Mulch vs. Compost – Which Is Best For You To Use

Ready to use sawdust and compost.

Both mulch and compost bring simple changes in the garden and provide huge impacts on your growing plants while also suppressing down weeds and enriching your soil.  Your soil can improve remarkably with the use of these two gardening approaches.

Mulch and compost are words you usually hear from gardeners. But sometimes these words are often used interchangeably, as such you may think that they imply the same thing.

Mulch has a compost-like effect in the soil, and on the other hand there are times gardeners use compost as mulch. So it’s not easy for our folks to realize that there is a difference between mulch and compost.

To help you understand, we will discuss the difference between mulch and compost in detail.


The Difference Between Mulch and Compost


What is Compost?

Compost is a decaying organic matter such as kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, and animal manure that break down naturally through the process of decomposition.

It takes a year for these organic products to decompose, and after turning the pile around and watering as needed to speed the process along, compost then can be used for many purposes.


Best Materials to Use in Composting

Leaves and kitchen waste used as compost ingredients.

You can throw everything that comes from the ground into your compost bin.  Disease-free flower and plant trimmings, any vegetable or fruit scraps, a loaf of stale bread and pasta, and many other things.

Even manure of domestic animals like cows, carabao, chickens, and rabbits are all good to pile in your bin. These items can help you save costs enriching your soil. They will naturally breakdown in your pile during the process called decomposition and will become nutrient-rich compost you can use in your garden.


How Composting Works?

Compost bins full of dried leaves.

Basically, creating the ideal conditions for natural waste to decay in the process of nature is how composting works.

In the process of composting, microorganisms from the soil will eat and digest food scraps and other organic matter in the composting bin. The items will be decomposed gradually into the tiniest part.

The process produces humus filled with organic nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous.

Turning and watering the compost pile regularly can help the process of decomposition move along faster, and your compost is ready to use in as little as two to three weeks.

Efficient decomposition requires balanced compost conditions.

There should be:

  • Air (Turning the pile every day is essential for fast results.)
  • Water (The mixture in the composting pile should be moist but not soaking wet.)
  • A composite of Carbon to Nitrogen (A proper ratio is 30:1)
  • Soil (An adequate amount is required to provide enough microorganisms to help the process.)
  • Small sized particles (Small particles break down fast, so shredding big pieces is essential.)

How to Make Compost?

A wooden compost bin with a watering hose.

There are several things you need to consider when making compost.

These are:

  • An area to place your compost pile
  • Consider what type of structure you need
  • The ingredients 
  • Compost pile management
  • Collecting readily to use compost

The Location

Considering where to place your compost pile is essential. You want it to be a little bit away from your house but not too far that you may not want to tend it.

You may also consider other factors like:

  • Downwind 

No matter how well you manage your compost pile, there will be times unpleasant odors will emit from it.

  • Sunlight

Sunlight can help warm the compost to speed its process, but too much sun exposure can dry the compost pile.

  • Drainage

Considering good drainage is necessary to avoid water accumulation in a pile.

  • Wind

Wind helps provide air to your compost, but too much wind can make your compost dry.

  • Surface

Bare ground is much better than concrete.

The Structure

Three compost bins built with different materials.

The compost structure is where you pile all the organic ingredients and then let nature do its job. The process of composting like this is passive composting.

This type of composting is less efficient and slower compared to active composting, where you need to maintain the composting process every day.

The choice of your compost structure depends on the effort and cost you prefer to spend on this project.

You also need to think about the amount of compost you prefer to make. Some places have local ordinances that may dictate what kind of compost bin is allowed to use.

The Ingredients

Kitchen scrap ingredients for compost.

These types of ingredients are easy to compost.

Kitchen waste Backyard waste
  • Fruit and vegetable wastes
  • Eggshells
  • Coffee grounds
  • Used paper napkins
  • Corncobs (shredded)
  • Teabags
  • Seaweeds
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Weeds
  • Sawdust
  • Hay or straw
  • Woody materials
Tips:

Meat and dairy products can cause an unpleasant odor when added to a passive type of compost.

Also, reducing the size of kitchen waste by running it into a food processor or in a blender can help speed their decomposition.

You should not use these following ingredients into your compost.

  • Human waste (it carries parasites and has unpleasant odor)
  • Diseased garden plants (it can infect the entire compost pile)
  • Charcoal ashes (it is toxic to the microorganisms in the soil)
  • Pesticide treated plants (harmful to the compost as pesticides may survive into the ready to use compost
  • Invasive weeds (like quack grass, buttercups, and morning glory)

Compost Management

Watering the compost to help speed the process of decomposition.
Image by: permaculturenews.org

To manage your compost well, you should:

  • It is necessary to add new layers of composting materials at the top, along with fresh soil. 
  • Water the compost regularly to keep the compost moist.
  • Turning your compost every day is required to ensure adequate aeration.
  • Inserting a perforated PVC pipe into the bin to introduce air supply can free you from the effort of turning the compost every day.

Signs that your compost is working well:

  • It has a sweet earthy smell like peat moss. If your compost smells bad, it means the compost is not yet ready to use.
  • The release of carbon dioxide will let you see gas bubbles as you turn the compost pile.
  • The compost is warm. You will be able to see steam rising from the pile, particularly in the cold morning.

