What’s the Best Eco-friendly Mulch?
Gardeners are increasingly aware of how their practices impact the environment and local ecosystems. Eco-friendly means using methods, tools, and materials that have a minimal negative impact or that actively promote the health of the ecosystem. For many gardeners, the well-being of the environment is a natural concern. It is possible to use environmentally friendly mulch to have a beautiful garden and a purely positive effect on the earth.
Eco-friendly mulch is composed of natural organic or inorganic by-products of wood, bark, leaf, tires, and plastics which are not usable or thrown as waste. Instead of throwing out these by-products gardeners can easily use them as their garden or plant medicine and help the environment to become clean and healthy.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “what is the best eco-friendly mulch?” All the types of organic or inorganic mulch listed in this article are suitable for your plants and environmentally friendly in their own right.
- High-quality compost has been traditionally used as an excellent amendment to build soil by providing major and minor nutrients abundant organic matter and large populations of beneficial microbes.
- Grass clippings may help improve soil that is low in organic matter, sandy, or has heavy clay.
- Using leaf mulch is an organic, inexpensive, nutrient-rich way to make sure your plants will grow and produce year after year.
- Which mulches are environmentally friendly? Many organic materials are beneficial for the soil, offering nutrition and protection.
Types of Eco-Friendly Mulch
Many types of mulch are considered to be eco-friendly. One has to select from them depending on own needs.
1. Straw Mulch
Straw is one of the most universally-used organic mulches, and for good reason. It is readily available and easy to use. Be sure to get a straw that is free of chemical treatments or weed seeds. A thick layer of straw mulch is an excellent choice for vegetable gardens, annual beds, and newly seeded lawns. Straw is the dry, hollow stalks of grains after they have been harvested.
- While straw may not be the most attractive mulch, it keeps the soil moist and insulates soil in winter, making it a favorite among farmers.
- It also helps to reduce the incidence of splash-dispersed pathogens.
- Using straw mulch is only recommended when plant roots are not exposed to excessive soil heat because it breaks down slowly over time.
2. Wood Chip Mulch
Woodchips are an excellent source of organic matter. It is also known as arborist mulch or municipal tree waste which is best at suppressing weeds and preventing erosion. Wood chips are best suited to systems with fairly wide bed spacing to avoid ending up with woodchips under your beds.
- Woodchips have a very high carbon: nitrogen ratio, so they will pull nitrogen away from your crops if placed too close to the rooting zone.
- Over time, woodchips can add a substantial amount of organic matter and are excellent for absorbing and retaining moisture.
- It may contain harmful pesticides.
- It can form a crust that prevents water from filtering into the soil.
3. Tree Bark
Tree barks as mulch serve many purposes, with the benefits reaching far beyond their immediate surroundings. Not just a decorative finish to a border or a weed suppressant, a covering of tree bark has a protective and restorative function for both plant health and the environment.
- Tree bark mulch helps prevent problems associated with water run-off during heavy rain. Often, when water is scarce in summer, thunderstorms bring very welcome rain.
- These storms can run off rapidly resulting in flash flooding, causing more harm than good for plants and soil structure. A mulch helps to slow the movement of water, allowing it to percolate into the soil where it can be taken up by plants’ roots and help reduce the risk of flooding.
- The natural color of barks can easily improve the look of any garden, helping to elevate the visual impact of flowers and foliage while complementing the surroundings.
Compost looks like soil, except it’s darker, so it sets off plants nicely. It becomes every gardener’s dream soil rectification. This mulch is a nutrient-rich mixture of decomposing organic materials. This mulch material breaks down quickly but adds to your soil structure the most rapidly. It is really easy to get and the plus point is- you can make it on your own in your home in a less expensive way. The following are some of the benefits.
- Improves plant growth and health.
- Provides plant nutrients in a stable organic form.
- Increases plant rooting depth.
- Improves physical, biological, and chemical soil properties.
- Reduces erosion.
- Increases soil organic matter (SOM), aggregate stability, hydraulic conductivity, infiltration rate, water holding capacity, and plant-available water.
- Intercepts and absorbs falling rain and reduces runoff and associated sediment losses.
- Feeds and gives a habitat to beneficial bacteria, fungi, microorganisms, and worms. In turn, these organisms rapidly break down organic matter and release chemicals that prevent plant diseases.
