Episode 012: Best (Free!) Organic Mulches For The Home Garden

podcast cover with smiling woman, title of episode

episode highlights

  • Discover how to transform your garden into a flourishing oasis with the use of organic mulches with benefits such as weed prevention, moisture retention, and soil fertility enhancement.
  • Uncover the myths about using wood chips as mulch, and learn about other organic mulch options like leaves, straw, grass clippings, cardboard, and even wool.
  • Learn tips on how to use organic mulch effectively for best results and how to source these natural materials for free.

The Wonders of Organic Mulching: Boost Your Garden’s Health

Are you looking to turn your garden into a flourishing oasis? Do you want to know how to feed your soil, lock in key moisture, and keep those pesky weeds at bay? If yes, then the secret you’re looking for is organic mulching.

The Power of Organic Mulching

Mulch is a layer of material that you put over your garden bed. The purpose of mulch is manifold – it blocks weeds, retains moisture, adds organic matter to your soil, prevents runoff, and helps maintain a more even soil temperature.

One of my most recommended types of organic mulch is wood chips. They are super easy to get for free, don’t break down too quickly, and slowly add to your soil, building that organic matter.

Despite common misconceptions, placing wood chips on your garden doesn’t tie up the nitrogen in the soil and prevent your plants from getting it. Washington State University did a great study that you can check out for more details.

Different Types of Organic Mulches

There are various types of mulches you can use in your garden to maximize its potential. Leaves, straw, grass clippings, cardboard, and wool are all organic materials you can use as mulch to help with weed control, retain moisture, and increase soil fertility.

Leaves, for example, decompose quickly, adding organic matter to your soil. They are also super easy to get for free during the fall season. Straw, on the other hand, is great for crops like melons or zucchini, where the fruit generally rests on the ground. It can help prevent bugs from getting to it as quickly.

Cardboard, while not the most practical mulch, is free and blocks weeds very effectively. It also breaks down easily, adding organic matter to your soil and increasing its fertility.

Lastly, wool and kelp are two unusual types of organic mulch. Wool, according to a study, helped with disease resistance and retained the most moisture among all types of mulch. Kelp or seaweed, on the other hand, is very nutritious for the soil and can be collected for free if you live near the sea.

Organic mulching is a simple and cost-effective way to nourish your garden and reap bountiful harvests. By understanding the different types of organic mulches and their benefits, you can choose the best one for your garden and watch it thrive. After all, a successful garden begins at the roots!

You can read more about these various mulches, as well as see a comparison chart, in this article: Best (Free!) Organic Mulches For The Home Garden

Episode Transcript

0:00:05 – Speaker 1
Hello, hello, and welcome back to Organic Gardening for Beginners. I am your host, jessica from the blog Homegrown Food and Flowers, and this show is all about helping you get started with your garden, whether it is your very first one or you have a few seasons under your belt but you feel like you’ve got some room for improvement. That’s what this show is all about. So today we are talking about some of the best free, organic mulches for your garden to use this summer, and I do specify organic ones, because I’m not talking about landscape fabric or rubber mulch things that are considered inorganic. These are all natural materials that you can source for free or paid if you want to, but they are considered organic mulches, so let’s jump in and see if we can’t find one that will work for your garden this summer. Okay, if you are new to this show, then you might not know my love affair with two things, and one of those is companion planting and the other one is mulch. Which good thing we’re doing this episode, because there are so many benefits to mulch. I will briefly run over them, just in case mulch is a new concept for you if you’ve never tried it before and you want to know why the heck I would dedicate a whole episode to talking about it. So mulch is a layer of material that you put over your garden bed, and materials can be anything from wood chips to straw to landscape fabric Doesn’t really matter what it is. But the purpose of mulch is there are four or five big benefits or purposes to it. The first one is that it will block weeds. The barrier of that material, whatever it is, blocks sunlight from getting to the surface of the soil. So those weed seeds that are really in everybody’s soil in every garden because they’ve blown in birds have dropped them or pooped them or whatever the case, the mulch will help prevent them from germinating so that you then have less weeding to do as the season goes on. In a similar way, mulch can also help retain moisture in your soil because the protective layer of the mulch slows down the evaporation of water from the soil. So it will reduce the frequency that you need to water and keep that moisture trapped a little bit more easily than it would in bare soil.