Collecting Ready to Use Compost

Compost in a nearly complete decomposition.

Checklist of completely finished compost:

  • Temperature
    If the temperature of your compost is below 100F after turning the pile, then the compost is completely done.
  • Appearance
    If the top of your materials looks more than 50% decomposed.
  • Size
    If the volume reduced up to 75%
  • Color
    The color becomes black or dark brown
  • Texture
    It should be smooth and crumbly
  • Smell
    The smell should be sweet earthy like soil.

Benefits of finished compost:

  • Enriches the soil.
  • Makes the soil microorganisms active.
  • Improves the soil structure.
  • Improves insect and disease resistance of your plants.
  • Protects plants from the changes in soil temperature.
  • Improves the degree of soil acidity, balancing to the right pH.

What is Mulch?

Rolls of hay in the field ready to use as mulch.

Mulch is the protective covering of cultivated soil used by most gardeners.

Benefits of Mulching

  • It helps retain the soil moisture.
  • Excellent weed control.
  • Improves soil texture.
  • Discourages pesky pests away.
  • Protects the roots of your plants from the sudden change of temperature.
  • Encourages microbes to be active.
  • Keeps leaves of edible crops away from the soil (to avoid leaf rot). 
  • An elegant garden barrier.

Two Types of Mulch


Organic Mulch

Sawdust and shredded bark used as organic mulch.

Organic mulches are different elements you can find from nature. Apart from improving soil texture, organic mulches slowly release nutrients into the soil.

Best organic mulches are:

  • Pine needles
  • Grass clippings
  • Fresh sawdust
  • Hay and straw
  • Dried leaves
  • Animal manure
  • Shredded bark

Inorganic Mulch

Small stones used as mulch in succulents.

Unlike organic mulch, inorganic mulches do not improve the soil structure along with soil fertility. However, inorganic mulches are best in suppressing weeds, retaining soil moisture, and can make your garden look elegant.

Among the best inorganic mulches are:

  • Plastic
  • Landscape fabric
  • Rug strips
  • Newspapers
  • Pebbles
  • Gravels
  • Stone chippings
  • Decorative aggregates

When to Apply Mulch?

Mulch ready to be applied on flower beds.

The best time to use mulch is when your soil is moist and warm. It is best to apply in the newly established beds to protect starter plants from the cold of winter and early spring.

During the summer, plant growers use mulching to protect plants from drought. They consider the best time to mulch is from mid to late spring until autumn.

Considering weather conditions is essential. Problems arise in the garden when gardeners apply mulch too early or too late. Timing matters when it comes to mulching.


Four Common Problems in Mulching

Fungus in woodchip mulch.
Image by: jerry-coleby-williams.net
1) Laying Mulch The Wrong Way

When you lay your mulch correctly, it will work well and will not generate problems. However, direct contact in the stems of plants can cause stem softening, making the plants susceptible to rot and diseases.

2) Introducing Fungus

The type of mulch gardeners uses matters when it comes to suppressing weeds, along with the control of pests and diseases. The use of woodchips has a slight risk of introducing fungus into your plants.

3) Check Your Mulch Conditions

Avoid laying another mulch on the top of the rotted one. A build-up of mulch makes the water difficult to penetrate down the roots. So, it is best to replace inorganic mulch when it doesn’t serve its purpose anymore.

4) Mulch Can Be Expensive

The size of your garden matters when it comes to mulch costing. Larger areas require extra effort and higher costs.


Final Thoughts on the Comparison Between Mulch and Compost

Alright, we now know all the basics about compost and mulch. But let’s make things a little bit clearer.

Compost is the amendment we mix to the soil, whereas mulch is what the gardeners use as the top covering of the garden bed.

Compost adds nutrients while improving the soil texture. Mulch, on the other hand, serves as weed control, keeping the soil moisture, and preventing soil erosion.

Now that you understand clearly the difference between compost and mulch, you may ask which is best for my garden?

If you aim for higher productivity and want to help your plants grow faster and bloom, then you may opt for compost. However, if you want to prevent soil erosion, control weed growth, and keep the soil moisture more efficiently, then you may go for mulch.

Most gardeners strive for all of these benefits in their garden, making them use both mulch and compost.

Any ideas to share in mind? Please don’t hesitate to share them with us by writing in the comment section below. We’re excited to add what you have to say based on your experiences.

About Benita Abucejo

Hi there! My name is Benita Abucejo. What can I say? I truly love spending my days in the outdoors, specifically in the garden. Gardening has always been a strong passion of mine since I was a little girl. It has brought me so much joy and happiness that it is definitely safe to say that I will be a gardener for life. For a period of time, I was able to work with people who are into home gardening and I found it to be quite beneficial to my physical health, as well as my mental well-being. Here at Seasonal Preferences, I am going to share with you my experience and ideas so that you can fulfill yourself with the same satisfaction and happiness. Of course, if you have ideas, I would love to hear those as well! Being creative in the garden can really be quite fascinating so let's share our experiences and be the best gardeners we can be. With that being said, thank you for dropping by and please leave me a comment on one of my posts if you would like to get in touch!

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