There are so many choices when it comes to mulching a garden. The best organic mulches retain moisture, discourage weeds, and even feed plants. There are many kinds of organic mulch, but I’ve found three easy options that work best in my home garden. My favourite mulches are now homemade compost, shredded autumn leaves, and mixed composted yard waste.
Classic Garden Mulch
Growing up, we always used bark mulch in our yard because it was available by the truckload in our area from a local mill. Some of our neighbours used a fancy-looking red wood mulch which was made of red-dyed shredded pallets (ugh!) and other construction waste material. These mulches were generally placed right up against the bark of growing tree trunks (another no-no, as the moisture retained by the mulch is bad for the tree’s bark). Growing up, I thought these were the only two kinds of mulches there were.
When we bought our first house, we wanted to spruce up the existing landscape and add a few more gardens. This precipitated a great deal of research as to what to use for mulch, both in the perennial gardens around the yard and also in the annual kitchen garden. Turns out, mulch is pretty much anything that covers the soil to discourage weeds and retain moisture.
Organic Garden Mulch
We decided to tend towards using organic mulch rather than a plastic sheeting or other manufactured mulch because organic mulch would more closely imitate the nutrient cycle of plant decomposition that occurs in nature. I read up on all kinds of fancy organic mulches like cocoa shells before coming to the realization that local mulch was the best mulch for me. Homegrown mulch is closest imitating nature (which in our part of Canada, definitely does not include cocoa!). Repurposing our surplus plant matter also seemed like a great way to use material that would otherwise be treated as waste.
Beyond the practical considerations, I really wanted the mulch to look great against our gardens and our home. Unfortunately, dumping grass clippings and fallen willow branches onto our gardens doesn’t have quite the same cohesive overall look as the bark mulch I grew up with!
Finding Better Organic Mulch for Our Garden
I started researching different kinds of mulches that would look good, keep weeds down, and retain moisture in a way that was as close to nature as possible. We definitely didn’t want to cause any harm by bringing in dyes or other contaminants. It was also important to use as many of the different kinds of organic matter we created (kitchen waste, grass clippings, garden plants, sticks, twigs, logs, et cetera). It didn’t make sense to haul certain plant matter off site and then pay to bring other organic matter back to our yard.
I should mention that it is possible to design a self-mulching garden. This is usually more achievable in more “wild” areas of an urban yard which are not manicured. In our yard, for instance, the pine trees along the back perimeter drop their pine needles to create their own mulch. For perennial and annual gardens however, mulching takes a bit more work.
We are fortunate to live in an area with lots of deciduous trees that provide leaves and a source of shredded wood. We also live in an area with a great municipal composting program. If these local resources are not available in your area, the organic mulches listed below may not be the best mulches for you.
Better Organic Mulch Options
The best organic mulch helps soil retain moisture, keeps weeds down, and looks sharp. The finished mulch should also be rich in organic nutrients to feed garden plants. Any ingredients used should be free of contaminants and hopefully locally sourced.
After trying many different kinds of organic mulches, I’ve come to rely on three main sources of mulch:
- homemade compost
- shredded autumn leaves
- mixed composted yard waste
These mulches are all free, all feed my plants, and all serve specific purposes in the garden. Homemade compost makes a great plant food that can be re-applied yearly to provide nutrients to the soil. Shredded leaves are abundant in the fall and act to insulate tender plants from harsh winter conditions. Mixed composted yard waste is a great bulk mulch which can be used to cover the soil in ornamental and edible perennial gardens to keep them fed and looking sharp.
1. Homemade Compost
As crazy as it sounds, homemade compost can be used as mulch in gardens and landscapes. This is actually my favourite organic mulch. The rich dark colour of a good homemade compost provides a lovely backdrop for plants in the garden. I find it makes both my perennial and annual gardens look well-kept and uniform.
Homemade compost is a rich, black substance that results from decomposed leaves and other plant matter like grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and bits of plants from the yard. Because it consists of decomposed plants, compost is high in organic matter and makes a great plant food. Finished compost should be fairly uniform in colour and texture with no discernible ingredients.
If you’re not making your own compost already, it’s a wonderful way to reduce household waste while also feeding your garden. The scraps of plant material in your household and yard can be put to good use as mulch and plant food once composted. Learn to see decaying plant matter as a resource rather than an irritating bit of trash.