Mulch will break down. If it’s an organic mulch, like wood chips, straw leaves, things like that, then it’s going to break down over time and it’ll add organic matter to your soil And what that means is that it adds material to your garden that’s going to break down and decompose over time, which will all contribute to boosting the fertility, to providing things for worms, beneficial bugs, to eat, and it also just helps build the fluffiness, the ability to retain even moisture, to your soil and it’s an overall benefit to have more organic matter in your soil As the soil is covered with the mulch. Another benefit is that it prevents runoff when you are watering through summer rainstorms. Even mulching through the winter is super beneficial for heavy rainfalls, for snowfall, because the mulch is again kind of like a blanket and it protects the dirt from just running off into the pathways down a slope. So several benefits there for preventing erosion. And then, lastly, mulch can help maintain a more even soil temperature, and this is applicable in the summertime, when it gets super hot and the soil can actually get too warm for certain plants, such as sweet peas, that prefer to have a cooler soil to grow in. And it can also help in the winter, especially if you live somewhere that gets very cold temperatures. It won’t totally avoid them, but it can help even out some of the temperature swings from nighttime to daytime temperatures or cold snaps, things like that. So overall, lots and lots of benefits to mulch, but that’s not the focus of today’s show.

Today is all about what should you use for mulch and why and where can you get it. So my first mulch that I always recommend and is the one that I always go for first when I can get it, are wood chips, and this can be any kind of wood chip from a tree that has been chipped to. You can buy bags of mulch although be cautious there, and I’ll get into that in just a sec. It’s basically small pieces of wood that, as with all of them, you lay in a two, three inch thick layer over the top of the dirt, leaving about an inch or two between the, the mulch and the stem of your plant. You don’t want to snug the mulch up right next to the stem, because it can trap moisture, and if you do have some bad bugs coming along that cut the stems, then it makes it easier, because it’s kind of like here’s a runway right up to the plant, and so you want to make it just a little bit more difficult for them by leaving a small ring of space between the mulch and the stem. Hopefully that makes sense. I have a picture in my mind. Hopefully you do too. So anyways, wood chips are awesome because they are super, super easy to get for free.

What I do is I call the arborists and the tree trimming companies in whatever city or town I happen to be living in, and I ask them to drop off chips whenever they finish a job in my area. And I’ve never been told no. I always get a yes, because those arborists have to pay to take them to the dump, unless, of course, they have an on-site composting program or you know some other way to reuse them. Them being able to drop them off at your house is saving them money. So there are also programs. There’s one called I think it’s called Chip Drop, where you basically sign up in your area and then all the arborists that are also part of that. It’s like a software, like an online software. They can see people who want chips that are in the area of a job and then you guys kind of coordinate that way. I’ll leave a link to it in the show notes so you can check it out if you want to. I’m actually about to sign up for it and try it for the first time.

Some of the reasons I love wood chips aside from the abundant availability in my areas that I have lived in is that they don’t break down too quickly. But they do break down eventually. So it’s not something where I have to replace it multiple times throughout the season, but it will slowly add to my soil and build that organic matter that I talked about right in the beginning. Now, if you have ever heard that putting wood chips on your garden is a bad idea because it ties up the nitrogen in the soil and prevents your plants from getting it, rest assured that is not really an issue. There are a couple of cases where it could be, but that’s not what. That’s not how.

I’m suggesting that you use wood chips. So when the wood chips are just sitting on the soil surface, they, as I mentioned, they will break down slowly. But because they’re not mixed into the soil, you’re not sacrificing a whole lot of nitrogen from your plants to carry out that decomposition process. If the wood chips were mixed in, then maybe it could. You could really balance it out easily with some fertilizer. That’s a little bit heavier in nitrogen, but it’s really not a concern.

