than mulch and other alternatives and require minimal maintenance. Unlike mulch, they don’t decompose over time, so they don’t need to be replenished or replaced for about 8 to 10 years.
This is also why they’re considered cost-effective in the long run. Although they’re pretty expensive initially, you won’t have to buy a new bag of rocks every year, unlike other alternatives.
That said, it’s important to know that they don’t provide the same nutrients as mulch to the soil. Since they take such a long time to decompose, they don’t add any nutrients or organic matter to the soil.
Moreover, making changes in the garden’s landscape, like moving plants or planting new ones, is a lot harder if you use stone or gravel. Removing the rocks can be labor-intensive compared to using mulch.
Rubber mulch is an inorganic alternative to traditional mulch made of recycled rubber materials, typically from used tires. Rubber from these tires is shredded and ground until a consistent size and texture are achieved.
It’s a durable alternative that can last up to 12 years. It doesn’t break down or decompose like mulch made of wood chips or leaves.
Since it’s made of rubber, it doesn’t have the nutrients and organic matter that pests need to survive, so the garden is less likely to be infested with them.
However, this also means that it provides no nutrients to enrich the soil, and you’ll have to depend on compost and fertilizer to give the plants the nutrients they need. The rubber may also release some chemicals that can be harmful to you when inhaled.
You may also notice a pungent smell from the rubber mulch when they’re first applied and whenever it’s too sunny outside.
Landscape fabric is mainly used to suppress weed growth by creating a barrier between the soil and the sun. While some still apply mulch on top of the fabric, it works well on its own and doesn’t prevent plants and flowers from growing.
Aside from acting as a barrier against the sun, it also shields the soil from heavy rainfall. This makes it quite effective in preventing the soil from eroding.
Unlike other alternatives, landscape fabric also doesn’t make it hard for you to grow new plants. You can simply cut a space in the fabric for a new plant anytime you want.
However, the fabric usually doesn’t provide the best aesthetics. It can make the garden look messy and unnatural.
Additionally, it doesn’t provide any nutrients for the soil and may even hinder the soil’s improvement.
Cocoa Bean Hulls
Cocoa bean hulls are mulch alternatives made from the outer shells of cocoa beans. They have a rich, dark color and a chocolate-like smell that can make the garden look more natural and appealing.
They also offer great insulation for the soil, making them ideal for plants that are sensitive to temperature changes. They form a thick layer on top of the soil that protects the roots from too much heat and too much frost.
Cocoa bean hulls also decompose quite slower than traditional mulch, so you won’t have to reapply them as much as other organic alternatives.
Just be careful when using them, though, as they are toxic to pets. They contain theobromine, which can be lethal to dogs and cats if ingested.
They can also be easily washed away during heavy rainfall and develop mold, requiring regular maintenance.
Cardboard or Newspaper
Cardboard and newspaper are readily available materials that you can use as mulch alternatives. As biodegradables, they’ll eventually decompose and act as organic matter in the soil.
You can shred them into pieces before application or just lay out a sheet or two on the soil. Water them after to help them settle on the soil and prevent the wind from blowing them off.
They’re more effective in blocking sunlight than other alternatives, so they can suppress weed growth a lot better. They’re also more efficient in reducing the evaporation rate, especially when laid out in thick layers.
Although they are generally safe for plants, be careful in using treated cardboard and newspapers with colored ink. They may contain chemicals that can be harmful to the plants.
Hay or Straw
Hay and straw provide great moisture retention properties that can be helpful when growing vegetables. They help reduce the evaporation from the soil and allow the vegetables to get as much moisture as they need.
They also enrich the soil, as they break down and release nutrients, improving the soil’s fertility. They also add organic matter to the soil, helping it get better aeration and draining properties.
The downside, though, is they need to be replaced frequently, as they break down quickly. They may also contain weed seeds, leading to weed growth in the garden.
Rodents and other pests may also see them as a food source, attracting them to the garden and potentially hurting the plants and soil.
