Have you read about mulch and compost for improving your garden soil’s health? Can’t keep track of which is which and what they do? Fuggedaboutit – read this!
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So, I went to see my chiropractor/acupuncturist and he asked why he was seeing me again so soon. (This sounds like the set up for a joke.) Anyway, I told him that for two days I had been fighting a six inch chipper and the six inch chipper won. He looked at me sideways for a minute and then started writing on his chart. While he chuckled he said, “Most people have pretty standard stories about how they got hurt. Your stories are always so interesting!”
So glad I could entertain. But, as a result of the battle, I have a few words on mulch and compost. What they are and what’s the difference is between the two?
What Makes Mulch
When we lived in Raleigh, we had 140 trees on half an acre when we moved in. Over time, and in all that humidity, things began to rot and fall down. We needed to take some of those trees out. Now, I’m a California native and cutting down trees is as crazy a concept to me as cutting off my arm would be. In North Carolina, though, trees grow like weeds, literally.
So, it was that after a time I found myself staring down the considerable maw of a chipper. While I feed it copious amounts of Sweet Gum, Pine, leaves and needles I watched it hork out comparatively paltry amounts of wood mulch.
The appeal of the idea began to grow on me as we seasoned that mulch and laid it out in our garden to suppress weeds. Something interesting happened – it worked. Well, it mostly worked; enough to sell me on the idea of learning more about mulch and it’s various applications.
Wood chips are:
- bits of wood made from chipping up trees and branches
- they’re used as a form of mulch to suppress weeds, hold moisture in the soil and make your yard look pretty
Wood chips are great but, from your soil’s perspective, eating only wood chips would be like eating nothing but dry toast every day for the rest of your life.
- slowly decaying organic matter,comprised of wood chips, leaves and other materials in your yard – good biodiversity
- completely broken down mulch can be mixed into the first few inches of your soil to feed it and make it loamy
- it can also be applied as a top dressing to your soil to suppress weeds, hold moisture in your soil and make your yard look pretty.
Eventually, mulch can be added to your compost concoctions or be placed on top of your compost when it’s added to your soil.
Why Mulch Your Own
Trees are a little more scarce here in the highland desert of Utah but we still like to take care of things ourselves and chip our own brush. At least then we know what’s in it. Not to knock city wood chips but it’s possible they might come with:
- chemically treated wood
- pesticide treated brush
- plastic forks
- candy wrappers
- single socks on the lam from someone’s dryer (no joke, found that once)
- and other questionable material inside
We may still use city wood chip this year because of the massive number of square feet we’re trying to cover.
So, it was that after two years of collecting the considerable prunings and trimmings of an infant homestead, I found myself once again staring into the belly of the beast. The pile behind me seemed only to grow in size – like some wretched Mulgarath come to life.
Not to mention that I:
- nearly gave myself a concussion with a rogue branch
- my mom’s new hip almost popped out of joint from a fall
- I just missed causing a major road collision as I raced to return the thing before closing time
I made it there in time, by the way.
The fact is, I would do a lot more just to keep the weeds at bay. The Lord told Adam that He cursed the ground for our sakes and then proceeded to mention thorns and thistles. May I just mention a few more?
How about that Mallow with the taproot that shoots straight through the Earth’s core where some nice, gentleman farmer in China is pulling on one end while you’re pulling on the other?
Or the Field Bind Weed that looks so innocuously like Morning Glory that we ignorantly call it pretty. While all the time, beneath the surface of my lawn in desperate need of de-thatching, it’s rubbing it’s 20 foot long root tentacles together and wondering where to infiltrate next?
What’s the bane of your garden existence in your little acre of milk and honey?
Materials to Make Your Own
There are lots of choices when it comes to natural, or organic mulch:
- fall leaves
- grass clippings
- pine needles
They all have pros and cons and the first thing to really think about is availability. Materials available to you locally affects price, as well as the time it might take to gather them if you decide to DIY it.
In NC, everyone used pine needles in place of wood chips because they freely fall from the tree in copious amounts. There are a few pine trees in the American south. Because the availability is high, the price is low. (Even lower if you have 140 trees on your own property and your handy with a heavy duty Glad bag to collect them.) Although, wood chips were also used for bedding areas, I usually used them to make quality mulch.
In Utah, pine is more scarce, at least in Salt Lake City area. Fall leaves are great, but they’re available only one time of year. If you’re anything like me, in the fall you’re busy with the harvest. The only reason we ever collect leaves is because my service-conscious children have this crazy notion about helping our neighbors by secretly bagging their leaves and tidying their yards. Kids.
