11 Best Mulch Alternatives for Your Garden

Cover your garden with any of these inexpensive and eco-friendly mulch alternatives. Don't get stuck in a rut but be creative in finding ways to save money, time, and effort when it comes to gardening aesthetics.
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Planting in a garden with mulch.

Mulch is textbook material for organic landscape planting. It looks good on ornamental beds and borders and can suppress weed growth, retain moisture, insulate crops during the winter, reduce soil erosion, and can transform into plant nutrients once it decomposes.

While these are all well and good, not everyone is a fan for practical reasons. Putting down mulch costs money especially if you need to buy by the bag or by the cubic yard since you’d need your mulch thick. It’s also a breeding ground for pests such as slugs. You’d have to replace it every year and it won’t look as good anymore over time.

So if you’re looking for alternatives to mulch to get away from its downsides, check out the list below.

1. Pea Gravel

A bunch of pea gravel with different shades.

Unlike regular gravel, pea gravel stones are almost always round, small, and smooth. They are popular because of how aesthetically pleasing it looks, making it one of the great alternatives to mulch.

Some of us might have seen it while walking along a lake or another body of water where it is found naturally. Others might have seen it on walking paths, patios, driveways, and/or playgrounds where it is commonly used by landscapers.

Pea gravel can come in many different shades of white, gray, rust, ecru, and can even be translucent, though that usually costs more. It works amazingly as a mulch by preventing feeds from growing and allowing water to pass through the small gaps.

Pros

  • Does not decompose like organic mulches
  • One of the most appealing options

Cons

  • Can be difficult to apply to the area if not closed off (rocks roll, bounce, or fly)
  • Mostly found in home improvement stores

Approximate cost: The price can range from about 25 dollars to 60 dollars or more per cubic yard depending on the store, the brand, and color of the pea gravel. Usually, online, small 5 pound bags are about 10 to 30 dollars each but are more meant for small areas and to look aesthetically pleasing.

2. Pumice rock

A piece of pumice rock on a wooden table.

Also known as volcanic rock or lava rock, pumice rock is one of the best-used mulch substitutes out there because it does not just retain moisture. It also gives extra aeration to the soil, prevents fungi and mold from growing, and is an unsuitable living environment for insects.

Between all of that and the fact that it compliments flowerbeds and other decorative plants with its bright rusty color just makes us love it that much more.

Pros

  • Is effective and beautiful
  • Is highly resistant to the weather and breaking down

Cons

  • More costly than other alternatives
  • Rock can heat up in prolonged sunlight which may damage sensitive or weak plants

Approximate cost: Online, the most common sized bags are 2 quarts and 3 gallons. The 2 quarts bags are about 15 to 20 dollars and cover about 115 cubic inches of space. The 3-gallon bags cost about 20 to 30 dollars and cover almost 1400 cubic inches. In some stores, it costs about 15 dollars per 0.5 cubic feet.

3. Rubber Mulch

A man holding a handful of rubber mulch.Rubber mulch is almost always made from recycled or ground up tires. We all have probably seen it either on a sports field, in a playground, or other large landscapes. Depending on the quality, it can be more expensive, but it certainly lasts a long time, unlike organic mulch. It can also repel insects like termites and carpenter ants.

However, there is a lot of controversy because of the fact that they are possibly toxic and definitely flammable. Not only that, but they can harm the soil, kill algae, plankton, snails, and fish. It is not recommended that anyone who lives in an area where there are wildfires or has a pond use rubber mulch.

Pros

  • Has an extremely long life
  • Keeps soil moist and insulated

Cons

  • Excretes chemicals
  • Can be expensive

Approximate cost: The price can vary by price, size of the pieces, brand, and/or buying it in-store or online, but it usually costs about 7.50 to 20 dollars per cubic foot.

4. Newspaper and/or Cardboard

Old newspapers shredded for other purposes.

Many of us usually think that it is not safe to use newspaper or cardboard as mulch alternatives because of things like ink and lack of insulation. For years now, the ink has not contained lead, but the wax and colorful pages do contain some heavy metals that should be avoided in the paper and cardboard. It also insulates the ground relatively well.

If you plan to shred your own newspaper, you will need to have a paper shredder. Also, some of us out there who have used newspaper as a mulch have noticed that any worms that were in the ground would all gather at the top around the paper after the plants were watered.

Pros

  • Is eco-friendly and saves money

Cons

  • More unsightly
  • Must be aware of toxic paper and cardboard

Approximate cost: Paper shredders can usually cost around 50 dollars or so. Ones that are strong enough to shred cardboard can be anywhere from 70 to 200 dollars depending on the brand and other features.

5. Leaves

Sacks of dried leaves as alternative to mulch.

Using leaves as an alternative to mulch material is probably one of the most common, natural, and cheapest methods out there. Using a leaf mulcher to make mulch can save us hundreds of dollars and keeps plants healthy because they contain many nutrients left over from the trees.

They are not as visually pleasing as other mulches. Also, if the leaves have a random bright spot or scab, it could indicate an infection that can be transmitted to other plants. You will need an area to store your extra leaves, shredded or not, until the next fall when you will have more.