- It requires a waiting period to decompose the mulch material and these materials release an unpleasant odor during the decomposition period.
5. Pine Straw and Bark or Needles
Pine straw is made from the needles of pine trees and is one of the popular choices in some areas. Pine straws mainly known as pine needles are tiny but they are tough.
- Pine needles are also lightweight and breathable, so you don’t need to worry too much about mildew growth and lack of airflow.
- They interlock to stay in place, so they’re perfect for slopes and ridges. They’re springy and resist soil compaction so you can cut back on aerating your garden.
- Pine straw is good at suppressing weeds and retaining moisture in the soil.
- It also breaks down slowly, so it will last several years before needing replacement.
- The downside is pine straw can be acidic, so it’s not always ideal for plants that require neutral or alkaline soils.
6. Living Mulch/ Green Manure
An important addition to any garden, living mulch provides food and habitat for beneficial insects, retains moisture, regulates soil temperature, improves soil structure, and adds nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. A living mulch is a cover crop interplanted or undersown with a main crop and intended to serve the functions of a mulch, such as weed suppression and regulation of soil temperature. Living mulches grow for a long time with the main crops, whereas cover crops are incorporated into the soil.
- The dense clover shades out and smothers other weeds in your garden.
- Just like regular mulches, this will retain moisture in the soil by providing shade and shelter from desiccating wind and sun.
- As it covers soils, preventing exposure to harsh elements. Roots hold on to soil particles and hold them in place, while plant bodies shield the soil from extreme rains and the scorching sun, thereby preventing erosion.
- There are many ways of controlling pests including boosting the number of their natural predators. Green manure crops can serve as a home for predatory insects, such as ground and rove beetles.
- Pollinators, such as bees, can also grab the required nutrition from flower nectar and pollen of many commonly planted green manures.
- Green manure is liable for breaking the lifecycle of pests and diseases. The rye sown in the fall, for instance, decreases the populations of major pests that attack potatoes and vegetables.
7. Mulching with Lawn/Grass Clippings
Fresh or dried grass trimmings are often collected in the lawnmower bag. This heap of green can simply go to your municipal compost facility if you have one, or you can use them to help your landscape. Grass clipping garden mulch is simple, effective, and one of the sneaky ways to benefit from the garbage.
Clippings that are less than 1 inch (2.5 cm.) slip down to the root zone of the grass and break down quite quickly into the soil. Longer clippings can be bagged or raked up and mulched elsewhere, as these stay on the surface of the soil and take longer to compost.
- Grass clippings provide nourishment to your lawn. They are a valuable source of nutrients and you can use less nitrogen fertilizer if you recycle clippings for the lawn.
- If you empty lawn clippings into a recycling bin, leaving the clippings on your lawn, it will cut down on the amount of waste being collected, reducing emissions from collection trucks, transportation, and more.
- It saves time. You don’t have to move around and pay bills to collect this mulch.
- Grass clippings help cool the root zone and conserve moisture.
- It may contain harmful herbicides or weed seeds and spread diseases.
- It can form a water-resistant mat.
8. Shredded Leaves as Mulch
Shredded leaves, also known as leaf mold, are easy to work with when applying mulch to beds. And once shredded, leaves will decompose much faster into rich organic matter known as humus. All you need is about a 2-inch layer of leaf to make such mulch.
If you have an abundance of leaves, you can store them whole or shredded in a pile, bin, or leaf corral and wet them. In time, funguses will break the leaves down into what is often referred to as leaf mold, which is simply semi-composted leaves. Leaf mold makes for a very effective organic mulch and highly beneficial soil amendment.
- Feeds your soil with organic matter and rich nutrients.
- Adds organic matter to maintain and absorb moisture.
- Aerates the soil for easy spring seed germination.
- Keeps leaf piles from washing into drains and ditches.
- Reuses a free resource in an environmentally-friendly way.
9. Newspaper or Cardboard
Both cardboard and newspaper are excellent when it comes to weed control. While either can be used on their own, these two substrates work best when combined with other organic mulching layers like straw, grass, leaves, or compost. Once you’ve laid down a layer, make sure to get it wet and then cover it with compost, soil, and another layer of mulch.
