8 Best Mulch Alternatives for a Beautiful Garden

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Mulch can be an essential tool for a healthy garden with robust plants! Mulch can help protect your soil from extreme temperatures, and it can help keep the soil moist and reduce weed growth.

All of this can help your plants thrive in your garden!

But sometimes we can’t use traditional mulch. Maybe fresh mulch costs too much in 2022 – or you don’t want to risk termites and an army of carpenter ants wreaking havoc on your front deck, porch, and foundation.

Hey – we understand your dilemma!

So, what are the best mulch alternatives?

Applying fresh garden mulch to the backyard garden.

8 Great Mulch Alternatives to Consider

Here are eight great mulch alternatives for you to consider; many offer the same benefits as traditional mulch:

  1. Rock or pebble ground cover
  2. Rubber mulch
  3. Grass clippings dried out 
  4. Pine needles dried out
  5. Newspaper and cardboard 
  6. Straw or hay mulch
  7. Cocoa bean hulls mulch
  8. Compost 

Let us go through and brainstorm what you need to know about mulch alternatives – so you can use one that best suits you and your gardening ideas.

Choosing the best mulch alternative will help you create and protect the garden you love!

I’ll also give you tips to stay on budget – no more breaking the bank for your lawn and garden.

The 8 Best Alternatives to Mulch

bright yellow wood chip mulch decorative
Wood chips make the perfect mulch and soil amendment combination. Wood chips also look beautiful and help make your garden look colorful, natural, and lush!

Mulch is an excellent way to help provide nutrients to the soil for your plants to remain healthy, and it helps reduce weed growth in your garden.

Mulch can also dramatically improve the look of your garden depending on which mulch you use, but sometimes mulch isn’t ideal.

We may wish to avoid mulch because we cannot find it in our local garden store, or it may just be too expensive. (I suspect the mulch price tags will continue to skyrocket well into 2023, unfortunately.)

Seeking a fair price will lead us to look for some mulch alternatives.

These are our favorite mulch alternatives that you can use in your garden. Each offers all or at least some of the benefits of traditional mulch.

(Some even have unique benefits that traditional mulch cannot offer.)

Read More – 13 Beautiful Landscaping Ideas Using Stone and Mulch!

1. Rock or Pebble Ground Cover

cypress bushes and gravel mulch garden
Small stones and gravel are excellent mulch alternatives. Small stones look beautiful as a hedge or shrub cover. Stone and pebble mulch also make superior weed barriers.

If you want an excellent alternative to traditional mulch, using gravel, rocks, pebbles, and little stones all work perfectly.

I found that pebbles and rocks look great. But – it still does the same job that mulch does. Using pebbles or rocks as mulch still helps the soil retain moisture and helps suppress weed growth in your garden.

I also found other benefits using pebbles and rock instead of mulch.

For example, rock mulch is more durable. And, it does not need replacing as often – so it is more economical. Using rock complements modern architectural features that are popular today and help in a more minimalist landscaping garden.

If you live in cooler climates, then using rock can benefit your garden quite substantially, as the rock mulch will retain heat, which can extend the growing season of your plants.

But – not everything’s perfect about rock mulch.

I did find one drawback to using rock mulch as a mulch alternative.

This drawback is that rock does not decompose, so nutrients don’t return to the soil as traditional mulches.

But an easy way to mix this is to add fertilizers to your garden now and then.

2. Rubber Mulch

red rubber mulch and squash sproutling
Rubber mulch is perfect for landscaping, swing sets, and garden aesthetics. It won’t deteriorate quickly like regular bark mulch. Rubber mulch won’t attract carpenter ants either. Bonus!

Rubber mulch is an excellent alternative to traditional mulches; it offers a few more advantages to your garden compared to traditional mulch.

Rubber mulch is from 100% reclaimed rubber, mostly from old car and truck tires.

(Enough plastic and junk are already clogging the oceans, lakes, and landfills! Using rubber mulch might help reduce waste – so we love the idea.)

I have found other significant advantages when using rubber mulch: rubber mulch insulates the soil from hot and cold temperatures, so your plant is always protected. 

Rubber mulch is also non-porous, which means that water makes its way to the garden soil directly underneath the rubber much, without the mulch absorbing the water.

Rubber mulch also has the added benefit of reducing fungus growth and other unwanted plants like weeds.

Another thing I’ve noticed about regular bark mulch and wood mulches? They may carry pest eggs or attract termites or carpenter ants. Not always desirable!

In my experience – rubber mulches reduce the chance of undesirable hitchhikers hitching a ride in the mulch and ending up in your front yard.

Even though these benefits sound good, I found that rubber mulch has similar drawbacks as the rock mulch that we spoke about above.

Rubber mulch does not add nutrients back into the soil as it does not decompose, so you need to fertilize your plants.

