written by: BStone•edited by: Lindsay Evans•updated: 5/19/2010
Be careful what you use as a garden or landscaping mulch. Some materials can have a negative effect on the environment. Fortunately, there are many different types of environmentally friendly mulch to choose from to have a truly green garden.
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Benefits of Mulch
Applying mulch is a great way to support the growth of plants and to make a garden appear more aesthetically pleasing. A thick layer of mulch material will improve soil moisture by holding in water when there isn't enough, and preventing soil run-off when there is too much. Laid around growing plants it will inhibit weed growth, protecting your flowers, herbs, fruits, and vegetables, while also reducing overall garden maintenance. Many mulch options, such as wood chips and gravel rocks will also add a neat, clean look to the entire landscape. For many gardeners the well-being of the environment is a natural concern. It is possible to use an environmentally friendly mulch to have a beautiful garden and a purely positive effect on the earth.
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Which mulches are environmentally friendly? Many organic materials are beneficial for the soil, offering nutrition and protection. They are biodegradable and often make second use of a byproduct or waste material. They also tend to be inexpensive and easy to access. Some inorganic mulches are also surprisingly green.
Cocoa mulch is made from the byproduct of commercial cocoa grinding. The hulls are nitrogen-rich and very beneficial for plant soil. They effectively deter weeds, snails, and slugs. There are warnings that they may be dangerous for dogs; they contain the chemical that makes chocolate toxic to canines. Other than removing mold with water, there is no maintenance required. This aromatic, eco-friendly mulch is reasonably affordable — a thirty-pound bag (which will cover two cubic feet) is available for ten dollars from Vita Soil.
Pine needles, also known as pine straw, are another great choice. They are a renewable, sustainable resource as the needles are naturally shed by pine trees. They are also remarkably effective at preventing run-off. Pine is perfect for acid-loving plants such as roses, azaleas, and oleanders. It may be wise to test for soil acidity when using pine straw for growing vegetables, which prefer slightly alkaline soil. The cost is comparable to cocoa mulch, also about ten dollars for two cubic feet.
Newspaper mulch is one of the most environmentally friendly options. It is a renewable resource, a biodegradable source of carbon, and completely safe. Unlike other materials, as long as you read the paper, this type of mulch is free. Lay beneath yard clippings and homemade compost for an effective, nutrient-rich, and efficient garden mulch.
Eucalyptus wood chips are eco-friendly. The trees grow quickly in commercial areas, making the wood chips a renewable resource. They act as an effective mulch, with the added benefit of deterring insects — eucalyptus oil is a natural insecticide. The only problem is that this type of mulch has to be transported long distances, which is not good for the environment. It is also slightly more expensive than cocoa or pine.
Straw mulch is environmentally-friendly and inexpensive. An entire bale can cost as low as four dollars. However, it can blow away with strong winds.
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These materials are frequently used, and have benefits for the garden. They may not be the best choices for the environment.
Rubber mulch is considered eco-friendly because it is made from recycled car tires. It is an effective material for water management and weed control, and can last for multiple seasons, rather than organic mulches which have to be replaced every year. It does however introduce some toxins into the soil, and therefore the plants. While it inhibits some insects it also deters microbes and other beneficial creatures. It costs two or three dollars more per cubic foot than most traditional products.
Cypress is one of the most common woods used to make chip mulch. Effective and affordable, it is also detrimental to the environment. To process the mulch many virgin trees are cut down. The cypress tree acts to store and filter freshwater from the wetlands in which it grows. By eliminating these trees, an important wildlife habitat becomes threatened.
Plastic can be great for blocking weed growth, but it is a non-biodegradable synthetic, which must be removed and is not beneficial for growing plants. It is not any less expensive than more green mulch options.
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Choosing the Right Mulch
What exactly is an environmentally friendly mulch? Something made from renewable resources, a local product, or a nutrient-rich material for the soil and plants? While many people have used cypress chips for years, and rubber is the new eco-friendly trend, the best option may be the easiest one. Using material around the yard — leaves, twigs, grass clippings, and compost — especially when placed over three or four layers of old newspapers, requires no transportation, no processing, no packaging, and no cost. It is also great for the soil, and makes use of material that you have to get rid of anyway. Other products may be ideal, especially for aesthetic reasons. Be sure to use the material that most fits your needs, and the needs of the environment you are growing in.
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Brucklacher, Anne. "Mind Your Mulch: Eco-Friendly Mulch." (Natural Home Magazine) <http://www.naturalhomemagazine.com/Garden/2003-03-01/GROWING-Mind-Your-Mulch.aspx>
Starbuck, Chris PhD. "Pine Straw: A New Mulch for Missouri." (University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry) <http://www.centerforagroforestry.org/profit/pine/pine.asp>
Photo by: Jeffrey W (CC/flickr) <http://www.flickr.com/photos/jeffreyww/4589083579/