Can compost be used as mulch?

amna(6 (MA))June 29, 2014

Hello all,

I really hate the red mulch that is everywhere in the beds at our new house. Our town provides free compost and I was just wondering if I could dress everything in compost and get rid of the red woody mulch? Sorry if this is an incredibly dumb question but I just don't know the answer. I did look online, but I tend not to believe everything I read so any first hand experience would be much appreciated.

Thanks as always,
Amna

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Campanula UK Z8

A few years ago, I would have unreservedly said go ahead....but I am a bit more circumspect about this free green waste (our town does it too) since a whole lot of it comes from other peoplle's grass clippings.....and you have no idea what treatments they may have used on their lawns or gardens. There are longlasting herbicides containing amypyralid/trichlopyr which do not break down with municipal heat treatments and can have a horrible affect upon your own garden. I should say it is mainly certain edible crops which have been affected by these herbicides (toxic manure from treated hay fed to horses has been a deterrent to using manures unless certain of provenance). I thnk most ornamentals have not been adversely affected - it is mainly my experience growing vegetables which leads to my caution. Even so, I would ask other gardeners who have been using this for their advice and feedback before putting it on my own plants.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:12PM
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mnwsgal 4 MN(4)

I don't use compost as a mulch because if it is spread too thickly it tends to form a hard surface and water runs off rather than soaking in. I use compost thinly spread and/or scratched into the soil and cover it with leaf mulch.

There are many other wood mulches that are not dyed that can be found at nurseries and big box stores. Some community yard waste facilities also offer shredded wood to use as mulch. I have also asked tree trimmers working in the neighborhood for their shredded wood. They are happy to give me as much as I want because it saves them a trip to dump the wood.

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:26PM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5

compost and mulch are two different words...

whos definitions differ ...

so no.. you cant mulch with compost.. because they are two different things.. with two different goals...

remove all the mulch ... pile it up .. and compost it ... and then in a year or two.. use it a soil amendment .. to enrich your soil ...

then go buy some uncolored mulch.. and do it right ...

you are hoping for a fast and easy fix.. and that rarely works out ...

i think you will end up with two diverse layers that will somehow.. interfere with your gardening .. but that is a guess ...

ken

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:31PM
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aachenelf z5 Mpls

Well, compost is the ONLY thing I use on top of my garden. I don't really consider it mulch, but I guess you could and mine never forms a hard surface. It's fluffy and very dirt like when I put it down. I guess it suppresses weeds, but I really don't have a lot of weeds to begin with, but again maybe that's part of the reason why.

Campanula may have a point, but you also have to consider what comprises the vast amount of organic material in city mulch. I know around here, it's mainly leaves from last fall and shredded branches from trees the city has removed. I doubt a very significant portion is lawn clippings. In the fall, everyone around here has bags and bags of leaves at the curb, but I can't remember the last time I ever saw a bag in the summertime. Grass clippings are left on the lawn.

Kevin

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 2:42PM
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amna(6 (MA))

Thanks, all for your responses. Campanula, it would be for perennials, nothing edible. But that is something to consider given that I try to stay away fro chemicals in my gardening endeavors. Ken, you are correct, compost and mulch are two different words :-). I was planning on removing the mulch before laying down the compost. I was basically wondering if it could be a substitute for the mulch to help keep weeds (ie plants I don't want) from popping up the way mulch traditionally is supposed to do in addition to keeping moisture in. I used to use leaf mold mulch which would just break down and enrich the soil. I just don't have the money to buy that right now so I was looking for a cheap/free alternative :-)

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 6:40PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Go look at it, and see what it is. I agree with aachenelf that around here, it is basically souped up leaf mold.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 10:37AM
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jadeite(6/7)

We bought truckloads of both compost and mulch from the city when we arrived in New Mexico. The native soil is horrible, a mix of caliche (basically limestone strata), decomposed granite, sand and clay. It feels dead, no worms, few insects.