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06/13/2024 06:31 pm GMT

3. Grass Clippings That Are Dried

Dried grass clippings in a wheel barrow.
Grass clippings are superior to fake mulch in many ways, as grass releases nutrients into the soil as it breaks down.

When you mow your lawn on a Sunday afternoon, do not throw away the grass clippings! You can use them as mulch for both your lawn and garden.

Although, with grass clippings, you need to prepare them correctly before using them in your flower beds as they will cause some problems if you do not. 

If you want to use grass clippings for mulch, we recommend drying the clippings first or chucking them in the compost.

If they are left to do this on your flower beds – and if you throw them in a big pile, the grass will mat and begin to rot, leading to heat production and a lack of oxygen flow.

This smothering heat can then potentially damage your plants – and suffocate them.

So – always spread the grass clippings out. Then, leave them to dry in the sun and fluff them every so often to avoid matting.

I found mixing some shredded leaves with the drying grass helps speed up the process! Mixing dry plant matter also adds more nutrients, enhancing the benefits your plants receive.

Using your grass clippings as a mulch for your flower beds is also cost-effective, and it helps reduce the number of bags filled with clippings lying around landfills.

Read More – Landscaping Using Woodchips 101 – Plus Pros and Cons!

4. Pine Needles 

Using pine needles as natural organic garden mulch.
Here you see some baby garlic plants nestled in a pine needle garden. The garlic seems to love the added boost.

Pine needle mulch, also sometimes called pine straw, is a great traditional mulch alternative, and it can be tremendously beneficial to your plants.

Pine needles will decompose and add the nutrients your plants need back into the soil.

Pine needles help oxygen, water, and nutrients to mix into the garden soil easily. They even help insulate the plants!

I have to mention one drawback to using pine needles; just like with the grass clippings, you need to pair them correctly with other plants as pine needles are pretty acidic.

(Pine needles usually won’t lower the soil pH by themselves even though they may have a pH of around 3.4 – 3.7. However, it’s always wise to consider the acidity of your soil amendments – nevertheless.)

So, you can use the pine needles with plants that like acidic soil, such as roses, holly, gardenias, tomatoes, garlic, chrysanthemums, and onions, to name a few.

If you want to use pine needles for any other plants, I still recommend drying the pine needles out first.

5. Newspaper and Cardboard 

Shredded newspaper for garden mulch.
Newspaper clippings are another underrated mulch alternative. Cover your clippings with an inch of soil to stop them from blowing away!

Newspaper and cardboard are perfect in almost the same fashion as landscaping fabric. These two materials act as insulators and weed barriers.

Let them rest underneath other mulches. Or you can shred some and place the shredded pieces over the laid-out chunks.

Even though you can use these materials to mulch your garden, I recommend using the newspaper and cardboard with another mulch.

You can add another alternative mulch on top and use the newspaper and cardboard to extend the coverage, saving you money.

Using newspaper and cardboard in place of landscaping fabric has its benefits; for example, you will not need to replace these materials like landscaping fabric.

It will break down and add nutrients into the soil and the other mulch. The breaking down will ensure that your plants have more than enough nutrients to survive.

6. Straw or Hay

straw mulch strawberry garden
Old grass clippings or alfalfa straw make excellent mulch alternatives! Mulch also works wonders for keeping the bottom of your fruits and veggies dry. (Pumpkins and strawberries need all the help they can get!)

Using straw or hey in your garden as a mulch alternative not only helps retain moisture in the soil and suppress weed growth, but it also releases nutrients back into the soil and gives your garden a lovely unique look.

But if you do not like this look, you can use the straw hay in conjunction with another mulch alternative to make your garden look the way you want.

Although, you need to put down a thick layer of straw or hay in your garden to ensure you get all the benefits from it.

Hay as a mulch alternative is helpful when you have a big area to cover as straw and hay are generally inexpensive and easy to spread around your garden.

But – if you have goats or cattle living on your homestead, they may get the wrong idea!

And – if you’ve ever raised goats, you know they’re impossible to reason with when it comes to foraging snacks! (Especially yummy hay or alfalfa mulch!)

Read More – Stump Grinding vs. Removal – Which is Best for Your Garden and Homestead?

7. Cocoa Bean Hulls 

Cocoa hulls are another superb natural mulch alternative that breaks down and adds to the soil. It also looks better than many synthetic mulches.

Cocoa bean hulls are a perfect mulch alternative as they are organic and decompose, which adds nutrients back to the soil that your plants need.

Cocoa beans, just like pistachios and peanuts, have an outer hull that is removed from the bean before the beans go into a drink or food.

These cocoa hulls are great at retaining moisture, so they keep the soil moist for the plants and help regulate the temperature of the garden soil.

