Alternatives To Wood Mulch (12 Options With Pros & Cons)


There are plenty of alternatives to wood mulch.  What you use will depend on whether you want to suppress the growth of weeds in a garden or improve the appearance of your yard.

So, what are the alternatives to wood mulch?  The alternatives to wood mulch are sawdust, grass clippings, leaves, straw or hay, pine needles (pine straw), compost, newspaper, cardboard, gravel, rubber mulch, landscape fabric, and plastic tarp.

Of course, there are lots of factors to consider when choosing a mulch alternative, since no one is perfect for every situation.

In this article, we’ll talk about 12 alternatives to wood mulch, their pros and cons, and when you might want to use each one.

Let’s begin.

Alternatives To Wood Mulch

Some of the things to consider when choosing a mulch alternative include:

  • Appearance – What does it look like in the short term and long term?
  • Cost – Can you find it for free or cheap?
  • Chemicals – Does it contain dangerous chemicals (such as fertilizer or pesticides)?
  • Durability – How fast does it decompose? How often does it need to be replaced?
  • Heat Retention – Will it heat up the soil too much for plants to survive?
  • Nutrients – Will it replace nutrients in the soil over time?
  • Size – How big are the pieces?
  • Smell – Does it give off a smell that you can tolerate?
  • Water Retention – Does it keep water in the soil?
  • Weed Suppression – How well does it keep weeds from growing?
  • Weight – How much does it weigh?

If you are using a mulch alternative in a garden, some of the more important factors are heat and water retention, nutrients, and weed suppression.

Here is my list of alternatives to wood mulch, along with the pros and cons of each one, and when you might want to use them.

1. Sawdust

Sawdust is a type of organic mulch that smells nice.  It may not look pretty in a landscape, but it gets the job done.

sawdust
Sawdust is a cheap organic mulch alternative, but avoid sawdust from pressure treated wood in a vegetable garden.

Sawdust is a cheap source of mulch.  You can get it free or cheap from sawmills or from woodworking shops.

If the sawdust comes from wood that is pressure-treated or finished with stain, it may contain chemicals that you don’t want in a vegetable garden.  However, it might be fine for a flower garden that you won’t be eating from.

It can take several months to several years for sawdust to break down completely.  It all depends what it is mixed in with – you can learn more in my article on composting sawdust.

As such, you may need to replace sawdust mulch every year or two to ensure that weeds are suppressed.

Sawdust particles are small and fine, so it will provide good heat insulation to protect plants from temperature fluctuations.

Sawdust contains lots of carbon and other nutrients.  These are released gradually into the soil as the sawdust decomposes.

However, if sawdust is mixed into the soil, it will “tie up” nitrogen and prevent plants from growing.  This is good if you want to suppress weeds, but bad if you want to grow flowers, herbs, or vegetables.

Sawdust is fairly light, as long as it is kept dry.  It is easy to spread over soil with a shovel, or you can dump a barrel of it and spread it with a rake.

Overall, sawdust is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing or insulate plants that are already growing.  It is not a great alternative for front-yard landscaping, since the appearance is not attractive.

Note: you can also use it as bedding for animals (chickens, etc.)

2. Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are another type of organic mulch that smells nice – at first.  However, once it starts to decompose, the odor can be quite unpleasant.

cutting grass
Grass clippings are an organic mulch alternative, but avoid grass that was treated with herbicides or pesticides.

Grass clippings probably aren’t your first choice for a front-yard landscape.  However, it is a cheap and plentiful mulch that you can get for free from your own yard, from friends and neighbors, or from landscaping companies.

If grass is treated with pesticides or herbicides, you might not want to use it in your garden.  Pesticides will kill bees and other beneficial insects, while herbicides can stunt or kill crops in your garden.

Grass clippings take 1 to 4 months to decompose, depending on what they are mixed in with.  You can learn more in my article on composting grass clippings.

As such, you will need to replace grass clippings every year.  You might even need to replace grass clippings multiple times in the same year.