The compost is supposedly treated for weed seeds, and so far we haven't seen any sprouting. But everything has weird stuff in it. The city picks up green waste and composts it after shredding. They don't take it out of plastic bags or check it for inorganic matter. I pick out pieces of plastic from trash bags, bits of twisted metal, plastic, glass, synthetic fabrics any time I turn it over. So it isn't nice compost or mulch that you buy from the stores, but hey, it's cheap.

So far we've dug in about 15 cu. yards of it and gradually the garden is starting to look like a garden. I started off digging the compost in and mulching where needed, but DH mixed the piles together so I now dig in the mix and add more on top.

I'd say go for it while you start your own compost bin.

Cheryl

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 12:10PM
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grandmamaloy(7)

You might want to check with the HOA first. I'm assuming if all of the houses use the same, you may not have a choice. If however, you can change it out, compost, unless it is REALLY woody, will probably not work as effectively. I would definitely consider something like rubber mulch instead. It comes in different colors, it is safe for children and pets (they use it on playgrounds), it is made of recycled products, it lasts FOREVER, not breaking down like wood mulches do and since it is rubber, you are much less likely to attract pests (like termites).

Here is a link that might be useful: rubber mulch

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 12:31PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

I personally don't use compost as a mulch. Normally I use another layer of 'mulch material' over that. I wouldn't leave it uncovered, mostly because I would think you would get a lot of weeds sprouting in it. Even if it's just what blows in and lands on it. But since I've never done that, that's just a guess.

I wouldn't use municipal compost. I garden organically, so I'm used to avoiding a lot of things that other gardeners might use. I have neighbors who put all kinds of things on their lawns and put their grass clippings out for the city pick up every week and considering how few people garden organically, I think the majority of people are really uninformed and unconcerned about what they are using on their grass. If it were just leaves that were composted with tree branches, I'd use it in a heartbeat.

I sympathize with you, because I'm not a fan of that red mulch either. If I had that situation, I would probably be patient and when I could afford to buy more mulch, I would add just a very thin layer of shredded bark mulch or pine bark fines over the red mulch just to make it look better cosmetically. Maybe just do the front foundation beds and as you have finances to buy more, do the rest and that should require a lot less mulch to do that.

edit: I like buying mulch in bags and as I use them I get a few more to keep on hand. I have a local nursery who I've bought mulch in bulk from that I was very happy with, after a few deliveries that I wasn't so happy with from other companies. I didn't want to get another large delivery this year, because I needed less and I asked and they actually bag up their own mulch and sell it that way. And they were willing to sell it to me for the bulk price which was a little cheaper. It's very fresh and just the right color and consistency and lasted a long time the last time I got it. Hopefully you can find somewhere like that.

This post was edited by prairiemoon2 on Mon, Jun 30, 14 at 13:25

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 1:01PM
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floral_uk z.8/9 SW UK

I mulch with home made compost all the time. Mulch is any material placed on the surface of the soil to fulfil one, some or all these functions: conserve moisture, add fertility, prevent weed growth, insulate the soil and improve the appearance. You can mulch with organic materials, stones, even plastic if you must but it's all mulch. I would not contemplate rubber mulch.

Here is a link that might be useful: Rubber mulch issues

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 1:46PM
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mjc_molie(z6 CT)

Amna, for the past 11 years, we've used the free, city-supplied compost in all our gardens. (We don't grow vegetables.) In the past we bought bulk or bagged mulch and placed that on top of the compost to help prevent weeds, but as our gardens grew that became way too expensive. Now we only use mulch around newly planted shrubs or flowers to help them stay more moist and adjust to their new home.

I'm not sure what the components are in this free compost, but it sure does work. Using this compost has really improved our gardens.... the soil is now darker and richer than when we moved in. Plus it's loosened up because we turn the soil over over as we weed. Our plants are lush. They grow well and spread, which makes it harder for weeds to take root, and we have a great worm population. We never fertilize.... even our roses.

