Garden mulch reduces the need for weeds and water, among other benefits, and there are plenty to choose from. So if you thought your only option was compost, think again. Sure, it’s one of the most popular top dressings out there — but when you buy the pre-packaged stuff, costs can quickly skyrocket.
Choosing an alternative can help your budget go further, but that’s not the only reason to explore your mulching options. After all, each has its own advantages that might suit your garden better.
It’s important to remember that mulch can be divided into two main categories: inorganic and organic. The main difference between them is that organic mulches (obtained naturally) slowly break down into the soil, improving its structure and fertility. Inorganic ones won’t, but on the plus side they don’t need to be replaced as often. To help you decide which mulch is right for your outdoor space, we’ve shared all the information you need to know about eight of the best.
As a former gardener and allotment gardener, Holly sees mulch as a game-changer in keeping maintenance time down. She even mulches some of her houseplants — with finely cut gravel — to retain moisture and improve aesthetics.
5 types of organic mulch
Do you want to mulch your garden naturally? These options are easy to apply, eco-friendly and, in most cases, are gradually drawn into the soil by garden worms, giving your soil an extra boost of nutrients.
1. Homemade compost
Compost is a popular mulching material for many gardeners
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We’ll start with compost – a classic soil conditioner that’s rich in nutrients. Dig it into topsoil or add it to your containers and your plants will get a big head start—but it also makes an excellent mulch.
By producing homemade compost, food leftovers are used sensibly – household waste is reduced and a few cents saved in the process. Decomposition will be accelerated if you opt for hot composting or vermicomposting, but no matter which approach you take, the resulting material will be crumbly, earth-like and full of goodness.
Apply it thickly around your plants and it will keep weeds away, help the soil retain moisture and act as a protective blanket against winter weather. And over time, all of those nutrients will gradually seep into the soil.
The disadvantages? You’ll need to replace it once or twice a year to continue reaping the benefits. It’s not the prettiest option either.
2. Bark chips
Bark chips can often be purchased for free
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Wood chips break down slower than compost and are less effective at improving soil. On the plus side, they look attractive and can be budget-friendly — if you find a local source. It may also be worth contacting local arborists in case anything is left over. In general, you have to pick them up, so keep that in mind.
“My favorite place to get mulch is from our city council,” says Deborah Niemann, owner of Thrifty Homesteader (opens in new tab), which explains how huge stacks are free to go. “My husband drives the pickup truck there and they pick him up with a shovel loader and dump him in the bed of the pickup truck. If you wanted a smaller amount you could certainly grab a bin over there and fill that up, but I love that we can get so much so quickly.
“Since we don’t know where it came from and what it might have been sprayed with, we don’t use it in the vegetable garden but on paths and in our flower garden.” When it’s free you can easily put a few inches down, which means that very few weeds can push through, she adds.
You can even use your own garden waste if you recently felled a tree or shrub. But no matter where you get it from, if it’s relatively fresh, let it break down a bit first. John Negus, a gardening expert from Amateur Gardening, advises adding your own shredded material to your compost heap, where after a few weeks it will turn brown and break down into raw humus.
“If you don’t do this and use the shredded material straight from the shredder, soil bacteria will decompose valuable nitrogen from the soil. As a result, it loses this element, which is crucial for the development of robust leaves.’
3. Grass clippings
Use your lawn clippings wisely
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Mowing your lawn not only beautifies your property but can also provide you with fresh and free mulch. Provided the clippings are short, dry and absolutely weed-free, simply leave them on top of your lawn, releasing valuable nitrogen into the soil. This keeps your lawn lush and green.
Marjorie Beausoleil from Ethos Seed (opens in new tab) also uses grass clippings to mulch her vegetable garden. If you decide to do this again, make sure they’re dry and weed-free, and avoid piling them too thick to avoid the smell of rotting grass.
“It always encourages worms and other beneficial insects to become more active, and it decomposes faster than most gardeners realize,” she says. “I have to apply the grass clippings mulch several times a season – so often that sometimes we just mow the lawn to make the mulch! It’s also the most effective mulch we know of for retaining moisture in the soil.