Grass clippings are chopped up into small pieces of various sizes.  Since there isn’t much space between the pieces, they will insulate the soil against heat fluctuations.

Just remember that grass clippings (and other organic materials) can give off heat when bacteria decompose them.

Grass clippings contain lots of nitrogen, which is great for plant growth.  Grass clippings will release these nutrients over time as they decompose.

Grass clippings can smother existing weeds or prevent new ones from growing.  However, if the seeds of dandelions or other weeds are mixed into grass clippings, you could be introducing more weeds into your garden.

Grass clippings are light when they are dried out, but are heavy when wet.  To make your work easier, mow the lawn after a dry spell and spread the clippings out as mulch before it rains.

Overall, grass clippings are a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds, as long as you prevent dandelions from getting into the mix.  It is not a good option for front-yard landscaping.

3. Leaves

Leaves are another type of organic mulch that will start to smell worse as it decomposes.  It does not have an attractive appearance in front-yard landscaping.

compost bin
You can repurpose leaves as an organic mulch for your vegetable garden.

However, leaves are a cheap alternative to wood mulch.  You can often find them at the curbside, free for the taking, in autumn as fall yard cleanup begins.

If a tree was sprayed with pesticides, then its leaves could contain chemicals that you don’t want in your garden.

Leaves take 3 to 6 months to decompose, depending on what they are mixed in with.  Leaves that are chopped up into smaller pieces (by a lawnmower) will decompose faster than whole leaves (from raking).

As such, you will need to replace leaves every year, and possibly more than once in a year.

Leaves themselves are large, but they are thin and can stick close together.  They can provide some heat insulation for soil, but they will give off heat as they decompose.

Leaves contain lots of nutrients that are released back into the soil as they decompose.

A layer of leaves can somewhat suppress weed growth, as long as the layer is thick enough.  However, once the leaves start to decompose, they will create the perfect environment for weeds to grow.

Leaves are light when they are dry and freshly fallen from trees.  However, they get heavy when soaked.

Overall, leaf mulch is a decent mulch alternative if you want to recycle yard waste and add nutrients to your garden.  It is not the best option for suppressing weeds or for front-yard landscaping.

4. Straw or Hay

Straw or hay is another organic mulch alternative to wood chips.  It does not have much of a smell until it gets wet and starts to decompose.

straw bale
A layer of straw will make a good temporary mulch to insulate soil.

You can certainly buy straw or hay, but it is not as cheap or as readily available as grass clippings or leaves. 

Straw is made from grain crops by removing the grain and chaff, while hay is made from dried grasses and legumes.  Hay contains the seeds of grasses (which would be weeds in your garden), while straw probably does not.

You can learn more about the difference between straw and hay in my article here.

Straw and hay might contain pesticides or herbicides, so know your source before adding them to your garden.

Straw and hay can decompose in a matter of a few weeks, depending on the weather (they will decompose faster when wet).  As a result, you will need to replace straw or hay multiple times during the same year to keep weeds at bay.

Pieces of straw and hay are large and have space between them, so they won’t provide as much heat insulation as sawdust, grass clippings, or even leaves.

Straw and hay contain some nutrients that will be released into the soil as they decompose.  Keep in mind that hay is often used for livestock feed, while straw is usually not, since it is less nutritious.

A layer of straw or hay can somewhat suppress weed growth, as long as the layer is thick enough.  However, once the straw and hay starts to decompose, it will be the perfect environment for weeds to grow.

Straw and hay are light when dry, but heavy when soaked.

Overall, straw or hay is a decent mulch alternative, but it is more expensive than other organic options.  It is not the best choice for front-yard landscaping, although it might have its place in the fall for a Halloween or Thanksgiving display.

5. Pine Needles (Pine Straw)

Pine straw is another cheap organic mulch alternative to wood chips.  It has a pleasant smell, and you can find it for free if you have pine trees in your yard.

pine needles
Pine straw (pine needles) has a nice smell and decomposes over a period of about 2 months.