Molie

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 3:19PM
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mrtulin

Re: red dyed mulch. "Carolyn's Shade Gardens" is an informative blog. I recently read an article she wrote on sourcing mulch. She stated that pallets are used to make red mulch, and that they are treated with preservatives /chemicals.

If you compost the red mulch, you might want to consider where you use the compost later.

I'm inferring that whoever put the mulch down didn't ask you what "color" you wanted. Isn't it odd that now we have to specify "natural"?

Does anyone remember when red mulch made an appearance or how it became a dominant landscape feature? Someone was a marketing genius.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 11:07PM
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cold_weather_is_evil(9)

Can you imagine getting a letter from the HOA in five years saying your faded mulch is no longer red enough?

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 11:17PM
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amna(6 (MA))

We just moved into this house and apparently the original owner must've liked red mulch, it's everywhere. There's even an unused pile by the side of the house! Luckily we don't have to worry about HOA and conforming to their aesthetics. I just want to get rid of the stuff (as well as the horrible weed blocking fabric underneath) and go back to the way my old garden used to look. We would get leaf mold mulch delivered yearly to add on, it looked just like earth, the worms loved it, the plants loved it, didn't have much trouble with weeds (partly because the yard was so packed full of plants), retained moisture nicely, let my self seeders reseed, enriched my clay soil, etc. I personally just don't like the look of mulched beds, too institutional. Also, what's up with the 2 feet high mounds of mulch they build at the base of trees? I find that to be quite an eyesore too. Had to hack away at a bunch of those to free the trunks of some dogwood and crab apple trees here too. I think I am just going to start removing the mulch and the weed block and see what happens with the compost layer for this year. Thank you all so much for your input. It's always wonderful to hear from garden people directly :-)

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 11:32PM
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cecily(7 VA)

A lot of people are using red cedar mulch here because they think it repels termites.

The municipal compost that we got for free in CT contained a lot of cigarette butts, bits of plastic bags, broken glass, etc. Take a good look at it before you have a large quantity delivered. Perhaps there's a way you could screen out the debris before spreading it on the garden.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 7:12AM
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ryseryse_2004

Idabean - pallets are no longer made with treated lumber -- just too expensive today. We buy our mulch ($10 a truck load) from a pallet recycling place. The mulch breaks down into compost in just a season, but the price is right.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 9:29AM
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calistoga_al

All my compost and mulch is home made on the property. It is natural color and not intended to be used for its looks. My compost is all made from the normal garden waste, containing generous amounts of green material, and taking several months to complete the compost. This requires numerous turnings and adding moisture, through 3 descending covered piles. Mulch is made from chipped slag from trees used for firewood. It is much more woody and is piled in the open, subject to both rain and sunshine. It is usually about 3 years old before being used and is partially broken down. Used as mulch it is good for about 2 years, before more is needed to be added. Saves both weeding and soil moisture. Al

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 9:42AM
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gardengal48

Mulch is just something that covers the soil surface, not a specific product. Compost can be used for this purpose just as well as shredded bark or pine straw or whatever else is popular in your area. IMO, it is far better looking than any dyed product and offers a much greater nutrient source than does most other common mulching materials.

Compost is my mulch of choice. I like the texture, I like the color, I like its water retention characteristics and I like the fact that if you mulch regularly with compost you may never need to use prepared fertilizers again :-))

In the US, municipal compost made from recycled yard waste is pretty darn safe. Persistent herbicides are no longer available for household use and commercial applications of these products are extremely limited and with very narrow restrictions on how the treated material can be composted and reused. In many areas, municipal compost goes through a testing or certification process as well. Personally, I would rather use compost from large commercial operation before a homemade pile - it offers a much greater range of ingredients and therefore a broader nutrient distribution and because of the scale of the operation, achieves much higher temperatures resulting in far fewer concerns about lingering pathogens, weed seeds or chemical contamination.

    Bookmark   July 1, 2014 at 1:40PM
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