The 10 Best Mulch Alternatives for a Gorgeous Yard or Garden

In these days of reduce, reuse, and recycle, there is increased interest in mulch alternatives. This way, we reuse and recycle old items and create inexpensive mulch alternatives without the need for buying new mulch.

Mulch AlternativesView in gallery

Traditional mulch, like wood chip mulch, is important in the garden, as it creates a vital layer that protects fragile plants and flower beds by allowing soil temperatures to remain constant, retain moisture, and suppress weed growth.

Mulch alternatives are an economical option to buying expensive mulch varieties while still retaining the benefits that it brings.

Mulch Alternatives

Mulch AlternativesView in gallery

There are two main types of mulch: organic mulch and inorganic mulch.

  • Organic mulch materials are varieties like wood chips and bark mulch. These are anything that breaks down and returns to the soil.
  • Inorganic mulch alternatives use items that do not break down and return to the soil.

There are great mulch alternatives that come in both organic and inorganic varieties.

Organic Mulch Alternatives

Organic material for mulch is attractive because while it breaks down, it returns nutrients to the soil. Therefore, organic mulch alternatives bring all the benefits of mulch like retaining soil moisture and preventing weeds while bringing nutrients to the soil as well.

Grass Clippings

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Grass clippings are an item that almost everyone has as a by-product of cutting the lawn. However, this kind of mulch alternative needs some preparation before it is ready to spread over your plants and flower beds. To be effective, you must keep the grass clipping layers loose and thin and allow them to dry out before layering more clippings on top.


  • This is an inexpensive but effective way to mulch.
  • Grass clippings add nutrients like nitrogen to the soil which is great for tomatoes, lettuce, and kale.


  • You cannot use grass that has been treated for weeds as this will damage your plants.
  • If you pile grass cuttings around your plant roots, it can heat up and destroy the plants.

Pine Needles

Pine NeedlesView in gallery
Mid Atlantic Pine Straw

Pine needles, the leaves of pine trees, are another organic mulch material that is an effective and sustainable alternative to mulch. If you have a supply of pine needles from trees on your property, this is a good choice for you.

Pine needles, also called pine straw, do not pack down but create a permeable layer for water and other nutrients. Fresh pine needles contribute to acidic soil, so these are not good for every flower bed.

However, pine mulch is good for hydrangeas, camellias, azaleas, nasturtiums, and daffodils among others.


  • This is an alternative mulch that looks natural and beautiful.
  • This mulch alternative helps the soil retain moisture and essential nutrients.


  • Pine straw breaks down over time, so it will cost time and money to replace.
  • Contributes to a lower pH of the soil.

Straw Mulch

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Earth Food and Fire

Straw mulch is an excellent mulch alternative according to many garden experts. It is great at retaining soil moisture, a good weed barrier, and prevents the soil from compacting too much. Straw mulch, unlike hay mulch, does not contain seeds.

Also, straw mulch reduces potentially harmful insects and plant diseases like rot.

In addition, straw will decompose over time and will release nutrients to the soil that will help your plants to thrive.


  • This is an inexpensive form of alternative mulch because it does not cost much to buy and it does not break down like other organic mulch alternatives and need to be replaced as much.
  • This is an effective mulch alternative that many experts recommend.


  • Some people find this mulch alternative unattractive as the golden color and texture stand out from the garden soil.
  • Even though seeds should not be present in straw, there are sometimes seeds in the straw that will take root in your garden beds.


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One nutrient-rich mulch alternative is using composted materials. Compost is an alternative to mulch that you create over time.

This organic mixture is composed of discarded organic material like vegetable peelings, grass clippings, tea bags, leaves, cardboard egg cartons, and plant prunings. Compost must be the right balance of materials and needs to be mixed and turned so that all the material has been aired before you cover your plants.

When compost is used as garden mulch, it brings a flood of nutrients to the soil and is wonderful for retaining moisture. Some gardeners recommend adding animal compost to other organic compost to provide even more nutrients to the soil.

However, make sure that all the compost, including the animal compost, has been dried before use so that it does not burn your plants.


  • Compost adds light texture to a soil that is good for healthy plant growth.
  • Unlike other organic mulch material like wood mulch, there is no nitrogen depletion from the soil with compost.


  • Compost is expensive if you don’t make it yourself.
  • Compost can have a bad odor.

Cocoa Bean Hulls

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Cocoa bean hulls are the outer layer of a cocoa bean that comes off when the bean is roasted. They are free from weeds and are sterilized in the roasting process. Many gardeners love the dark look of this mulch and the sweet smell that they produce. This is one of the best alternatives to mulch if you are looking for an option that is good for the environment because you are using a product that would otherwise be discarded.


  • This is a good option for keeping the soil moist and providing nutrients to the soil like nitrogen.
  • This mulch alternative has a dark color and smell that many find attractive.


  • This is not one of the best mulch alternatives for dogs or other animals as these hulls can be toxic.