Your seeds will sprout and take root, and the cardboard and newspaper will degrade over time (cardboard takes a bit longer). It is important not to go overboard as laying newsprint too thickly can impede water and airflow into the soil. Be sure to avoid any colorful and glossy paper.
10. Coconut Husk and Coir
Coconut coir is essentially the husk of this massive tree nut (it’s also the furry stuff on the outside of coconut shells).
- It’s a renewable resource with no negative environmental impact.
- Coconut coir holds moisture incredibly well, is super light, and has a slower breakdown rate than other mulch substrates. It comes in two different forms: brick, which expands with water, and straw-like bales.
- Coconut coir contains no chemical byproducts and may also deter snails and slugs.
11. Sawdust as Mulch
Though it’s commonly thought of as a nitrogen hog, sawdust is another eco-suitable (and inexpensive) option to use for garden mulch. Like most biodegradable substrates, this wood byproduct retains moisture quite well. If you live in warmer climates, using sawdust is a smart option because it keeps roots cool and the temperature in a perfect environment. Sawdust works best when utilized with other weed-preventative layers like newspaper or cardboard.
Though it’s known to be mildly toxic, eucalyptus poses no threat to your plants if it’s mixed with another secondary mulch medium. It can help moderate soil temperatures, as well as retain water when the weather gets warm. Eucalyptus is excellent when it comes to suppressing weeds. Best of all, it has a nice clean smell, which is something that harmful insects aren’t too privy to.
13. Cotton Burr Compost as Mulch
Usually, when cotton is harvested, the plant is run through a gin. This separates the good stuff (the cotton fiber) from the leftovers (the seeds, stems, and leaves). This leftover stuff is called cotton burr. The benefits of cotton burr compost are great for a few reasons.
Mainly, cotton plants famously use up a lot of nutrients. This means those beneficial minerals and nutrients are sucked out of the soil and up into the plant. Compost the plant and you’ll get all those nutrients back.
It’s very good for breaking up heavy clay soil because it’s coarser than some other composts, like manure, and easier to wet than peat moss. It’s also full of beneficial microbes and bacteria, unlike some other varieties.
14. Wool Mulch (Woolwich)
Typically, when you shear a sheep you have what’s called waste wool. It’s from the belly or hind side of the sheep and it’s often discolored, thin, and generally not considered valuable. With waste wool making up to 20% of the total taken from each sheep, it could be put to good use as mulch. It reduces growth time for vegetables, saves water, softens hard clay soil, and controls pests.
15. Biodegradable Food Waste
Food waste is unavoidable; eggshells, banana peels, and tea bags will never be served and therefore require proper disposal. One of the simplest solutions to mitigating food waste is composting organics in your garden or backyard. Composting at home is a fantastic method to keep this trash out of landfills, and our gardens will thank us for it.
Biodegradable garbage, often known as organic waste, is a form of natural trash produced by plants or animals. Biodegradable plastics, food waste, green trash, certain types of paper waste, manure, human waste, sewage, and abattoir waste are only a few of the many types. Not all types of waste can be good to use in your compost.
Melaleuca quinquenervia or paperbark tea tree has an alarming rate of growth that invades saw grass prairie. So environmental groups seeking a solution related to its removal and finding a process to turn melaleuca into mulch. Termites do not favor melaleuca, the mulch will not significantly alter soil pH, and it holds its shape well.
Eco-Friendly and Sustainable but Questionable
Besides these, there are some other types of mulch you can use that are eco-friendly, and sustainable yet questionable.
i. Plastic Mulch
Plastic mulch is considered a type of inorganic mulch which is used mostly. This type of mulching utilizes polyethylene film to shield plants from the elements. The polyethylene film is usually a sheet of black plastic and it works the same way as organic mulch, the film insulates the soil, prevents soil erosion, and reduces moisture evaporation. Though plastic mulching certainly has its benefits it needs to be avoided because:
- Unlike organic mulch, plastic mulch is not biodegradable. It doesn’t break down completely so it ends up in landfills.
- While black plastic mulch warms up the soil effectively, altering the soil temperature isn’t advisable for all crops.
- Plastic mulch does an excellent job of trapping moisture and minimizing the risk of water evaporation.
II. Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is a thick woven material that you can use to line your garden beds. This will prevent weeds from growing and help hold moisture in the soil. Landscape fabric does help to suppress weeds, but only for a couple of years. Additionally, over time it may do more harm than good to your plants. It is not a permanent solution.
- Landscape fabric requires regular maintenance and replacement. Landscape fabric will eventually clog and prevent water and oxygen from reaching the soil.
- Removing landscape fabric can be a lot of work, and you risk harming any plant roots that have grown through the barrier.
- It kills earthworms and many other beneficial insects in the soil by blocking their access to oxygen.
- Exposed landscape fabric can be unattractive in the landscape. Landscape fabric can degrade when exposed to sunlight. The fabric does not decompose in the soil.
iII. Rubber Mulch
Rubber mulch is mostly used in gardens and playgrounds for its durability. It is a recycled product, made from old tires. In some cases, the use of rubber mulch may be environmentally friendly and sustainable because it is made from recycled car tires but mostly questionable. This is because:
- It doesn’t have the nutrient quality of organic mulch. As a result, it will interfere with your soil’s delicate balance and it won’t provide any nutrients to help your plants and vegetables grow.
- It contains hazardous and toxic chemicals that do considerable damage. Once the mulch is laid down, the chemicals will leach into your soil, and destroy its health – along with damaging your plants!
- It can’t be tilled into your soil. That means you’ll be pulling weeds by hand.
- It’s costly.
iv. Stones, Gravel, and River Rock
Rocks or stones and gravels tend to be more expensive than organic mulches. But because they’re inorganic materials, river rock, stones, and landscaping pebbles don’t break down, so they don’t need to be reapplied every year.
However, it also means they don’t improve your soil over time. Take caution when using stone as mulch because stones tend to get hot in the sun. Stones are often used in cacti and rock gardens. Rock and stone are perfect for areas that require a lot of water. Although gravel and stone have very good drainage, the plants that require a bit more heat can be benefited from gravel and stone mulch.
v. Tumbled Glass
While it’s not truly organic matter, using tumbled glass as a mulch-like ground cover is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s earth-smart. Glass mulch is a commonly used synthetic, or inorganic mulch. Using tumbled glass mulch made from used glass bottles, old windows, and other glass products keeps glass out of landfills. The ground, tumbled glass, which may display minor flaws common to recycled glass, is available in various shades of amber, blue, and green. Clear glass mulch is also available. Sizes range from excellent mulch to 2 to 6-inch (5-15 cm.) rocks. Using landscape glass as mulch tends to be relatively expensive.
How to Choose the Best Eco-Friendly Mulch?
Before applying eco-friendly mulch in your garden you need to know the best suitable mulch for your plants. When choosing what type of mulch to use in your garden or landscaping, there are several factors to consider.
Without knowing about the plants which are needed mulching and don’t require mulch, you cannot apply mulch in your garden. Otherwise mulching will give you a nightmare instead of an attractive garden.
Some organic materials are better suited for certain climates than others. For example, the bark is a good option for areas that experience hot summers, while leaves are a better choice for cooler temperatures.
There are several types of materials used for mulching today. Rocks, gravel, wood chips, bark, and recycled rubber are simply a few of the mulching materials available on the market. All of them work in the same way. What you choose truly depends on your personal preference.
Eco-friendly organic mulches are very cost-effective. Because most of the mulches are found in our own garden or collected from recycled materials. Organic wood mulch is more affordable than its inorganic counterparts like rock or decorative stone. While rock mulch is a costlier investment, it’s also a more permanent solution. Wood mulch typically needs to be refreshed each year and, over time, can become a long-term expense.
When it comes to durability, inorganic mulch wins every time. Traditional organic wood mulch decomposes over time and needs to be added to your landscape each year. Organic mulch, like rock or stone, will not decay and is not easily washed away by rain or snow.
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How to Apply Mulch for the Best Result?
Mulch takes care of your plants without asking for much in return. To get the best out of it, you have to apply it in an organized way.
A. Choosing the Right Mulch
Select an organic mulch to add nutrients to your lawn. When organic mulch breaks down, it naturally adds nutrients to the underlying soil Choose inorganic mulch for a decorative look. Unlike organic mulches, however, inorganic mulches come in a wide variety of colors and styles that you can use to decorate your outdoor space. For example, you can get an inorganic mulch that matches the color of your house.