“One thing: All lawns where the grass clippings are made should be chemical free. Even organically treated lawns can be detrimental to the beneficial insects in the vegetable garden,” she adds.
4. Leaf shape
Making leaf shape in fall is a must
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Picking up leaves is on everyone’s list of fall backyard chores, but think twice before adding them to your yard waste. Instead, use them to create leaf mold: a valuable mulch material that’s free and rich in nutrients.
All you have to do is put the leaves in garbage bags with a few holes for drainage and keep them out of sight to let them decompose. The downside is that you have to wait several months before you can use it, but it’s worth it.
5. Ground cover plants
Create a botanical tapestry that blocks weeds
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Benjamin Vogt, natural garden designer and author of A New Garden Ethic (available on Amazon) (opens in new tab), chooses a green mulch or living mulch in his designs. The idea is to build up dense layers of plants, and the result is a wilder, nature-inspired look that lends itself well to prairie-style borders.
“On our new installations, we may use an initial thin layer of wood mulch to lower germination rates of annual weeds like foxtail or crabgrass while increasing soil moisture. But the plan is that the desirable plants that we have installed will quickly self-seed, spread and fill,” he explains. “Too much wood mulch would hinder this process. As the plants fill in, they will naturally outperform weeds and no further wood mulch applications are required.’
It uses a base layer or ground cover of native sedges (Carex spp.) or native short bunchgrasses (Bouteloua spp.) planted 12 inches apart on a trellis. Intermediate and architectural layers are then planted around these, which are often seasonal flowers.
3 types of inorganic mulch
Sure, inorganic mulches don’t give your soil that nutrient boost, nor do they improve its aeration like organic mulches do. However, they are very low maintenance as you don’t need to replace them nearly as often once they are set. And they also have other advantages.
1. Gravel and pebbles
Gravel is a low-maintenance and attractive mulch option
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These types of mulches are one of the best for enhancing the aesthetics of your flower beds and borders. There are many color combinations to look for, like a quick search on Amazon (opens in new tab) demonstrated.
Ideal for dry gardens, they look far better than bare soil while helping to suppress weeds and retain moisture, just like organic mulches. In addition, they do not wash away when it rains and help prevent soil erosion during inclement weather.
They can be used to create informal pathways, cover patio pots or surround perennials planted in the ground. However, avoid using them near annual plants as they can be a hassle to remove when the time comes to replant.
2. Landscape fabric
This approach is popular for vegetable gardens
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A solid choice for getting rid of weeds and warming the soil for new seedlings—especially in a vegetable garden—is landscaping fabric. It’s relatively cheap (try Amazon (opens in new tab)) and easy to relocate. You don’t even have to remove weeds.
Once it’s down you simply need to cut crosses in the fabric to plant through. It’s not visually attractive, but this can be improved by adding a top layer of bark chips or other material if you so desire.
3. Rubber mulch
Rubber mulches have both advantages and disadvantages
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These types of mulches share something with gardeners. On the one hand, they retain heat and moisture in the soil, suppress weeds, and don’t attract insects or give off a putrid odor like some organic mulches do. They are usually made from recycled material such as old tires and are a particularly good option for backyard playgrounds as they offer a cushioned fall. Rubber mulches are also long-lasting and a variety of color and style options are available.
But there are downsides to consider. Upfront costs aren’t usually low, and it doesn’t provide a useful nutrient boost for your soil. And yes, it doesn’t smell like decomposition—but on a warm, sunny day, you might get a whiff of hot rubber instead. In addition, it is highly flammable and some say that over time it releases chemicals that can affect your garden plants and even pose a health risk.
Which types of mulch are the cheapest?
Natural mulches that you can make yourself are generally the way to go if you’re looking for budget-friendly gardening ideas. That means homemade compost, grass clippings, and leaf soil are high on the list — and as a bonus, you’re recycling waste while you’re at it. As mentioned earlier, if you can find a source, wood chips can also be budget-friendly – but if you’re buying them in bags from garden centers, this method can get a little pricey.