On a homestead, you use whatever you have available to do the job. You might not get the same result as the expensive bagged stuff, but these mulch alternatives will still make a huge difference!
Mulch is “a material (such as decaying leaves, bark, or compost) spread around or over a plant to enrich or insulate the soil”. This means that you can use any material to enrich your soil. Don’t get stuck in the mindset that you need to use the $3 a bag dyed wood chips that they are selling in front of the grocery store.
We have used several different mulch alternatives here on the homestead and found that some work better than others. The results varied, depending on what we were mulching and what we were mulching with. One thing you can be sure of is that using any of the alternatives I mention below beat not mulching every time.
Why You Should Mulch Your Garden
Plants that are grown with a layer of much produce much higher yields than they do without mulch. The layer of material acts as a layer of insulation, providing a more consistent environment.
Mulch works to seal any water in the soil so it doesn’t evaporate as quickly. This study shows that mulching your garden can reduce the amount of water evaporating by 25%.
Using mulch also helps insulate your garden plants throughout the year. In the summer, it will help keep the roots much cooler that soil by itself. In the winter, it will help keep the roots protected from harsh freezing temperatures. Some studies have also discovered that mulch helps keep the soil cold in early spring, stopping plants from coming out of dormancy before the threat of frost has passed.
Another benefit of mulching is that you will naturally have less weeds to deal with if you do it right. Weeds need sunlight, soil, and water to grow and it’s hard for the seeds to be on the soil and get sunlight through a few inched of mulch.
My Top 10 Mulch Alternatives
Here is a list of my top 10 mulch alternatives that I have used. Each one has its own benefits and downfalls, so do a little research before deciding on which to use.
If you live in an area like we do, you get buried in pine needles in the fall. Usually, you rake them all up and hopefully put them in your compost pile. What people don’t realize, is that they are missing out on one of the best alternatives for traditional mulch.
Pine needles are an amazing natural insulator that people are throwing away every year! The only thing you need to watch out for is the fact that they increase the acid level of the soil they are insulating. Pine needle mulch is best used to insulate plants that love acidic soils, such as garlic, strawberries, and blueberries.
If you don’t live in an area where pine trees are prevalent, collect some old Christmas trees. Many cities have even started collecting Christmas trees, grinding them up, and giving them away as free mulch!
Leaves are another natural product that are typically raked up and disposed of every year. We love using leaves for mulch so much that we cover our entire garden with them every fall.
We like to grind the leaves up by mowing them, the dumping them a few inches thick over the garden. Grinding them up releases what moisture they have locked within and increases the speed in which they decompose. By spring, they are typically already turned into fertilizer that is already mixed into the soil.
The only problem that we have with mulch is that you need to keep it really wet when you first spread it. If you let the leaves dry, the wind will spread them back out and really make your husband angry. I water them once a day for the first two weeks while they get settled in for the winter.
If you have extra leaves left over like we do, mix them with your livestock manure for great compost. Check out the results of just two weeks of mixing these two in my Instagram picture below.
I spent some time turning the post today. It already is starting to look good! . . #homesteading #compost #composting #garden #gardening #readyfornextyear #compostpile #organic #organicveggies #alpaca #alpacas #alpacasofinstagram
A photo posted by The homesteading Housewife (@thehomesteadinghousewife) on
Most of us have plenty of lawn to mow! We use our alpacas to mow anything that is fenced in, but we still have plenty of grass that needs to mow. Instead of dumping the clippings in the alpaca pen for snack time, we will use it as mulch when we need it.
Grass works well because it is nitrogen based, so It adds nitrogen and nutrients to the soil as it dissolves. All plants need nitrogen, so you are safe to use grass wherever you need to. It is one of the best free mulch alternatives out there if you ask me.
The only problem that we had with using grass is that you need a whole lot of it to really make a difference. Grass shrinks and decomposes quicker than most other options on this list. It will take at least four to six inches if you really want to make a difference.
When we use this method, we mix it in with leaves. The combination or nitrogen from the grass and carbon from the leaves makes for healthy soil when they compost.
Waste Hay and Livestock Bedding
If you have livestock, you will probably have waste hay that your animals will not eat. Our alpacas will only eat the leafy parts of second cut grass for example. They leave the stocky straw parts behind for us to collect and compost. This makes for the perfect mulch if you don’t mind the plain look as a result.
Another option to consider is the bedding materials you are using for your livestock. Most of us are using hay or straw to keep our livestock healthy and warm, don’t just throw it away. It does a very good job of transitioning to a new job of keeping plants warm!
You should be composting by now, but make sure that you start today if you are not. It is so easy to do and there are so many benefits if you are growing anything. Using it as mulch is just one of the many great ways compost will help your garden.
Compost is thick and retains water very well, making it a great compost alternative. You are better of using already finished compost, so you don’t attract pests, but I have been known to spread it before it completes. I am OK with seeing a few eggshells on top of the soil through the winter if it mean better results in the spring!
If you aren’t composting yet, find someone that is looking to get rid on their manure. Anyone that has livestock will be glad to have you take away some of that stinky pile they have behind the barn!
We have experimented by using a few different wood products as mulch. One of the most common mulches is wood chips, so we naturally avoided that until we had wood chips and nothing to do with them. We quickly found out why they were so popular because they did an amazing job.
My husband also did some experimenting with shredded wood and saw dust in the past. Shredded wood worked pretty well, but took a ton of effort to prepare. Sawdust worked well when he packed it in thick, but most people aren’t going to have enough sawdust to cover four feet of their garden.
If you don’t care what your garden looks like, newspaper is a great way to mulch your garden. It is free, easy to acquire, and even easier to spread. You can even layer it on to increase how effective it is at retaining water.
One of the biggest benefits of using newspaper is that it completely blocks out the sun. Without the sun, weeds will not be able to grow. That leaves more water, space, and nutrients for your garden to use.
We used this one year and found it very difficult to keep from flying away. Looking back, I imagine it would work well if we had watered the newspaper regularly to ensure that it wouldn’t fly away.