Pine needles take about 2 months to decompose, depending on what they are mixed in with.  As such, you will need to replace this mulch every year.

Unless a pine tree is treated with pesticides, its needles should be free from dangerous chemicals.

Pine needles are long but very thin, and they form dense clusters that make it a decent heat insulator.

Pine needles contain some nutrients that are released when they decompose.  A layer of pine needles can help to suppress weed growth until the needles begin to decompose.

Pine needles are light when dry, and heavy when soaked.

Overall, pine mulch is a good, cheap mulch alternative.  It is not the best choice for long-term weed suppression or front-yard landscaping.

6. Compost

Compost is a cheap organic mulch alternative that can be made from many different materials, including some of those mentioned earlier: sawdust, grass clippings, and leaves.

compost bin
Compost smells bad while it is decomposing, but it has an earthy sweet smell when finished.

You can learn more about how to make compost in my article here.

Compost has an unpleasant odor while decomposing, but it smells nice and earthy once it is aged and finished.

Compost may contain chemicals if it is made using grass clippings taken from a lawn treated with pesticides or herbicides.

Compost is a free option if you recycle your own yard and kitchen waste to make it.  However, it does take some time and attention to turn a compost pile and keep it wet enough while the bacteria work their magic.

Compost can take months to break down entirely, depending on what is in the pile (balance of nitrogen to carbon) and how wet it is.

Once compost is broken down, the pieces are small, almost like soil.  This makes it a good heat insulator when piled on top of soil.

Remember that unfinished compost will give off heat as it decomposes, due to the action of bacteria.

Compost contains nutrients that are released into the soil over time.  The nutrient mix depends on what materials were used to make the compost.

You can smother weeds by using compost to cover them.  In the long term, compost makes the soil better for growing both plants you want (flowers, herbs vegetables) and ones you don’t want (weeds).

Compost is somewhat heavy as mulch, even whey dry.

Overall, compost is a decent mulch alternative which might look fine in a front yard landscape.  It is not the best choice for long-term weed suppression.

7. Newspaper

Newspaper is a cheap and plentiful organic mulch that has no unpleasant odor.

newspaper
Newspaper is an organic mulch alternative that you can put in layers in your vegetable garden.

Sheets of newspaper are large but thin, so multiple layers can settle close together to provide decent heat insulation for soil.

Newspaper is made from wood, so it contains a decent amount of carbon and other nutrients that are released into the soil as it decomposes.

The ink on newspaper might contain chemicals that you don’t want in your vegetable garden.  However, it might be ok for flower gardens.

Newspaper takes about 6 weeks to decompose completely.  This means that you might need to use a few different applications to suppress weeds for an entire growing season.

Newspapers are light when they are dry, but heavy when wet.

Overall, newspaper is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing – as long as you have enough to replace it during the season.  It is not a great alternative for front-yard landscaping, since the appearance is not attractive.

Consider using newspaper as a first layer of mulch with something else above it as a second layer.

8. Cardboard

Cardboard is similar to newspaper in that it is a cheap and plentiful organic mulch for your garden.

cardboard boxes
Flatten cardboard boxes and apply it in layers to your vegetable garden to suppress weeds.

However, cardboard varies in its size and thickness.  Thicker cardboard will take longer to decompose, but it will work better to suppress weeds.

Cardboard is made from wood, so it contains a decent amount of carbon and other nutrients that are released into the soil as it decomposes.

The ink on cardboard might contain chemicals that you don’t want in your vegetable garden.  However, it might be ok for flower gardens.

Cardboard is light when dry, but gets heavy when wet.

Overall, cardboard is a good mulch alternative to suppress weeds, until it breaks down.  It is not a great alternative for front-yard landscaping, since the appearance is not attractive.

9. Gravel

Gravel is an inorganic mulch alternative made from pebbles and rocks of various sizes.  Gravel has a nice appearance for landscaping, but is not well-suited for a vegetable garden.

gravel small stones
Gravel is an inorganic mulch alternative that will not decompose over time.