LeavesView in gallery
The Dirt Bag

Almost everyone has ready access to leaves making them the perfect mulch alternative. However, to take advantage of leaves for mulch, you should prepare them by sending them through a shredder. Otherwise, leaves form a layer that is too thick and creates an unsuitable living environment for small plants. Leaves are a good way to maintain consistent soil temperatures, suppress weeds, and bring more nutrients to the soil.


  • Shredded leaves are one of the most inexpensive mulch alternatives.
  • This is a good mulch alternative for soil aeration.


  • Like all organic mulches, compost brings nutrients to the soil. However, as leaves break down they leach nutrients away from the soil and cause some stunted growth.
  • It takes time to shred and dry the leaves for use as mulch.

Inorganic Mulch Alternatives

If you decide to go with an inorganic alternative to mulch, it will not give nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. However, unlike organic mulch, some inorganic alternatives will not break down at all. Therefore, these will last longer and preserve the quality of the soil underneath.

Rock Mulch

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Rock or stone mulch, like pea gravel or river rock, is an attractive and long lasting alternative to traditional mulch. Like other mulch alternatives, rocks help the soil underneath retain moisture and keep weed growth at bay.

Also, pebble mulch alternatives do not wash away or deteriorate over time. In addition, there is so much variety in rock mulch types that you can find one to fit any garden landscape and home style.

However, unlike other organic forms of mulch, it does not contribute back to the soil with nutrients or soil regeneration.


  • This is an attractive mulch alternative with a wide variety of types.
  • Rocks keep unwanted plant growth at bay and are good for retaining moisture in the soil.
  • Rock mulch is good in cooler climates as the rock retains heat and extends the growing season.


  • Rock mulch is a more expensive option than other mulch alternatives.
  • Stone mulch does not contribute to the soil’s nutrient level or quality.

Landscape Fabric

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Landscape fabric is a layer of breathable woven fibers that you lay over your beds to prevent weed growth and retain moisture. You must stake this fabric down throughout the bed which will prevent weeds from growing and make sure the fabric does not blow away.

While this is a helpful addition to your landscaping arsenal, landscape fabric needs to be coupled with other mulches because it is not an attractive top layer.


  • Landscape fabric retains moisture in the soil and is effective for preventing weed growth.
  • This kind of mulch alternative is inexpensive.


  • Landscape fabric is not attractive; you should couple this with another mulch alternative on top of the fabric.
  • Landscape fabric is fragile and needs to be replaced every season or every other season.

Rubber Mulch

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HeffCo Elastomers Inc

Rubber mulch has become a popular mulch alternative because it is using recycled tires and it lasts for a long time. This mulch has an attractive dark color and is good at regulating soil in hot and cold temperatures. However, this is not a controversy free mulch as many say that there is a risk that it is flammable and that it has too many chemicals that are not safe.


  • This mulch is excellent for retaining water and reducing weeds in your beds.
  • Rubber mulch does not attract insects and pests like wood chips and other organic mulch material.


  • Rubber mulch is expensive.
  • This kind of mulch cannot be worked into the ground if you are refashioning the bed, so it must be removed by hand.


NewspaperView in gallery
A Garden for the House

Newspaper is one of the most underappreciated alternatives to mulch around the house. This homely paper helps the soil retain moisture, cool the roots of the plants, adds organic materials to the soil, and keeps down weed growth. Layer the newspapers around your plants and cover with another mulch to keep the newspaper from blowing away.


  • This is an inexpensive and easy way to mulch your garden landscape.
  • It is a wonderful way to recycle old newspapers.


  • You cannot use this method on its own as you need to use another mulch option to cover the newspapers.
  • Newspaper mulch areas can become homes for pests like moles.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)FAQ

What is the cheapest form of mulch?

The cheapest form of mulch is the kind that you do not have to buy, and this will be different for every person. Therefore, if you have many deciduous trees on your property, you can use leaves. Likewise, if you have pine trees, use pine needles. Also, you can make mulch with compost that you make from food products and other organic material.

What is the most natural mulch?

The most natural mulch are those that you do not have to buy or those that do not have additives. Therefore, mulch that has been dyed is not the most natural. Instead, use mulch that you make from pine needles, leaves, or compost.

What is the safest mulch to use?

The safest mulch to use is any kind of natural or organic mulch alternatives. This is more safe around vegetables that you are going to eat than mulch from tires or other inorganic mulch alternatives that can leach chemicals into the soil.

Is topsoil better than mulch?

Topsoil will erode in the rain and the wind more than mulch which is heavier.

Are rocks better than mulch?

Rock mulch lasts longer than traditional mulch. Also, it is attractive. However, it does not bring valuable nutrients to the soil like some organic mulch does.

Does mulch turn into soil?

Over time, mulch will break down and turn into topsoil.

Mulch Alternatives: Conclusion

Mulch is the perfect way to preserve moisture and nutrients in the soil and keep the growth of weeds to a minimum.

However, traditional bark mulch does not work for everyone because of the expense and the problems with the dyes in the wood. Mulch alternatives are a wonderful way to capture the advantages of mulch without the problems.