Learn what wood chips, mulch and compost are used for in the garden each year. If you have a hard time keeping track of what each each item is exactly, this article should help you. You’ll also learn how to DIY making your own mulch and compost to save money and feed the garden each year.
There are basically three materials many gardeners put down on their garden soil every year to feed the dirt and suppress weeds.
- Wood Chips
In this article, we will talk about wood chips and mulch first, then compost. We’ll explain what each item is used for in the garden and how to make your mulch and compost.
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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. Wood chips are usually used as a top dressing on the soil AFTER you’ve added mulch and compost.
To learn more, read Learning and Yearning’s great article – 10 Common Mistakes When Using Wood Chips in Your Vegetable Garden.
- Slowly decaying organic matter comprised of wood chips, leaves and other materials in your yard.
- Completely broken down mulch can be mixed into the first few inches of your soil to feed it and make it loamy and loose.
- Mulch 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 pile, OR be placed on top of your garden soil.
Why Mulch Your Own
Many cities offer wood chips or wood mulch for free, or for a small fee. This can be a very budget-friendly option for home gardeners but it does have its drawbacks. These drawbacks can include:
- 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
When you make your own mulch, you can control what gets put into it.
Materials to Make Your Own Mulch
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.
For example, in the state of North Carolina in the US, many gardeners use pine needles in place of wood chips because they freely fall from the tree in copious amounts. There are lots of pine trees in the American south! Because the availability is high, the price is low.
In the state of Utah, which is a highland desert, pine is more scarce, at least in city areas. 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.
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 Components Should I Use?
Because of cost and availability, which mulch to use is a personal choice. However, here are a few options.
Bark and Wood Chips
To be honest, shredded bark and wood chips aren’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 economical for you, depending 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 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.
Do you already have mulch in your garden? Remember, mulch is material made up of items 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
Planet Natural has a good article about the Chemistry of Composting, if you’d like to read more. The finished product of this breakdown will eventually be a rich, nutritive addition to your soil.
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.
DIY Good Compost
To learn to make good compost you need to learn a little bit about the different ways you can produce compost. The following are just a few:
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? Or, perhaps you have animal bedding like compost chicken litter to fee the soil?
Many Different Ways to Make Compost
If you have space in your yard, you may want to try using composting bins. Sometimes our gardens are confined to windowsills and decks, in which case a worm composting bin might be better. The following are some links that might be helpful:
Building a Compost Bin (5 Ways)
DIY Compost Bin
10 Things You Should Not Put In Your Compost Pile
3 Reasons to use a Compost Tumbler
How to make a lot of compost this winter
5 Ways to Put Your Backyard Hens to Work in the Garden For You
DIY Compost Tea Bucket
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 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.
Timely, timely! I love to read your posts because they are not only chock full of information that I am usually trying to research but you always make me laugh! I can hear you talk when I read your posts. You are a great teacher. Thank you for sharing with us.
wow…is it wrong that I really didn’t think there was a difference until now? I’ve always used those terms interchangeably, and when you stop and think about it….duh! 🙂 thanks for teaching me today!
Homestead Lady says
Well, its all the circle of life, Heather – they become the same thing eventually. 🙂
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable says
Thanks for the link! I need to make a whole truckload of compost, fast — patience is not my strong suit!
Homestead Lady says
Yeah, mine either; which translates into me being a really spastic gardener. I keep looking at vermicomposting but I just can’t keep one more thing alive – know what I’m sayin’? I think my favorite is cover crops because I don’t have to think too hard once they’re in the ground. Plus, they’re basically weeds so they’re never that hard to grow.
Jack White says
So I am new to this whole landscaping thing and I had no idea what mulch was and what it did. The article helped me understand clearly what it was and why it is important. I just wish we could implement it in gardens, but it would be counter productive there. https://www.showmemowing.net/grounds-maintenance
Homestead Lady says
Glad you found it useful! Actually wood can be used in the garden when you’re using sheet mulching, Back to Eden, Permaculture or Hugelkultur. You can search those topics in Bing and see what you find that is interesting to you. Good luck in your garden this year!
Joy Garza says
Really interesting and useful post! I have a garden for a year now. It is really nice to have the opportunity to grow your own vegetables, fruits and herbs. I am also very happy that I have now the chance to have a compost bin, because this is another way that helps me to reduce the waste that I create. I am trying to have a Zero Waste lifestyle so this is really important for me! Thanks for the post! I will definitely follow your site!
Homestead Lady says
I’m so glad the post was useful, Joy! Thank you for sharing what you’re doing in your garden and home. Re-using what would otherwise be wasted is one of the best parts of composting, I agree. I hope you’ll comment again and welcome aboard!