7 Materials That Make Great Garden Mulch

Mulch can improve garden soil and also limit weeds. Here are a number of materials that make good mulch, their pros and cons, and where you can get them.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Mulching your garden can provide many benefits. Mulch can keep the soil cooler. Mulch can protect from erosion and even suppress weeds. That said, quite a few mulches exist, including some that might be new to you or that you’d not previously considered.

Today I list seven such types of mulch, so you can research to see which materials are available in your area. The goal should never be to ship in lot of a certain kind of mulch if another is available nearby in abundance. Here I’ll cover the simple pros and cons of each, as well as a couple of ideas on where to find that mulch.

1. Compost

Compost can make great mulch, applied to the surface at any time of year to cover soil.
Pros: It can warm soil slightly while retaining heat, and add fertility.
Cons: It can be expensive.
Where to find it: Talk to local vegetable farmers about where they get their compost, and also try landscapers. Look on the web, too—it can’t hurt. You can also make your own mulch if you have the means and the raw materials.

2. Straw

When the stalk from a grain is harvested and baled, you get straw. So grains are harvested, and the stalks are cut and baled after that.
Pros: Straw contains fewer weed seeds than hay (generally speaking), and it’s very light and easy to move. Straw is a great carbon source as well, and it keeps the soil cool in the summer.
Cons: Straw can keep soil too cool in the spring for planting, and it can contain the seeds from its grains, which will turn into a weed for you. Also, be mindful of broadleaf herbicides. Some farmers spray their straw fields to get cleaner straw.
Where to find it: Online classified sites can be a great straw resource, but if you have any grain growers nearby, contact them and ask what they have.

3. Hay

Grass hay, when dried and baled, can be a nutrient-rich source of livestock or garden fodder.
Pros: Hay is nutrient rich and dense. It’s great for weed suppression.
Cons: The weed seed can be really bad for gardens. Consider solarizing the bales before or after mulching.
Where to find it: Online classified sites are often a good source. I also recommend asking people at your county extension if they know of anyone who bales hay. County extension staffers can be a great resource for that.

4. Peat Moss

This is the dried moss from peat bogs. It’s very light and can be somewhat “dusty.”
Pros: Peat is fairly cheap and light so easy to move and spread (on non-windy days).
Cons: There is some debate about the sustainability of peat. Also, it’s a very acidic substance so you might need to blend it with something alkaline (such as lime). Consult a soil expert if you plan to use large amounts.
Where to find it: Check with landscaper supply companies, or search the web for local distributors, especially if you live near peat bogs.

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5. Wood Chips

Fallen branches and old trees often get turned into wood chips, which can be great in garden paths.
Pros: Wood chips are decent at weed suppression; they’re fairly light and easy to move.
Cons: Any area that wood chips touch, they temporarily absorb nitrogen that your plants need. So I recommend keeping them in the path only, or around perennials.
Where to find them: Contact tree trimmers for free wood chips, or try the local landfill to see if it gives away wood chips.

6. Cardboard

Though you need to pull the tape off first, cardboard can make a great garden mulch.
Pros: Large sheets can cover a lot of ground.
Cons: Weighting the cardboard down can be an issue, and pulling off all the tape can be a challenge. Avoid cardboard with colored inks or glossy finishes.
Where to find it: Furniture supply stores and other retail shops, new restaurants—there are lots of places to find cardboard. You do have to hunt it down, but most places will give it to you for free.

7. Leaves

Leaves can make a superb nutrient-rich ground cover. And at free, it’s one of the least expensive mulch materials.
Pros: Leaves are to spread and easy to acquire; they contain a lot of the types of organic matter worms love.
Cons: Leaves can mat heavily, making it hard for perennials to come through. They’re for weeds, but bad for garlic and bulb flowers.
Where to find them: Call someone in city government or a waste-management company and see who collects leaves. Often, collectors must pay to drop these at the landfill, so say you’ll take them for free. If that doesn’t work, check the landfill in the fall for fresh piles.

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