Mulch alternatives?

lizwaxy(6, CT)May 23, 2007

Hello, I have been trying to make a decision on mulch for my garden beds and I thought about using double shredded dark brown or possibly black , but as I put it down in big test areas, it looks like dirt. And it's going to fade, right?

So my question to you is, what are other alternatives, or are there, to mulch in garden beds?

FYI: My area is sunny all day, a little dappled shade in the afternoon, but it's sunny all day pretty much.

Many thanks

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Hi lizwaxy - I like dark shredded bark because it fades to the point of being invisible and feeds the soil in the bargain, unlike non-organic mulches like stone chips. It is only visible in early spring and, later, here and there around the edges of the garden, since ground covers and other small plants fill in most of the space.

Large swathes of mulch have become acceptable to a lot of people because of mall parking lot landscaping, but in most "real" gardens they look out of place. Then again, an unplanted area under a specimen tree can look good with nothing but mulch underneath ... for a simple, serene scene. Yeah, it DOES look like dirt, but I'm not sure why that's a problem; what else should it look like, since it's on the ground.

Would a more coarsely-ground bark work better? it provides a little texture that might be more appealing and look less like dirt.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 7:53AM
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I really like that idea - Diggin'
I've bought some that doesn't feed the soil
and I never liked the looks of it
but would do anything to prevent the weeds.

I'm new to gardening if you can't tell.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 11:28AM
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Nope, CDO, I couldn't tell - I usually don't think people are new gardeners if they're already onto the notion that mulch is better than weeds.

Welcome to the forum - hope you'll stick around. There are lots of regulars here who will be able to help as you get going.

Cheers -DtD

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 12:50PM
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I mulch with shredded leaves from the previous fall. It gets eaten / blended with the soil quickly, but after the first few weeks, the annuals fill in. By midsummer there's no bare ground in my garden at all.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 1:00PM
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lizwaxy(6, CT)

Hi, thank you for your responses but I think I should be more specific. though I care about the soil beneath mulch, I have a new garden that is not chock full of plants. In fact, it is only a year old so there is alot of empty space to fill in these beds, that are located in the front of my house. So I am looking for a pretty, neat alternative or suggestion. I want it to look nice primarily. Thanks for any suggestions!!!

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 4:35PM
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Greening, do the chopped leaves blow away? It may be my location, but if I put my leaves anywhere but in the compost or directly below the branches of a spreading shrub, they end up in my neighbor's yard; chopped or otherwise. We're near the shore, & the prevailing wind blows it all to one corner of a non-garden yard across the street. They don't like it but they have no idea how much more I don't. Maybe if I put bark over the leaves ... too complicated for me. I;m just wondering of others have this problem; I know my mom used to use leaves as mulch back when she was in inland CT.

Liz, how about adding some inexpensive small annuals, something subdued like sweet alyssum? They are inexpensive and very quick from seed, and some very beautiful gardens have them in the front of mixed borders, sort of like a miniature blooming hedge. Even if they were not packed in, but spaced evenly across the front of the bed, they might make the garden look more interesting and hide the mulch for you. They do self sow, but not obnoxiously.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 6:50PM
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triciae(Zone 7 Coastal SE CT)


We mulch with shredded leaf mould mixed with 50% composted manure. The manure holds it down. I actually prefer the way it looks also as compared to shredded bark mulch.

Mystic Seaport got me started with this type of mulch a few years back. I saw it on the perennial beds in front of the backdoor of the giftshop & had an "ah ha" moment.


    Bookmark   May 24, 2007 at 7:45PM
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I've used wood chips for years. I have sacrificed some uniformity of chip size over the years but as the beds have matured the chips blended well. I admit to making a screen out of chicken wire to sift out the sticks and twigs in some of the uglier loads I've used over the years. After almost 20 years as a working arborist and landscaper chips just seemed eminently more practical- they brak down so much nicer than bark. And I've never really seen ants NOR termites as a problem on my own properties or others. My other choice, although used much more selectively, has been compost. Decent compost inhibits many perenial weed seeds from germinating. Of course I make at least 5 yards of it a year and that's just not practical for every one. just remember, a little sweat equity up front always pays off handsomely a few years down the road. Have fun.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2007 at 12:45PM
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I agree with Andy that wood chips work well, but they can look pretty bad unless you screen them and/or re-chip them. We also use seaweed, but only under spreading shrubs in the back of a border where it won't show - it's not very attractive although it does really make the soil wonderful eventually.