Pros

  • Promotes plant health
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Costs less

Cons

  • Possibly infect plants
  • Need leaf mulcher

Approximate cost: Leaf mulchers cost 20 to 200 dollars depending on the type and/or brand. The hand mulchers that you carry around and suck up the leaves are usually the cheaper ones, 20 to 100 dollars, while the stationary mulchers are more expensive, 100 to 200 dollars or more.

6. Grass Clippings

A sack of grass clippings.

Another popular and natural way to treat your garden with something you were going to throw out or burn. While it can be eco-friendly and save money, it can also take more time.

We can’t just throw the freshly cut grass on the garden. First, it has to be dried or composted otherwise, it can harm or kill the garden. Throwing too much grass on the garden can allow mold to grow and grass clippings can seed in the garden.

Pros

  • Contains nitrogen that helps plant growth
  • Very cheap
  • Can be mixed with compost

Cons

  • Need a lawn mower
  • Extra time to dry or compost grass
  • Cause unwanted plant growth in a garden

Approximate cost: Depending on the quality, size, brand, and type of lawn mover, the price is generally about 80 to 300 dollars but it can also be more. Those will clipping collectors are usually about 100 to 175 dollars.

7. Pine Needles

A close-up shot of pine needles in the garden.

Also known as pince straw, pine needles that are fresh or dried out are a common alternative to bark in the garden. They are also regarded as a more pleasant and homely-looking choice when compared with grass clippings and leaves. It is also extremely easy to spread them around the garden.

When they are freshly used with plants like holly, gardenias, chrysanthemums, roses, garlic, onions, and tomatoes, they work extremely well. This is because they are a very acidic enriched mulch. Otherwise, it is suggested to use dried out pine needles because they are less acidic.

Pros

  • Retain water, oxygen, and nutrients well
  • Visually pleasing

Cons

  • If buying, it can be costly since they decompose over time
  • Must be cautious with acid levels in soil (high acidity levels)

Approximate cost: It can cost anywhere from 20 to 70 cents or more per square feet of pine straw. Typically, the longer the needle, the higher the cost, but that is not always the case.

8. Hay or Straw

A field full of hays.

Hay or straw is what to use instead of mulch for landscaping, especially by those of us who love rustic looks, live on a farm, or the love the convenience of it. Like most of the other natural alternatives, it works well to suppress weeds, retain moisture, and release nutrients into the soil.

It is usually used to cover large gardens or plots of land, and it must be applied thickly to ensure the best results. Despite this, straw is pretty inexpensive to buy online and in stores.

Pros

  • Helps vegetables grow healthily
  • Cheap and easy

Cons

  • Needs to placed regularly because it decomposes over time
  • Attracts animals like straw
  • Insects and snakes like to hide in it

Approximate cost: A 10-pound package covers a little under 200 square feet and costs around 15 to 30 dollars. The price can vary depending on the store or brand.

Here are some products on Amazon.

9. Cocoa Bean Hulls

Cocoa bean hulls, dried and composting.

Like peanuts and pistachios, cocoa beans have hulls that are removed before being eaten or used to prepare food or drink. These hulls can be used as one of the organic alternatives to wood chip mulch because they can retain water well, but they also look colorful and smell sweet.

Unfortunately, they can also attract our pets and potentially kill them if the animal eats them. It is a good option for those of us who do not own pets or have neighbors that do, but there are only a few of us with those circumstances.

Pros

  • Natural and works well
  • Smells and looks great

Cons

  • Can be expensive
  • Are lethal to animals when eaten

Approximate cost: The most common package is a 10-pound bag, is usually 10 to 30 dollars and covers about 2 cubic feet.

Here are some products on Amazon.

10. Compost

Organic waste materials to be used as alternative to mulch.Compost is one of the most environmentally friendly creations to use in the garden, especially for mulch. Anyone of us could make compost, though the process does take a while and requires time and attention. Those of us who do not have the tools or the time can simply buy it online or in a landscaping store.

Like pine needles, compost can be pretty acidic, but it also carries many nutrients that plants need and use. Most compost is made from plants, but animal compost is usually more enriched with minerals. It is also more expensive and must be specially bought from a landscaping store.

Pros

  • Helps plants grow fast and healthy
  • Can be cheap

Cons

  • Can smell pretty bad
  • Fresh animal compost can burn plant roots

Approximate cost: The price depends on what kind of compost it is as well as the brand and store. Usually, the price can range from 10 to 20 dollar per cubic feet or 1.50 to 5 dollars per pound.

Here are some products on Amazon.

11. Landscape Fabric

Black landscape fabric on the garden bed.

Most commonly known as a weed barrier, this is the less popular option to use. It does retain water well and allow air through, but does not have any nutrients and does not fair well against strong weather. It usually needs to be replaced annually. It has been known to drive away earthworms and some insects, though.

Pros

  • Repels some insects
  • Works better with other mulches
  • Prevents weeds from growing

Cons

  • Unsightly
  • Takes time to install

Approximate cost: Usually, each roll is 3 to 4 feet wide, but the length can vary between 50 and 300 feet or more. The price is usually 20 to 50 dollars but can be more.









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