Using cocoa bean hulls as your mulch in your garden gives your garden an abundantly rich and colorful look and adds an enticing sweet smell to your garden.

There is a downside to using these cocoa hulls as a mulch, this is that the cocoa hulls can be dangerous to some animals, so I recommend that you only use cocoa hulls if you do not own pets.

You might think that your dog wouldn’t happily munch away half a gallon of cocoa mulch – but you’d be surprised.

The cocoa mulch smells (and likely tastes) delicious for dogs. Unfortunately, cocoa mulch contains caffeine and theobromine – both of which are toxic (and even fatal) to your friendly k9 companions.

If you have hungry dogs – skip cocoa mulch!

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06/13/2024 02:27 am GMT

8. Compost 

composting old veggies yard litter and lawn clippings
Compost is our favorite mulch alternative for sustainable gardens. Put your old yard clippings and kitchen scraps to the best use possible.

Compost is among the most environmentally friendly things you can use in your garden, and you can use compost as a traditional mulch alternative.

And the best thing about compost is that you can probably make it yourself in your garden, but the process can take some time.

If you do not have the time or the tools required to make your compost, you can buy it from a local gardening store.

But be careful!

Some composts can be pretty acidic, which may affect the health of certain plants.

But luckily – compost does carry a boatload of nutrients that plants require to thrive. Compost is from plant matter, but it can also come from particular animal waste.

The animal compost is usually more nutrient-rich than plant compost, but it will work as a mulch alternative.

Best Mulch Alternatives – FAQs

So, we have gone through many different mulch alternatives that you can use in your garden. These are the things to consider before deciding which mulch alternative you will use.

I know that there are still many questions that you may have about mulch!

So, I have put together this little frequently asked questions section to try and answer some more questions that you will hopefully find helpful when making your alternative mulch decision.

What Is the Disadvantage of Mulching?

There is one main disadvantage that can come with mulching your garden. The disadvantage happens because the mulch can create a hiding place for potentially harmful insects and other pests. Also – if the mulch is applied too thick in your garden, it can suffocate your plants.

Plant suffocation happens because the thickly layered mulch will overheat the soil, which will then cause your plants to starve as they will not get the water, oxygen, or sunlight they need to survive.

Can Ground Cover Replace Mulch?

A ground cover works perfectly as an alternative to traditional mulch. You need to ensure that you use the right ground cover for the specific area of your garden you are looking to mulch.

For example, if you want to mulch a spot under a tree with ground cover, you should use a shrub-like ground cover. But if you’re going to mulch an area in a flower bed with ground cover, you should use a ground cover like creeping vines.

What Is Better Than Mulch for Landscaping?

If you want to create a lovely landscape in your garden and want a material similar to mulch but looks better than mulch, you should go for a rock, pebble, or stone mulch alternative. These will offer the same benefits as traditional mulch, but they will enhance the look and add variety to your garden landscape.

Will Mulch Attract Bugs?

Yes! The number of bugs in your mulch will significantly depend on what mulch you are using in your garden, but some mulches can attract different bugs and pests to your garden. Some mulches can attract bugs like roaches, carpenter ants, earwigs, and termites to your home. These bugs could then make their way into your house and cause some damage to your home and possessions.

That’s one reason why I love rubber mulch. Rubber mulch doesn’t attract many bugs – if any.

What Mulch Prevents Weeds Best?

Organic mulches that are chunky and good at shading the soil, like grass clippings or leaves, prevent weed growth in your garden. But other mulching materials like rocks and pebbles are also a great way to prevent weed growth in your garden. However, you will need to add compost or fertilizer if you use rock mulch – as rocks do not decompose and give your plants good nutrients.

Can I Use Topsoil Instead of Mulch?

Yes! Over time, the mulch in your garden will break down into topsoil anyway. However, you should never use mulch instead of topsoil, and you should never leave your topsoil uncovered. Leaving topsoil uncovered can lead to erosion from rain and cause the soil to overheat if it is standing open in the hot sun. So, we recommend against using topsoil in place of mulch.

Are Rocks Better Than Mulch?

Rocks can be better than mulch in certain circumstances; for example, if you need to mulch your garden on a budget, using rock mulch and a good fertilizer will be less expensive than traditional mulch. Rocks will do better at reducing weed growth as mulch and rocks are lower maintenance when compared to mulch.


Traditional mulch can be expensive or may not offer you the look you want your garden to have.

Luckily, there are plenty of mulch alternatives at your gardening disposal!

Some of the named mulch alternatives may even be better for your garden than the traditional mulch available to you. 

I hope that this information helps you in your decision. But I wish you luck with your mulch search!

Also – if you have questions about mulch alternatives, don’t hesitate to ask.

Or, if you have tips for fellow homesteaders, we would love to hear your experiences.

Thanks again for reading!

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06/12/2024 11:06 am GMT

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