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Organic mulch options and tips for a thriving garden
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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. Three top organic mulches are:
- homemade compost,
- shredded autumn leaves, and
- mixed composted yard waste.
Read on to learn why these organic mulches work so well and how best to use them in your own garden.
Organic mulch for the garden
Most home gardeners use organic mulch rather than synthetic mulch. Applying organic mulch imitates the nutrient cycle of plant decomposition that occurs in nature. Homegrown mulch is wonderful, but so is other locally-sourced mulch.
Repurposing surplus plant matter is a great way to use a material that would otherwise be treated as waste. Beyond the practical considerations, mulch should look great against our gardens and our homes.
Great 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 types:
- Homemade Compost
- Shredded Autumn Leaves
- Mixed Composted Yard Waste
These mulches are all free, feed plants, and serve specific purposes in landscaping. For a detailed guide to mulch in general, check out this Ultimate Guide to Garden Mulch.
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 that can be used to cover the soil in ornamental and edible perennial gardens to keep them fed and looking sharp.
1. Homemade Compost
As odd as it sounds, homemade compost can be used as organic mulch in gardens and landscapes. This is actually my favorite organic mulch. The rich dark color 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 color 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.
FURTHER READING: Here is a detailed guide about home composting.
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.
To use homemade compost as an organic mulch, spread it 1-2” deep on top of the soil. The rich black color 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 favorite 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 other winter veggie crops and 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. Don’t let these used organics go to waste!
3. Composted mixed yard waste
Similarly 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 generally preferable to plain 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 to be freshened up with a new thin top dressing 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.
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 free municipal mixed-yard waste compost isn’t available in your area, this might be a decent 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.
Great organic mulches for sustainable 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.
Finding better organic mulch
Look for mulch that looks good, keeps weeds down, and retains moisture in a way that was as close to nature as possible. Don’t cause harm to your garden by bringing in dyes or other contaminants. Focus instead on using many of the different kinds of organic matter we create (kitchen waste, grass clippings, garden plants, sticks, twigs, logs, et cetera).
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 that 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. Use the organic mulch that makes the most sense in your location and environment.
Learn more about the uses of mulch and how to incorporate them into your garden by clicking here!
FAQ’s about organic mulch options
What is the difference between regular mulch and organic mulch?
Regular mulch and organic mulch differ in their composition and source materials.
Regular mulch typically refers to inorganic materials such as rubber, plastic, or stones that are used to cover the soil surface around plants to conserve moisture, suppress weed growth, and regulate soil temperature. While regular mulch can be effective in these regards, it does not contribute to soil health or provide nutrients to plants.
Organic mulch, on the other hand, is made from natural materials such as wood chips, bark, straw, leaves, or compost. Organic mulch decomposes over time, adding valuable nutrients and organic matter to the soil. It can also improve soil structure, promote beneficial microbial activity, and increase soil fertility.
Overall, organic mulch is typically considered a better choice for promoting healthy plant growth and soil health, as it provides a range of benefits beyond just surface coverage. However, regular mulch may be preferred in certain situations, such as for paths or playgrounds, where organic mulch may decompose too quickly or pose safety concerns.
Is organic mulch low maintenance?
Organic mulch is generally low maintenance compared to other landscaping materials, such as rocks or gravel. Here are some reasons why:
Organic mulch helps suppress weed growth by blocking sunlight and reducing weed seed germination. This means less time and effort spent pulling weeds.
Organic mulch helps retain moisture in the soil, reducing the need for frequent watering. This is especially important during hot and dry periods.
Organic mulch gradually breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers.
Organic mulch also improves soil structure and texture, making it easier for plant roots to grow and access nutrients.
That being said, there is still some maintenance required when using organic mulch. Over time, organic mulch can break down and decompose, which can result in a thinner layer of mulch on the soil surface. This means that every few years, you may need to add more mulch to maintain an appropriate depth. Additionally, some types of organic mulch, such as fresh wood chips, can tie up nitrogen in the soil as they decompose, so you may need to supplement with nitrogen fertilizer during the initial stages of decomposition. Overall, though, organic mulch is a great option for low-maintenance landscaping.
How long does mulch last for?
The lifespan of mulch depends on several factors, including the type of mulch, the weather conditions, and how well the mulch is maintained. Here are some general estimates of how long different types of mulch can last:
Shredded hardwood bark: 1-3 years
Pine straw: 1-2 years
Compost: 1-2 years
Wood chips: 1-4 years, depending on the size of the chips
Cocoa hulls: 1 year
Grass clippings: 1-2 months
Keep in mind that these estimates are generalizations, and your specific situation may vary. For example, if you live in an area with heavy rainfall, the mulch may break down more quickly. If you use a finer mulch, such as compost or pine straw, it may break down more quickly than a coarser mulch, such as wood chips. Additionally, if the mulch is not properly maintained (e.g. if it becomes compacted or if too much soil is mixed in), it may break down more quickly than expected.
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- Mulch basics for beginner gardeners
- University of Maryland: Mulching Trees and Shrubs
- University of Nebraska: Benefits of Mulch
- Penn State University: Mulching Landscape Trees
- University of Saskatchewan: Mulch and soil nitrogen
Finding the perfect mulch can be difficult as there are so many options available! To learn more about the right type of mulch needed for your landscape, click below!