Making Your Own Compost
Household materials like grass clippings, leaves, kitchen scraps, sawdust, shredded paper, cardboard, garden plants, and even garden weeds can be composted. Check out these instructions to make an easy compost from your autumn leaves and other household compostables.
When composting garden plants or weeds, it’s ideal to use plants that have not yet produced seeds. Composting can destroy seeds, but the process must be controlled to be hot enough to destroy them. Either using plants that haven’t gone to seed or using a hot composting process will prevent the introduction of new weeds during the mulching process.
To use homemade compost as an organic mulch, spread it 1-2” deep on top of the soil. The rich black colour will give the garden a nice facelift. Compost can be re-applied as an organic mulch each year to continue feeding the plants and to keep the garden looking sharp.
If you want to get really fancy with mulching with homemade compost, check out a technique called sheet mulching. Sheet mulching is a method of composting-in-place (like hugelkultur) in which compost ingredients are laid down in layers to create a thick mulch. If you top your sheet mulch with finished compost, it can look just as sharp as only using a thin compost mulch layer.
2. Shredded Autumn Leaves
Shredded leaves are one of my favourite mulches. They’re not as pretty to look at as compost mulch, but the mulch sure is quick to make. Autumn leaves are available at exactly the right time to use as over-wintering mulch in our area. We mulch over crops like garlic as well as around tender perennials to help them through the harsh winds and temperatures of a cold winter.
Leaves can be shredded using a high-quality leaf blower on the vacuum setting or by using a mulching lawnmower. We have so many leaves that the mulching mower tends to be the easiest option. Just attach the bag, run the mower over the leaves, and then take the bag over to the plants you’ll be mulching. Easy peasy!
Because leaf mulch does retain moisture, I tend to wait until the ground is freezing and plants are going dormant before mulching with shredded leaves. In the spring, I remove the leaves when the ground thaws. The shredded leaf mulch can then be composted to make more homemade compost.
3. Composted Mixed Yard Waste
Similarily to homemade compost, composted mixed yard waste can be used as a mulch in your garden. Mixed yard waste compost is made by many municipalities as a result of municipal waste collection programs. It is made up mainly of branches, sticks, leaves, and other yard trimmings which are too big to be composted in a residential setting. These larger pieces of yard waste are chipped and composted in large batches to create a wonderful mulch. Because of the variety of ingredients, mixed composted yard waste is preferable to wood chip mulch.
Many municipalities now offer this type of yard waste composting program in which large yard waste is collected, composted, and redistributed to citizens. In our area, both collection of material and the finished compost itself are included with our existing waste collection program and are free of charge. You take home as much finished compost as you like.
This municipal mixed yard waste compost is a wonderful organic mulch because it contains material from so many different sources. This benefit comes with the concern that this material may contain sprays or other contaminants. Fortunately, many municipalities offer contaminant (and nutrient) test results from their compost that can be accessed on request prior to picking up the compost.
Using Mixed Composted Yard Waste as Mulch
Yard waste compost that has been finely shredded prior to composting may have tone re-appliled every year. Most of the mixed yard waste compost that we’ve received, however, hasn’t been fully composted. There are often visible chips and strands of shredded wood which last several seasons. The mixed nature of the compost is important in this case, as the carbon in the wood chips is offset by the nitrogen in the leaves and other nitrogen-rich compost ingredients. This presentation from Ohio State University gives a great overview of the benefits of composted yard waste mulch, including photos and mulching prescriptions.
I’ve noticed that some “yard waste compost” that’s available commercially for purchase consists of shredded arborist wood chips that have been mixed with composted manure to create a balanced mix. This type of organic mulch still has visible wood chips, but is quite dark due to the composted manure. If the manure has been fully composted properly, this mix should have no unpleasant smell. If free municipal mixed yard waste compost isn’t available in your area, this might be a good option. Just be sure to research the nutrient profile and ingredients (including the sources of wood and manure) prior to ordering this type of mulch.
The 3 Best Mulches for Organic Gardening
Homemade compost, shredded autumn leaves, and mixed composted yard waste are three wonderful options for mulching your organic garden. These organic mulches will do a great job holding in soil moisture and keeping down weeds. They’re also free, locally available, and will feed your plants.
To read more about mulching, check out this excellent free downloadable from Iowa State University.
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Have you used any of these mulches in your garden before? What kind of organic mulches are locally available in your area? Share your stories and questions in the comments section below!
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