by Erin Marissa Russell
There are so many different alternatives to mulch that it will be easy to find one—or a few—that are right for your garden on this list. We’ve explained the basics of how each method works along with a few of the pros and cons for each mulch alternative.
Bark will add nutrients to the soil as it breaks down and is inexpensive. You can find bark to use as mulch at your local nursery or garden center. Bark chips have a naturally dark color. They do not decompose as quickly as wood chips do in the garden. Bark chips are naturally water repellent due to the oils they contain, so they will do best in borders or parts of the garden where plants are not growing.
Cocoa Bean Hulls
Like other organic mulch substitutes, cocoa bean hulls will decompose in your garden, adding nutrition to the soil for your plants. The hulls are similar to the shell of a peanut. Before the cocoa beans can be eaten, this shell must be removed. Cocoa bean hulls do an excellent job of keeping moisture in the soil and maintaining a balanced temperature. The shells will give your garden a sweet smell. However, just like chocolate, cocoa bean hulls are dangerous to pets. Although it may seem unlikely that a pet would consume enough cocoa bean hulls to endanger themselves, it is possible, as they’re attracted by the sweet smell and taste. For safety reasons, we only recommend using cocoa bean hulls as a mulch substitute if you do not have pets that spend time in your garden.
Compost is super nutritious and can be made very cheaply. This makes it an excellent mulch substitute. Use a thin layer of compost, making sure not to let it touch your plants. You’ll want to leave a margin of a couple of inches, which prevents the spread of plant disease in your garden.
Crushed shells are a great substitute for mulch and can be very attractive in the garden. Crushed shells don’t hold onto heat in the summertime the way small rocks do. They also decompose, although at a slow pace, and add calcium to your soil as they break down. This can cause your soil to be too alkaline for many plants. As a safeguard, you can use plastic sheeting underneath your layer of crushed shells to make sure the calcium doesn’t leach into your garden soil. If you live on the coast, crushed shells can be quite affordable as you can collect them yourself. But if you choose to do this, make sure you carefully rinse the shells to remove the salt deposits before using them near your plants.
You can collect grass clippings after you mow your yard, making this an affordable option. However, before you use them, the grass clippings will need to dry out first. Do not use grass clippings from grass that has been treated with chemicals in your garden.
Also called “cover crops” or “catch crops,” green mulches are grown in empty areas to capture the soil’s nutrition (which can otherwise be lost to erosion, water runoff, etc.). At least two weeks before planting, the crops are cut down and mixed into the soil, where they decompose and release the nutrients they captured earlier. This article on green manure has a list of plants you can use as green manure and some more information about how it works.
Hay or Straw
Hay or straw in the garden is an excellent way to suppress weeds like a mulch would. It also helps moisture stay in the soil where your plants can access it. As it decomposes, hay or straw will release vital nutrients into the soil. You do need to apply quite a thick layer of hay or straw over the surface of your soil. It also isn’t especially pretty, so some gardeners choose to use hay or straw for the bulk of their mulch and then cover it with something that looks a bit nicer. Hay or straw makes an especially good mulch alternative if you have a large area to cover with mulch. That’s because hay and straw are both affordable and easy to spread over a large area.
Landscape fabric works well as a mulch substitute when your main goal is controlling weeds. You can use it alone or spread it underneath a layer of pea gravel or small stones. Landscape fabric does provide a bit of protection against insects and helps with keeping moisture in the ground. But if what you’re looking for is a mulch that will add nutrients to your soil as it breaks down, you won’t find it here. Landscape fabric is also a bit of a pain to install, and it’s not very durable against inclement weather. It can be damaged in the course of regular gardening, and it’s not as green as organic mulch methods. However, landscape fabric can be affordable when compared to a mulch alternative like bark chips.
Leaves or Pine Needles
You can use leaves or pine needles that have dried out as mulch. Drying out the leaves or pine needles before use helps to keep them from promoting plant disease or providing a home for insects or vermin. Shred the leaves before using them, though you can skip this step with pine needles. As the leaves or pine needles decompose, they’ll add vital nutrients to the soil for your plants. You can collect, dry, and shred your own leaves or collect pine needles from your own yard, or you can buy dried, shredded leaves or dried pine needles at the nursery or garden center. You can even collect fallen pine needles from your Christmas tree to use in your garden.
Unlike small stones, pea gravel is made up of small, consistently sized rocks that are round. Pea gravel will keep moisture in the soil where plants can access it. Where the weather is cool, pea gravel will help with keeping the ground warm. In warm regions, however, gravel can really heat up in the sunshine. That’s why you should avoid letting the pea gravel touch your plants—so the heated rocks won’t scorch the plants in your garden. Pea gravel won’t decompose like some mulch materials, so your soil won’t get any added nutritional benefit from it. You can use fertilizer to add nutrition to your soil if you choose to mulch with pea gravel. These tiny rocks won’t do much to deter the strongest weeds, so if you’re looking for weed control, choose another method or spread landscape fabric on the ground before adding the pea gravel.
You may find pumice stone sold under the names “volcanic rock” or “lava rock.” It’s a great all-around mulch substitute. You can count on pumice stone to deter insects, improve the soil texture and aeration, keep soil free of mold and fungi, and retain moisture. It also has a vivid brick red color that looks beautiful in the garden. Although pumice stone can be a bit on the expensive side, in addition to all these benefits it is durable and long-lasting. Like other rock mulch alternatives, pumice stone is susceptible to heating up in the sunlight, which can damage plants. As a solution, just leave a margin of a couple of inches around your plants when you’re applying the pumice stone to your garden.
Rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. It reduces the likelihood of fungus in the garden, cuts down on weed growth, and helps the soil remain at a moderate temperature. As with rock mulch, rubber mulch will not add any nutrients to the soil. However, there is a concern that small amounts of chemicals may leach into the soil where rubber is used, which may be harmful for some plants. On the other hand, rubber mulch is long-lasting in the garden. Its use cuts down on the need for trees and other organic materials in mulch.
Newspaper isn’t as pretty as some other mulch substitutes, but it does the trick. Using shredded newspaper as mulch will help the soil stay moist and keep the temperature moderate. Shredded newspapers are also great at choking out weeds. Moisten the newspaper just before you put it down to help it stay in place.
Small rocks allow for some creativity when you use them as a mulch substitute. You can choose rocks of a certain color that accents your garden, or use different colored rocks to create patterns on top of your soil. These rocks won’t provide any extra nutrition for your plants because they don’t break down, but they do help the soil to retain moisture. Using small rocks as a mulch substitute will also keep some weeds at bay. However, to keep all weeds out, it’s best to use a layer of landscape fabric underneath the rocks. Small rocks can heat up in the sun, so avoid allowing the rocks to touch your plants. Leave a small margin of empty space in between the rocks and your plants. Small rocks are affordable and long-lasting.
The most commonly used type of wood chips are cedar because they are a natural deterrent to fleas and other undesirable insects. The color of wood chips varies depending on the type of wood they are made from. Wood chips are relatively quick to decompose, bringing nutrition to your garden. However, this means that you may need to replace wood chips more quickly than other mulch substitutes.
Still having trouble deciding? Pumice stone is our favorite for most gardening situations. However, each mulch alternative has its strengths, so it’s all about finding the one that works best for your particular situation. If you have a list of several to choose from, it’s time to start thinking about aesthetics. Which one of these mulch alternatives will be prettiest in your garden?