And if you are, if you have mulch out and you say, dig a hole for a new plant and some wood chips drop in, don’t worry about it, you don’t have to fish them out, it’s not going to throw off anything in your garden, they’ll break down. Your garden will be better off for it. And there is actually a study that was recently done. I forget the name of the study, but I’ll also link that to where this, this soil scientist, compared different test gardens, you know, with a control one with no wood chips, versus on the soil surface, versus mixed in, et cetera, et cetera, and showed there was negligible difference between the gardens and that the overall benefit was there for blocking weeds, preserving moisture and so on. So I definitely advocate for wood chips, even if you’ve heard that they are not the best to use. Oh, and two other things I wanted to mention is that wood chips are great for rainy climates because they absorb a ton of water, so it can help prevent your garden beds from getting super water logged. Or if you put them in your paths that tend to flood a little bit, then the wood chips can help prevent that flooding or allow more water to settle there without it becoming this soupy mess.

And then, lastly, if you see mushrooms or mold growing in your wood chip mulch, don’t freak out. There’s this thing called slime mold, which sounds really gross and it looks weird. Sometimes it’s bright yellow That’s what I’ve only ever seen. It can be white. I think some slime molds can be brown too, and it just, it literally pops up overnight out of nowhere And so you think, oh my gosh, my garden, something’s wrong with it. There’s a disease, but really it’s not. It’s just a mold. It’s part of the decomposition process. You can remove it if you want to, if it really bothers you or you’re worried about your kids getting into it, but it’ll go away on its own. So just a little heads up, and mushrooms are also part of the decomposition process. So just leave them there, let them do their thing, and they’ll help your garden overall. All right, my ode to wood chips is over.

Next up are grass clippings, and these ones are awesome because they’re probably even more prevalent than wood chips, because if you are mowing your lawn throughout the summer, the spring, the summer, then you’ve got free mulch right there. The couple of caveats here are make sure you get them, the grass clippings, before the grass goes to seed, because otherwise you are essentially sprinkling grass seed all over your garden, which if you’re trying to replace you know, say some grass in the pathways and you don’t mind, then hey, go for it. But if this is going in your garden beds, then get the grass before it goes to seed. And also, especially if you are maybe sourcing from a neighbor or somewhere in your neighborhood, check to see if they spray, you know, any sort of roundup, any sort of herbicide, so that you’re not then introducing that into your garden. Some people do say that they see increased slug and snail activity with grass mulch because it’s like a nice little habitat built in for them. I’ve never noticed it myself, and there’s this gardener that I watch on YouTube His name is Hugh Richards and he’s an amazing, amazing gardener and I believe he did a couple of little non or unofficial, i’ll say experiments of a grass mulch bed versus a knot and he didn’t notice any big difference. But that might be one that you try on your own. See what your local slug and snail population prefer in your garden and if it doesn’t work for you, then try a different one, like the wood chips or some of the other ones I’ve got on this list.

Next up are leaves. With leaves, you do have to plan ahead a little bit, because chances are you are going to find them in the fall, which isn’t maybe when you need them the most in the spring and summer garden. So if you are collecting leaves in the fall, one of the really awesome things that you can do before you break them into a pile or you gather them up in a bag, is to run them over with your lawnmower, and what this does is it shreds the leaves so that they don’t clump together so much. They decompose faster and it also makes them a lot easier to snug up around your plants without covering them up. You know, if it’s a large leaf, like something like a maple leaf, but most others, like oak leaves, you can use those, although those acorns do tend to sprout in your garden and then you have to pull those out. But the overall benefit is still there of using leaves in the garden. One thing I like to do is, when I am mowing in the fall, just pick up. Pick up by using a mo like a what is it called A grass collection bag, and let the grass and the leaves get chopped up and mixed together, and that makes an awesome mulch, because the leaves decompose faster and they dry out more than the grass clippings do, and so you’ve got a nice mix of greens and browns in that mulch, and the grass clippings also prevent the leaves from sticking together too much. So it’s a very nice combo And it will decompose very quickly. So if you’re building new garden beds, this is also a nice way to build them up, especially if you mix them with some compost in a very cheap and easy manner.