My compost doesn't work as mulch because it's full of weed seeds. It doesn't seem to matter that I turn it, that it heats up, or that I age it for about 3 years. If you don't put weeds and grass clippings into your compost, then it would work better as a mulch; but then what the heck do you do with your weeds? I can only use my compost when I'm making new beds or dividing perennials, and it gets covered with soil and mulch.

    Bookmark   May 26, 2007 at 2:35PM
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Here's a variation on the original question: The back 5000 square feet or more of my yard is a wild mix of brush and umpteem different growing things that I'm having dug out and replaced. But with what? It's much too much to invest in serious landscaping. I'll extend the lawn into new loam at the near edge; but what else can I use that will look good and not race back to brush as I plant an occasional tree or shrub over the next few years?

    Bookmark   July 25, 2012 at 10:41PM
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Steve Massachusetts Zone 5b

If you want to suppress weeds put down 4-5 inches of wood chips. Sometimes you can get these for free from local arborists. The wood chips will keep the weeds away and will enrich the soil underneath while you wait to plant what you can when you can. The chips will turn grey with time and will look just fine. Bark mulch will be much too expensive.


    Bookmark   July 26, 2012 at 8:25PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Lawn. Or at least the mowed greenery that most people grow here as lawn. The wood chips will need to be replaced annually, and you still may get things coming up through it. The lawnmower will keep any intruders to a manageable size.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2012 at 11:15PM
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Herbg - When starting a new bed I mow as short as possible, put down composted manure, next a layer of cardboard (cartons from the grocery store work fine), and then like Steve, several inches of woodchips. I'm frugal and live in a rural area, and so have used wood chips from the crews that trim around the utility lines, wet sawdust from a local sawmill, and shavings from the family woodshop. All work fine. Any woody stuff that comes through the mulch I pull off as soon as it emerges and it will eventually die back, but not much comes through.

Lizwaxy - I don't have to buy mulch at home (see sources above) but in my mom's garden I typically used undyed bark mulch. I don't know what they put in the dye, and I don't know if they use it to camouflage things like shredded construction waste, so I used the undyed so I could be sure of what I was getting. IME any wood mulch will fade to gray relatively soon (except for the bark nuggets which shift around too much to work well for weed suppression IMO.) I like best the look of well-finished compost as mulch, and many municipalities sell mulch at a reasonable cost. Shredded leaves also look pretty nice to me, as long as you don't have as much wind as DtD. Realistically, large expanses of mulch are always going to look like large expanses of mulch, but I think a cared-for garden will always be nicer than lawn, even if it has yet to fill in. There are relatively inexpensive sources of plants to fill in short term to help camouflage the mulch, especially if they are near the front of the bed. Growing from seed, plant swaps (the ones I've been to don't expect new gardeners to bring plants, just take them), and fall sales can help you fill in the space and as time goes on you can change out plants for ones you like more. Other alternatives to help break up the mulch would include large rocks placed artistically and partially buried; a pathway through the bed between plants made of flagstones, brick, or pavers; garden art; or a pot of plants that provides volume at a different level. I've found that Craigslist (check out the free list, the materials list, and the farm and garden list) often has things that can help inexpensively or for free, including rocks, pavers, bricks, flagstones and plants. I've also found things at the town transfer station which has an exchange shed. The garden junk forum may give you some ideas also for hand-made garden art.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2012 at 12:19AM
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spedigrees z4VT

I don't know if this would be an option for you, Liz, but personally I do not like the look of mulch, *any* type of mulch, so this is what I do. I use a string trimmer to "mow" the weeds and grass in amongst my perennials, so that the appearance is of flowers just rising up out of a lawn.

If you don't have an overly enthusiastic husband on a lawn tractor you wouldn't need the bottles to mark the borders. (I like them as a decorative feature, but they are optional.) I started with rock borders, but hubby complained that he couldn't see them.

I like a natural look. The other problem I have with mulch is that it never completely keeps weeds out, and I truly hate weeding. If I must weed, I like to be able to use a claw-type garden implement or a hoe, and dig the buggers out while aerating the soil at the same time.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2012 at 5:24PM
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corunum z6 CT(6)

I like it, Sped, a nice, natural, novel approach.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 9:42AM
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