Mulch looks pretty and it helps to keep garden soil nice and moist, but it can have an ugly side. It helps hold in moisture, and sometimes it does the job too well. Mushrooms and other fungi may sprout up out of mulch after a heavy rain, particularly if you’re watering it regularly on your own. Mulch deters weed growth, but not completely. To counter this, many people mulch with treated wood chips. But this gets messy, and over time it gets uglier and uglier. And it introduces chemicals into your garden. So forget about store-bought, bagged mulch, and focus on green alternatives instead.
Why buy old wood chips when you can grow a living mulch instead? It doesn't get more green-friendly that a ground cover. A living mulch is a very pretty way to deter weeds and keep soil moist. Because it’s alive, a ground cover can also prevent fungal growth by soaking up any excess water. Plants like alyssum, chamomile, clover and creeping thyme all make pretty living mulches.
Keep groundcovers trimmed to keep them within their defined borders. Otherwise, they’ll cover everything. You’ll also want to thin the living mulch out periodically. Some ground covers grow very dense, and this can compromise your other plants if you aren't careful. Plant living mulch in the fall in well-tilled, healthy soil. Plant ground cover in rows so they will grow and spread across the garden area quickly.
Recycled Lawn Waste
Don’t buy mulch, which gets pretty pricey if you’re covering a lot of ground. Save your lawn clippings and yard trimmings throughout the year. Simple lawn cuttings provide an attractive, natural mulch that prevents weed growth, and because they’re free you’ll be saving a ton on garden maintenance costs.
Get really green by making your own compost. Use a barrel or just make a pile of lawn and food scraps. After the waste compresses and ferments for several weeks, the nutrient-rich compost can be spread on the ground rather than mulch.
Compost works as a fertilizer, too, but it breaks down over time. You’ll need to reapply this mulch alternative every four to six weeks.
Straw is always a handy natural mulch. Since straw is essentially grass, it’s a green-friendly solution. However, many shy away from this mulch alternative because straw is not very attractive.
Waste not, want not. Collect all the weeds you pull up from your garden, and use them to make mulch. Many gardeners find that this bold technique works if you remove any blossoms and potential seeds from the gathered weeds. And if you’re going to really embrace the green philosophy, this is a great way to turn waste into gold (or mulch, as the case may be).
Natural pine needles make for a wonderful mulch alternative, and they even smell nice. Gather up fallen needles and strew them all over garden beds to create a nice, green-friendly mulch alternative.
Those leaves that fall all over your lawn in fall can be saved, bagged and turned into mulch. Shred the leaves and use them as a natural mulch. This creates a colorful green-friendly mulch, and it gives you another option for doing away with those annoying autumn leaves.
What Else Ya Got?
Don’t get afraid to look for your own mulch alternatives based on what’s available in your area. Corn husks, peanut shells and even sawdust make for pretty mulch alternatives. Speak to local farmers and manufacturers who might have this stuff, which they may consider to be waste. This means they may give it to you for free.
Experiment with your own mulch alternatives, and get rid of those wood chips that end up looking terrible and harboring fungus.