B. Best time of year to apply mulch
Timing is everything when it comes to mulching, which spreads mostly organic matter over the surface of the soil to protect and improve its condition. But doing it too early could create problems, as could doing it too late. The right time to mulch a garden is dependent on what type of plant material you are mulching and the weather conditions in your area. In general, mid-to-late spring is a mulching season that’s when the soil is warming up from the freezing temperatures it experienced all winter. Doing it too early will slow down the warming process, which the soil needs to do its job. In general, you should replace mulch every year or two. This will help ensure that your plants have enough nutrients and won’t be smothered by too much mulch.
C. Correct depth for mulch application
It depends on how often you are dressing the beds with mulch. The general recommendation for mulching is 2-5 inches.
- If you are mulching at least once a year then 2-3 inches is typically enough. In general, you can simply apply enough to where you can’t see any of the old mulch, but no more than that. Unless weeds are a major problem. Simply applying enough to cover the old mulch is typically enough for maintenance mulching.
- If it has been a couple of years since you have re-mulched. Or your garden bed has never been mulched. then you will need to go thicker, say 4-5 inches.
- And if your garden bed is brand new, you will also want to be sure you apply 4-5 inches of mulch.
D. Amount of Mulch Needed
The amount of mulch depends on the size of your garden and how often you use it. For instance, if you have a yard of 1500 square feet, then you will need around 50 cubic feet of mulch. The same quantity of yard would require about 30 cubic feet more if it’s in daily use. One cubic yard of the material covers a 324-square-foot area an inch deep. So, to determine your total, multiply your square footage by the depth in inches desired, then divide by 324. Here’s your formula: Square footage x desired depth / 324 = cubic yards needed.
E. Prepping the soil before mulching
You can’t just throw some mulch down and expect everything to be perfect. To get the best results, you need to take a little time to prepare your mulch beds properly.
- Spray all weeds with weed killer for 1 to 2 weeks before mulching. This allows weeds to die completely, making them much easier to pull.
- Because of the debris produced, be sure to trim trees and bushes before applying new mulch.
- Remove all dead leaves, weeds, and trimmings with a rake.
F. Maintenance and care of mulch
Generally, mulch needs very little attention to function as it should, and some mulches can last 10 years or longer before needing to be replaced. It’s most important to occasionally check the depth of your mulch and make sure it falls between 2 to 4 inches deep. There are some tips to maintain mulch:
- Over time, mulch colors fade due to frequent exposure to sunlight. Eventually, all mulches will fade without maintenance. You need to refresh the color of the applied mulch.
- Despite mulch’s amazing ability to ward off weeds, they still emerge now and then. So it is important to remove weeds on your own.
- Every season, you’ll want to mix and turn your mulch a couple of times to break up clustered pieces and ensure it hasn’t formed a compacted layer on top of the soil.
- To maintain well mulch, it’s necessary to keep mulch washed away.
Importance of Eco-Friendly Mulch
Eco-friendly mulches provide aesthetic, economic, and environmental benefits to urban landscapes. Mulching is especially useful in the establishment of trees in landscapes that receive minimal care, such as restoration sites. In general, mulches improve soil health, creating healthy populations of plants and associated animals. These biodiverse, stable landscapes are more resistant to stress, are more aesthetically pleasing, require fewer applications of pesticides and fertilizers, and are ultimately more sustainable than those without mulch cover.
If you’ve used organic mulch, such as wood chips, you can either remove the old mulch and add it to your compost pile or simply add a layer of new mulch on top. Inorganic mulch, such as stones or rubber, can’t be composted but can be reused in other ways.
Organic mulches are generally more environmentally friendly than synthetic (plastic) mulches because they break down over time and add organic matter to the soil. So organic mulch is the best to use.
Plastic mulch is the most durable mulch, but it does not provide any soil benefits.
For those who love gardening or work in landscaping, mulching is a must! Mulching is a great way to improve the look of your garden and can also be beneficial for plants. It can be time-consuming, and it often involves plenty of research to find the ideal mulching material. With the growing popularity of gardening and the alarming demand to reduce our carbon footprint due to climate change, many gardeners are now looking for eco-friendly and sustainable ways to mulch their gardens.
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