Grass is a great option if you have a collector on your mower to bag the cuttings. Or, several teenage boys who like to work a hard rake to gather it all up. Grass, though, leads us to the other thing to think about and that’s more about decomposition. See more in the compost section below.
Which Mulch Should I Use?
That becomes a personal choice.
To be honest, plain bark isn’t my favorite form of mulch just because I don’t always remember my shoes when I go out in the garden. You know what happens when you step on wood chips in bare feet. It’s worse when your two year old does it – there’s usually more screaming involved.
Wood chips are uncomfortable to walk on but they form a dense mat if piled 2-4 inches. They break down more slowly than something like leaves. Plus, they’re pretty.
I also use straw as mulch quite often. Straw is a great source of carbon and will break down to compost very nicely by the end of the season. My biggest problem with using straw as mulch and future compost is the wind! We have such high winds and minimal moisture that a lot of straw ends up blowing away. Also, if you’re in bare feet, straw slivers really hurt.
Straw may not be something more economical for you, it will depend on where you are. Going back to cost, we buy many bales at a time because we have animals to house and so we’re already set up with a (small, but serviceable) hay barn. Usually, you can get a discounted price if you’re buying more than one or two bales. This year, we’re using it in all the furrows for our in-ground veggie growing. I don’t bother putting it in the square foot garden boxes because there just aren’t enough weeds to bother with mulch.
Here’s a great post by Family Food Garden that discusses the differences between straw, hay and wood chips as mulches – click here. Remember, all three have a primary function, respectively labeled as livestock food, livestock bedding and yard beautification. When you use them as mulch you’re basically upcycling them to use again. That’s because you’re a garden smartypants and never let anything go to waste.
Do you already have mulch in your garden? Biological material could be something like wood chips, leaves, straw, grass clippings. As mulch lies around in your garden, a breakdown process occurs right there on the ground. Microscopic buggers eat away at your mulch, causing all kinds of chemical alterations to it that include things like:
- color change
- odor of some kind
- the exchange of nutrients between the mulch and the soil
The finished product of this breakdown will eventually be beneficial to the soil it sits on. Decomposed organics are always a desirable addition to your garden.
However, mulch isn’t usually as nutritive as a beautifully made compost. Always add mulch, it’s wonderful! However, if you need active feeding to specific plants (like hungry vegetables), then you’re going to want to learn to produce a good compost.
A lot of people like to simply dump their compostable materials where they’d like the compost to do it’s work, especially with grass clippings. You can compost that way successfully – it’s called trench composting
However, to get grass from green to compost, certain elements are temporarily stolen from the soil to break down the compost’s composition, most notably nitrogen. That is a round about way of saying, consider before you dump!
Are your beds sufficiently fertilized with manure tea or your fertilizer of choice to compensate for the nutrient exchange that will take place by putting that not-all-the-way-decomposed grass where you’re about to put it?
You can also compost in bins.
Or old garbage cans.
Or with worms.
Or with cover crops.
The options are limitless and so, here are a few links:
From Schneider Peeps – Make a lot of compost.
If you have chickens, there are some very valuable ideas here, too, from Attainable Sustainable.
Chickens make composting a lot easier and quicker; they also provide manure with which you can make manure tea to feed your plants.
A good, thick layer of mulch with compost underneath and a bit of manure tea a few times a season and you can grow anything!
In conclusion, yes to mulch and compost! Just think about what you have access to and what you can afford as well as the aesthetics and texture you want in your garden.
Quiz: What’s the Difference Between Mulch and Compost
To recap the difference between mulch and compost:
Mulch is typically one or two materials ground or cut up and applied as a top dressing to the finished product of your planted areas. It’s purpose is to suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Compost, on the other hand, is a variety of different materials. Things like grass clippings, kitchen waste, dead leaves, occasionally that same rogue sock (I swear the aliens place them) and a bit of water. All those bits season together and break down over time. Some composters call it an art form, like the making of great wine or artisan cheese.
I’m not that far over the edge, but a rich, dark compost mixing into a sandy clay soil with the cuts of my shovel is a beautiful sight to behold. To be honest, a truck load of compost – well, I’d rather have it than bricks of gold.
That black gold is tilled into your native soil to add dimension to the soil’s structure (like the weave of a fine linen jacket, soil has it’s own composition that makes it either an Armani or a Walmart variety), available nutrients for your hungry plants and a welcoming environment to beneficial nematodes and bacteria in the dirt.
Today’s organic mulch will be next season’s addition to the compost layer in your garden so begin with the end in mind.
*Cover graphic gratefully attributed to this Pexels user.