Grass clippings are the small pieces of grass you get whenever you mow your lawn. They are cost-free mulch alternatives that can help inhibit weed growth and reduce water evaporation.
They contain nutrients from the lawn, so as they decompose, they return these nutrients to the soil and enrich it. They’re rich in nitrogen, which is a necessary nutrient for the plant to be able to photosynthesize.
They’re also generally safe for plants as long as the lawn they’re taken from is healthy and they are dried before being applied to the soil. If they’re not dried, they can lead to mold growth and subject the plants to various diseases.
Using fertilizer low in nitrogen is also advised when using grass clippings as mulch alternatives. This is because they pose a high risk of nutrient imbalance in the soil due to the amount of nutrients they release.
Living Ground Covers
Living ground covers are low-growing plants that spread across the ground and create a dense carpet-like cover. Some popular examples of these plants are creeping myrtle, clover, sweet alyssum, and creeping jenny.
Their uniform size and natural look create a smooth transition between different garden areas and connect separate planting beds, giving the garden a more cohesive and tidy look.
They help provide a cooling effect to the soil, so they’re ideal for gardens subjected to extreme heat. They also improve the soil structure, drainage, and fertility as they grow and spread.
If you choose to use living ground cover as a mulch alternative, you might have to pair them with other alternatives. It takes a long time before they fill in the entire area, so weeds may grow in the bare areas if they’re not filled with other alternatives.
They also have a tendency to be invasive, so regular maintenance is essential. If they’re not regularly trimmed and thinned, they may spread aggressively and harm the other plants in the garden.
Leaves are an economical alternative to traditional wood mulch. You can find fallen leaves pretty much anywhere for free, and they offer a lot of benefits for the soil and plants.
Leaves add organic matter and nutrients to the soil as they decompose, serving as a natural fertilizer for the plants you have in your garden. They also help protect the soil from erosion by protecting it from heavy rainfall.
Additionally, they don’t drive away earthworms and beneficial microbes. Instead, they create a suitable environment for them to grow.
That said, they don’t only attract beneficial microorganisms but also pests. Hence, it’s essential that you constantly monitor your soil when using them as mulch alternatives to avoid dealing with pest infestation.
They also break down quickly, so you’ll need to reapply them every now and then. If you have a huge storage, it’s best to collect a lot of bags during fall to make sure you don’t run out of stock throughout the year.
Pine needles are mulch alternatives that come from the leaves of pine trees. They provide excellent insulation and moisture retention in the soil, making them ideal for growing different plants.
They can also inhibit weed growth by blocking sunlight and prevent erosion by reducing the impact of rainfall on the soil.
Pine needles also break down slowly compared to alternatives like leaves, so they don’t need to be replenished as much. That said, they can be quite costly, as they are not always readily available and may have to be sourced somewhere else.
Some gardeners may avoid this because of the myth that they make the soil acidic, but that’s actually not true. While they are acidic, they don’t acidify the soil because the microbes will neutralize the acid as they decompose.
It’s also worth noting that they don’t enrich the soil as much as other alternatives. It’s recommended to pair them with other alternatives like leaves to fertilize the soil and encourage plant growth.
Compost is one of the most eco-friendly alternatives for mulch. Plus, it can be completely free if you make your own.
You can make your own compost using green materials like kitchen scraps and brown materials like used papers and tree branches. You just have to put them in a compost bin and regularly shuffle them until they decompose.
It can release quite an unpleasant smell, but it shouldn’t be too bad that it would impact your daily living. If it produces a horrible smell, you probably added too many green materials or you’re not providing enough aeration.
Compost can help suppress weed growth by blocking sunlight and retaining as much moisture in the soil as possible. It also promotes microbial activity by enriching the soil and providing an ideal environment for beneficial organisms to grow.
Remember not to overdo it when using compost as a mulch alternative to avoid nutrient imbalance in the soil.