Gravel is expensive to buy, compared to most of the organic mulch alternatives listed in this article.  However, you don’t have to worry about it containing any dangerous chemicals.

Gravel does not really “break down”, so you won’t need to replace it after one season – or at all.  However, it is heavy and difficult to move, so it is harder to change things up if you want to use a different mulch alternative later.

Since it doesn’t decompose, gravel will not add new nutrients to the soil below.

Gravel will work to suppress weeds as long as the layer is thick enough.  However, it is possible that weeds could sprout in the soil below gravel and then work their way up through a thin layer of gravel.

Overall, a thick layer of gravel is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing.  It has a nice appearance for front-yard landscaping as well.

The only drawback is its weight and the lack of decomposition and nutrients.

10. Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch is another inorganic mulch alternative that will suppress weeds.  Rubber mulch has a decent appearance for a front-yard landscape, but is probably not well-suited for a vegetable garden.

rubber tires
Rubber mulch is often made from recycled chunks of shredded rubber tires.

Rubber mulch is expensive compared to most of the organic mulch alternatives listed in this article.  Furthermore, rubber mulch may contain dangerous chemicals.

Rubber breaks down very slowly so you won’t need to replace it after one season – or at all.  It is not as heavy as mulch, but is a more permanent solution than organic mulches.

Since it doesn’t decompose, rubber mulch will not add new nutrients to the soil below.

Rubber mulch will work to suppress weeds as long as the layer is thick enough.  However, it is possible that weeds could sprout in the soil below rubber mulch and then work their way up through a thin layer of rubber mulch.

Overall, a thick layer of rubber mulch is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing.  It has a decent appearance for front-yard landscaping as well.

The only drawback is the lack of decomposition and nutrients.

11. Landscape Fabric

Landscape fabric is an inorganic mulch alternative that will suppress weeds temporarily.  Landscape fabric is often covered with other types of mulch, so it can be used for a front-yard landscape or a vegetable garden.

Landscape fabric will suppress weeds for a couple of years or more.

Landscape fabric is expensive compared to most of the organic mulch alternatives listed in this article.  However, it is more affordable than gravel, although it won’t last quite as long.

Landscape fabric breaks down faster than gravel or rubber, so you might need to replace it after a few seasons.  Landscape fabric is light, and provides a longer-term solution than organic mulches.

Landscape fabric will not add much in terms of nutrients to the soil below.

Landscape fabric will work for a time to suppress weeds.  However, it is possible that weeds could push through landscape fabric, especially as it ages and breaks down.

Overall, landscape fabric is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing.  Your best bet is to put a thick layer of another type of mulch over landscape fabric.

When covered by another type of mulch, landscape fabric will work front-yard landscaping as well.

12. Plastic Tarp

A plastic tarp is an inorganic mulch alternative that will suppress weeds.  Plastic tarp is often covered with other types of mulch, so it can be used for a front-yard landscape or a vegetable garden.

plastic tarp
A plastic tarp prevents weeds from growing, and can also heat up soil with help from the sun.

A plastic tarp is relatively inexpensive compared to the inorganic mulch alternatives listed in this article.  It is long-lasting and will take a long time to break down.

A plastic tarp is heavier than landscape fabric and provides a longer-term solution than organic mulches.

A plastic tarp will not add any nutrients to the soil below.  It will retain heat in the soil, and can even kill existing weeds when used as a layer over the topsoil when the sun is shining.

Overall, a plastic tarp is a good mulch alternative if you want to prevent weeds from growing.  Your best bet is to put a thick layer of another type of mulch over a plastic tarp.

When covered by another type of mulch, a plastic tarp will work front-yard landscaping as well.

Conclusion

Now you know all about the alternatives to wood mulch and when to use each one.

You might also enjoy my article on preventing mulch from washing away or my article on mulching raised beds.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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