If you’re wondering whether mulch is eco-friendly, the short answer is yes, it is. And it has great benefits for your garden, too.
However, it does also depend on how the mulch is made. For it to be truly eco-friendly, it should be organic and not made from anything that includes harmful chemicals.
Topping off your soil with a layer of mulch made from organic matter can yield significant benefits if you choose the right source material. Organic mulch isn’t expensive.
In fact, you can make it yourself using what you probably have around the house or materials that you can easily and inexpensively obtain from local sources.
Mulching is a great way to add eco-friendly, organic material to your soil and, with regular application, can turn tight soil with a large percentage of clay content into high-quality, loamy topsoil.
The Benefits and Life Cycle of Mulch
A layer of mulch helps keep the soil cool in warm climates and allows the earth beneath to retain moisture for longer periods of time.
Mulch prevents weeds and provides a habitat for beneficial bugs and other organisms that break it down, thereby adding nutrients and humus to the soil.
Among its many benefits, humus helps with the retention of nutrients that plants and beneficial organisms need, creates an environment that root-destroying pests like nematodes cannot tolerate, facilitates water penetration and distribution, and aerates the soil.
Earthworms love a damp, aerated environment with an abundance of organic nutrients. They convert some of these nutrients into castings saturated with essential elements plants require.
As they do their work, they also lower the soil’s acidity and alkalinity and increase aeration. Restarting the process through regular applications of mulch can turn poor soil into a fertile, loamy mix.
Should You Buy Mulch or Make It?
Mulch isn’t expensive and you might want to buy it ready-made. You may even have a source for free mulch in your area. Some locations shred the limbs they trim from power lines or pick up curbside and offer it to residents.
The potential issue with this is that the material may also contain things like poison ivy or poison oak. If it isn’t composted, any seeds in the mix may sprout and produce unwanted plants and nuisance tree varieties.
You can make your own mulch with branches, leaves, and clippings you have around the house.
Depending on the source materials you select, making it yourself could require some tools, like a pair of cutters, a hand or power saw, and perhaps a small chipper/shredder.
Electric chipper/shredders can be purchased online or at your local home improvement store.
When chipping limbs, the smaller the chips, the faster they compost. You may want to run them through the chipper more than once to get the smallest pieces possible.
Native Organic Composted Mulch
Native organic composted mulch simply refers to mulch produced using the branches of your local trees by chipping them into pieces less than an inch in length and width and allowing them to compost for three to six months.
Composting prior to application is required for this type of mulch to prevent the raw material from absorbing nutrients from the soil when it is applied. This mulch helps to transform tight soil into loamy soil over time.
When prepared correctly through composting, it also promotes the growth of fungi in root systems. This, in turn, promotes root growth, allowing plants to better absorb nutrients and moisture and making them more resistant to diseases.
Because it is made from local materials, you can usually buy it ready-made in bulk and pay less for it than other mulches if you choose not to make it, yourself.
Eco-Friendly Mulch from Leaves
Sticking with what you have locally available, you can make mulch from your leaves. The problem with leaves is that, until they’re composted, they tend to blow and scatter.
So, when they drop in the fall, either bag them up or put them in a pile with a wire fence around them.
Alternatively, you could locate the pile in an area that is blocked from the wind. Let them rot until springtime. Leaf mulch has some nutrient content beneficial to plants, including potassium and nitrogen, but not in high levels.
This mulch also contains some trace minerals plants need. Leaf mulch doesn’t do as much to build the quality of soil as mulch made from wood chips or hay, but it is a great way to put your fallen leaves to use and provide some enrichment for your plants.
Natural Hay and Stall Waste Mulch
You can buy a square bale of grass hay from your local feed store for only a few dollars and use it as mulch straight from the bale with no composting required.
Alternatively, if you have stables in your area, you may be able to get stall waste, or old baled hay that is no longer suitable for feeding, at no cost. There could be some shoveling required, but the waste mucked out of stalls typically has hay, manure, and grain mixed.
This is a great starter for composted mulch, but you shouldn’t apply it in this form without composting it first.
Hay used as mulch provides significant amounts of the nutrients that plants need, far surpassing those found in leaf mulch.
Yes, having some manure in the mix is a good thing if composted, but hay, alone, contains far more nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (the big three in plant nutrients) than cow manure.
Hay mulch is also more effective than manure in promoting beneficial biological processes. Just spread it in layers four to six inches deep and let the microbial activities begin.
Mulch from Pine and Hardwood
Pine and hardwood mulches are primarily used in landscaping applications as decorative weed barriers. Especially in the spring, you can buy bags of pine mulch at low prices from your local garden supply or in bulk from landscaping supply yards.
Pine rots slower than hardwood and adds a little acidity to the soil. If your soil is already too acidic, you should probably avoid using it.
Pine is also more apt to float away in heavy rain and can deprive plants of nitrogen. It also doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrients as it decays.
Hardwood decorative mulch is better than pine, but not by much. It provides a bit more nutrition to the soil as it rots and typically doesn’t float away as easily, but, like pine, its primary use is that of a weed barrier.
Conclusions about Eco-Friendly Mulch
If you use the right material, without any chemicals in it, a layer of mulch can be very eco-friendly and beneficial because:
- It adds nutrients to your soil.
- Prevents weed growth.
- Facilitates beneficial biological processes.
- Over time, can transform your tight soil into a loamy paradise for earthworms and beneficial insects.
Mulch also helps with moisture retention and keeps soil warm in cooler temperatures. Mulch doesn’t cost much if you choose to buy it, but you can make it, yourself, with what you have around your house or what you can likely obtain from local sources.
With all its benefits and affordable cost, adding chemical-free mulch to your garden is a great idea.