Next up we have straw, and I want to clarify here I’m talking about straw and not hay. Hay has seed heads in it, like grass seed heads that, just like with the grass clippings, if you put hay on your garden beds, then you are introducing tons of weed seeds and defeating the purpose. So make sure you’re getting straw which is dried out grass stalks that have already had the seed heads taken away. Straw can be found cheap or free, because straw bales are expensive, especially these days. But what I like to do when I need some not too much, but just a little bit I can go to the feed stores and oftentimes you can scoop up some of the straw that has fallen out of bales that people have picked up or that maybe broke open, because those, when they get wet, they’re like a slipping hazard. They get very slippery and so they have to go out and clean it up, and so if you do it, then chances are you can either get it for free or super cheap, especially if you only need, say, like a bag full of them. Straw can blow away if it gets dried out and super windy, and it’s also a little bit more awkward to put around your plants without Kind of covering them up or keeping them away from the stems. So totally not impossible, very easy to use, just something to kind of keep them in mind, that you might have to manipulate it a little bit more to get it exactly where you want it. And Oh, and one last note is, because straw stays a little bit drier, it’s great for crops like melons or zucchini, where the fruit generally rests on the ground, and so it can help prevent Bugs from getting to it as quickly. It’ll still break down, it’ll still get wet, so those little potato bugs and stuff might still find their way there, but it can help postpone it just a little bit.

All right, next up we have cardboard, and cardboard is not my favorite mulch to use, but it’s a free one if that’s what you’re going for, because as long as the cardboard doesn’t have a glossy sticker or a glossy image printed on it, then you can use it. It doesn’t have to just be plain brown cardboard, like it can have, you know, say, like the Amazon logo on there. That’s totally fine Because it’s not a glossy ink. Take off the tape, obviously, and any other you know, like plastic stickers or labels or whatever. So it’s less practical, but it, like I said, it’s free. You will want to weigh it down so that it doesn’t dry out and blow away, but one of the nice things about it is it blocks weeds very effectively and it also breaks down easily, so that it’s adding organic matter to your soil, adding some fertility. The worms love it, and so they will come up from the soil below, start eating at it from the bottom, drag those little tiny particles of cardboard down to the soil, poop it out as worm castings, which is awesome fertility for your garden. So cardboard can work and it definitely makes the list.

My last two are ones that I have not personally tried because I don’t have a source for them, but they’re pretty interesting and so I want to mention them anyways. One of them is wool, and I have never heard of using wool as a mulch until very recently. I stumbled upon it and I found a study about it because I was researching some of the benefits of mulch because I’m a nerd, and So apparently there was this study that was done that Compared crops mulched with wool versus, i think they did grass clippings, no mulch, and maybe another one that I don’t remember, and the wool beat all of them, even my favorite wood chips or the grass clippings, and It helped with, i believe, disease resistance. It retained the more, the most moisture, and, and so they mentioned in the study that it’s a good way for wool that isn’t market quality to still have a purpose, so it doesn’t just get tossed, and So I thought that was really interesting.

So if you live near a sheep Wool farm or you have sheep yourself that you don’t raise to, you know, use the wool. If you shear them, you can still use the wool in the garden. And then the other one is kelp, also known as seaweed, and I thought this was cool because you can buy kelp meal as a soil amendment for your garden and I knew that it had a lot of nutrition for soil. But if you think of like those big strips of seaweed and Kind of layering them on the soil, then it totally makes sense that it would be a good mulch because it’s Blocking the sunlight, it’s probably adding moisture, i would guess, even after it dries out because of the way it’s decomposing, and It’s free if you can find somewhere to collect it. So, like I said, i don’t have experience with either of these, but maybe you live near the sea or Somewhere else where there’s a ton of seaweed And you can try it out in your garden. If you do, let me know because I am curious.

So that is my list of Organic mulches that I love to use. Lots and lots of experience with wood chips, grass clippings and leaves, and then the very easy to find straw and cardboard and the Kind of unusual wool and kelp that would be cool to try someday. There is an alpaca farm down the road in my new house, so maybe I’ll go by there and see if they’ve got some second-rate Alpaca wool that I could use. Might be too spendy, i don’t know if they give it away. In any case, if you’re getting value out of the show, even with my a little bit of rambling. Please let me know by subscribing, by leaving your review. You can always reach out to me by email If you have any follow-up questions or stories to share, and I would love to hear them. Talk to you next week, bye!

Similar Posts