pros & cons: leaf mulch vs wood mulch

ebindcJuly 11, 2008

I am a new gardener and haven't yet mulched this year ... I've been told that wood mulch drains nutrients from the soil, so I was planning to get leaf mulch. But does leaf mulch do a good job reducing weeds?

I have a small vegetable patch and perennials like day lillies, azaleas, hydrangeas etc. I planted bulbs, as well - some of them bloomed, and some I planted too late.

What are the pros and cons of leaf vs. wood mulch? If I need both, I am getting my trees trimmed in a few weeks (cedar, ash, elm, silver maple) and could ask the tree company for the mulched wood. However, the owner told me that he wouldn't recommend using the chipped wood for mulch. They take it to the county to be composted.

Any guidance would be much appreciated!

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joepyeweed(5b IL)

Pros of leaf mulch:

its cheap
I have to put the leaves somewhere anyway
I think it looks nice
they decompose fairly quickly compared to wood mulch

Cons of leaf mulch:

if not shredded, they tend to blow around
they decompose fairly quickly compared to wood mulch

    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 9:14PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Honestly I have very little use for wood chip mulch, especially in the vegetable garden. Does little if anything good and does create some problems. Perennial flower beds - fine. Otherwise I give it a 2 on a scale of 10.

Leaf mold on the other hand is a great mulch, especially if pre-shredded, but even if it isn't it will mat down with water. Improves the soil, provides nutrients, MUCH better at keeping down weeds, no termite problems, not near as much strange fungus growths, and in some climates it actually lasts longer than wood chips.


    Bookmark   July 11, 2008 at 10:14PM
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Whomever told you that wood mulch would "drain" nutrients from you soil was not being totally accurate and leaf mulch could, potentiall, do the same because both would be high Carbon materials. But neither will do what you were told, when they are used as a mulch and not a soil amendment. Both of those materials have the potential, over time, of improving your soil by adding organic matter to that soil as the soil bacteria slowly digest them and incoporate them into your soil, and that a alone would be a good reason to mulch. Leaves are a bit easier for the soil bacteria to digest than wood chips so they tend to "disappepar" faster and need replenishing more often. But that also means your soil is getting that organic matter mixed in faster.
Whether any mulch will do a good job of suppressing weed growth depends on how much is used. What is suggested by most garden writers, 1 or 2 inches of mulch, will not do a good job because the weeds can still get the sunlight through that thin layer they need to grow and the additional moisture that thin layer does provide will help them grow even better. A 4 to 6 inch layer is much more better for weed growth suppression.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2008 at 7:33AM
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I have been using leaf mulch exclusively for a couple of years now. I make my own by shredding the leaves and adding a bit of UCGs (used coffee grounds) and then place on the gardens.

I must disagree with Kimmsr in that I never place 4 to 6 inches of mulch in the gardens. My experience has been that maximum 3 inches is quite enough and most often place a bit less.

This is a garden after mulching about 6 weeks ago. As of today there are still no weeds showing and despite the fact that we have received little to no rain, the plants have doubled in size.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 7:59AM
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I would not recommend chipped wood unless the chips are very fine. I used wood chips one year and didn't like how it looked and it takes a long time to break down. Probably still on that garden, I've moved since.

I can't easily get leaves so use fine wood shavings mixed with compost to color it and improve nutrition for the plants. It's almost completely gone in a year.

    Bookmark   July 13, 2008 at 10:56PM
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leaf mulch is great stuff and does wonders for soil, in my climate it breaks down pretty quickly but it really adds a lot of hummus-y material to the beds.

Every couple of years I also stop a tree trimmer and ask them to dump a big truckload of chipped tree prunings at my house. It has a lot of nitrogen in it from the foliage and is much better than straight wood chips. It makes a great bulk mulch which breaks down nicely and improves the soil, it is slower to break down than leaves but that can be an advantage, the sooner it breaks down the sooner it needs to be replaced.

I think you should go with what you can get for free, I have never bought mulch, I've always just used what I have access to but dont worry about the prunings robbing the soil, all the green content balances it out nicely.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 1:53AM
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oldmainer(z5 Maine)

Hi ebendc...use either wood chips or leaves for mulch. Fert. with either Rapid-Grow or liquid fish/ per instructions. If your not raising acid loving plants sprinkle alittle lime around your plants as per instructions also. You will be happy with the results. Franklin

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 3:42AM
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leslies(z7 No VA)

I like and use both.

Wood chip mulch has some good points: Yours would be free, it would not drain nutrients out of the soil, it's good on weeds, good on moisture retention, it rots down (over two or three years) and makes a nice soil. It's more suitable for areas that you don't work and rework every year - i.e., not the veggie garden. I think it does best when you can spread it and forget it - under trees and shrubs, for instance.

Leaf mulch is wonderful and perfect in every way, but unshredded leaves do sometimes blow around.

Another option for the veggies is horse manure. Several people post it on craigslist in the DC area.

If you have to pay money for something, buy the leaf mulch, but don't let those tree chips get away.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 4:06PM
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I use a lot of wood chips but that's what I have in abundance and I want the mulch to last a while due to time limitations. The bottom of my old wood chip pile has also turned into some very nice tilthy stuff all on its own over the years. An underlayer of newspaper or carboard would also help suppress weeds whichever material you use. Leaves or chipped wood is great for perrenials, trees, shrubs, and ornamentals. You can even use both in the same place. Chipped wood would be a pain in an annual crop garden. Whether you like the looks of one or the other is up to you. Wood chips from your tree service will definitely be more "rustic" looking than what you would purchase at a big box store. Depending on the state of the trees you are grinding you might get a fair amount of leaves and green wood mixed in which I happen to like but some prefer a more uniform look to their mulches. You might want to leave the wood chip pile alone for a few days to let it do some initial composting/heating before you use it for mulch but I don't think that is critical.

    Bookmark   July 14, 2008 at 9:09PM
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Many people here seem to be concerned about how their mulch looks, but by this time of year you cannot see my mulch because the plants have grown up and hidden the mulched soil, except where I have not yet fenced to keep out the wild turkeys that kick the mulch out of the beds.

    Bookmark   July 15, 2008 at 7:17AM
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ken_mce(zone 4, NY)

>I've been told that wood mulch drains nutrients from the >soil,

You were told wrong. There are no Nitrogen fairies that sneak out of the chips and down into the soil to steal your Nitrogen.

You can use either product. They both break down over time, enriching your soil as they do so. The leaves are quicker, the wood chips slower. The chips from a guy who cuts down trees and tosses 'em in the chipper will be rough and coarse. They are not suited for a highly formal situation. Luckily, I'm not a highly formal guy, and "free" is an attractive price, so I use them everywhere. You can always top them off with store bought material for looks.

I like to put down a base layer of newspaper or cardboard and then lay the chips on top. They serve as a mechanical barrier to intercept seeds and sprouts.

    Bookmark   July 16, 2008 at 8:51PM
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