What Is a Good Substitute for Mulch?

Mulch is a wonderful thing for landscaping yards. It adds a finished look to your yard and also provides a functional purpose of maintaining the soil temperature, preventing weed growth, and adding nutrients to the soil. 

However, the most well-known mulches like wood chips can cost more than many are capable of paying with ongoing inflation. What is a good substitute for mulch? A variety of options are available including pea gravel, river rocks, dried grass clippings or pine straw, straw or hay, rubber mulch, newspaper, compost, and even cocoa bean hulls. 

The article below informs you about each of these mulch substitutes and how you can best use them. 

Alternatives to Mulch

Mulch has five purposes. It should block sunlight from the soil to control weeds, prevent weeds from growing, help with drainage, add nutrients to the soil, and help your yard look more manicured. 

Some alternatives do more of one of those things than others so prioritize which purposes are most important to you before deciding which alternative to purchase. 

Every mulch alternative has both advantages and disadvantages beyond cost so evaluate all your choices before buying.

Pea Gravel, River Rocks

Pea gravel and river rocks would well in some flower beds, depending on the plants. It works great as drainage, blocks sunlight, and prevents weed growth. It can last for years and gives your yard a manicured look. 

Gravel and rocks come in different colors and sizes so you can customize your mulch to get the exact look you want. You can even add some glass rocks to the top of gravel or river rocks to give your yard a touch of sparkle.

Gravel and rocks don’t add nutrients to the soul. The upside is they will last for five years or more before needing replenishment. 

Rocks and gravel will eventually dig into the soil and disappear. They also disappear in other ways from getting scattered to wildlife taking them.

Read: How To Get Rid Of Mushrooms In Mulch?

Dried Organic Products

Dried grass clippings or pine straw are wonderful alternatives to mulch, especially in the fall and winter as temperatures drop. These will cover the soil to protect young roots from frost and cold and will naturally decompose over time, adding nutrients. 

They are incredibly cheap as you can recycle your grass clippings. Pine straw is also inexpensive. 

You can use dried leaves as a mulch alternative as well so those leaves you rake up in the fall can be transferred to flower beds rather than throwing them in the landfill.

Dried straw or hay also works well and can be easily purchased and do well as a mulch cover for beds and around trees. Either works well to cover muddy areas or areas where new grass is planted too. 

While most people think to put out these types of mulches in the fall, you can use them any time of year.  You can collect these items in the fall and put them in a compost bin to use as mulch in the spring. It’s a cost-effective, environmentally-friendly way to mulch your yard.

Be aware that dried products like grass, leaves, pine straw, and hay will not last a long time. You will need to replace them every six months to a year to keep your landscape up.

Read: What Is Mulching And Its Advantages?

Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch makes garden areas look good. They are great for playgrounds and areas where there is high traffic. 

Another benefit of mulch is that it is an excellent shock absorber. That is a primary reason many use it for playgrounds because it prevents injuries in falls. 

A downside of rubber mulch is it retains more heat than other types of mulch. It can get really hot in the summer, especially in areas of extreme heat. 

Rubber mulch serves all the basic purposes of controlling soil temperature, drainage, and weed control. However, it offers no nutrients as it doesn’t decompose. The advantage of this is you won’t need to replace this mulch for years.

Read: How To Attract Deer To Your Yard?

Newspaper and Cardboard

Both newspaper and cardboard are natural products that decompose. Both can be used as mulch substitutes to control weeds and add nutrients to the soil. These products won’t be seen on top of the flower beds. 

To use either of these, place the newspaper and cardboard on top of the garden spot. Wet it some with a garden hose and then put topsoil on top of it. Make sure the soil doesn’t wash away. 

This would need to be done every six months or annually to continue to be effective.

Read: How To Find Crystals In Your Backyard?


Compost is an organic composition of decomposed natural items like leaves, stems, tree branches, grass clippings, and other items. It takes several months to a year for all these items to become compost. 

The main purpose of compost is to nourish the soil. It doesn’t work as well as other alternatives for soil temperature or drainage. Most people who use compost till it into the ground or garden spots around the plants. 

Since compost resembles dirt, it doesn’t add a lot of beauty to your gardens but can make them look more professional. 

Read: Does A Backyard Increase Property Value?

Cocoa Bean Hulls

Cocoa bean hulls aren’t one of the most available products on the market but are a good alternative to mulch. They look good, are biodegradable, and keep the soil temperature in balance.


Is mulch necessary?

Mulch isn’t a must-have for a property but is something you should add to your landscape. It protects plants from extreme temperatures, makes for great curb appeal, keeps your soil healthy, helps with drainage, and increases your property value. 

Can I use topsoil instead of mulch?

You shouldn’t use topsoil as mulch for several reasons. Topsoil tends to be more expensive than mulch. 

You must understand what mulch is and how it decomposes. Mulch decomposes into topsoil so using topsoil means it won’t last as long and you won’t get the full nutrients from the decomposition that you do when using mulch. 

What can you put around trees instead of mulch?

You can plant groundcover around trees instead of using mulch. One option is sweet woodruff. It grows easily, is simple to control, and is a hardy plant. 

Are rocks better than mulch?

Neither product is better or worse. It depends on the look you want and the purpose of the product. Rocks or pebbles are better at stopping weed growth over mulch. Stones don’t work in areas that get a lot of sun because they retain heat. 

Can I put wood chips around trees?

Wood chip mulch works well around trees to protect them and add to a landscape. However, you can also use shredded leaves or compost. You must use aged wood chip mulches though. 

What mulch works best to keep bugs away?

The best mulches to keep bugs away are cypress and cedar chip mulch. These have natural chemicals and oils that release scents that discourage bugs from infesting.

Do snakes live in mulch?

Snakes typically don’t live in mulch but some types of ground covers can attract snakes as it also attracts prey. Ivy or thick ground covers can be hiding spots for snakes. Large rocks can create habitats so use tight-fitting, smaller rocks in flower beds instead. Water gardens and Koi ponds also attract snakes.