What is the difference between mulch and compost?

Although mulch and compost are essential for a healthy garden and landscape, they differ greatly from one another. Actually, if you use them interchangeably, your plants and garden soil may suffer as a result.

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Learn what makes compost different from mulch, when to use compost or mulch, and when to use a combination of the two.

Compost: What Is It?

Organic material at different stages of decomposition is called compost. Kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, manure, weeds, and plant debris can all be included as long as they don’t contain any chemicals, insects, or plant diseases that could contaminate the compost.

Decomposition can take two weeks to two years for compost, depending on a variety of conditions in addition to the material itself. It is crucial for a compost pile to have the right ratio of green to brown materials. In addition, the compost needs the proper quantity of moisture, aeration, stirring, size, ambient temperature, and the worms and microbes that break it down.

The compost turns into organic matter, or humus, when it has completely broken down. None of the original content will be familiar to you. Mature compost has an earthy scent, is crumbly and dark brown with soil-like particles.

Applications of Compost

The most advanced type of recycling is composting. Well-aged compost replenishes the soil with nutrients in a form that plants can easily absorb. However, applying compost alone as a fertilizer to a garden is insufficient since the composition of nutrients in compost varies depending on the initial materials. particularly in vegetable gardens, where crops constantly deplete the soil. It’s also necessary to apply nutrients specifically in the form of fertilizer.

Compost also serves as a beneficial soil supplement to enhance soil health. The tight texture of heavy clay soils is loosened by organic matter, such as mature compost, which facilitates plant growth. On the opposite end of the scale, sandy soils are also improved by it because organic matter retains water and nutrients better than other soil materials, preventing the sandy soil from washing away as rapidly.

What Does Mulch Mean?

Any substance used to cover the soil’s surface might be considered mulch. Although organic material makes up all compost, mulch is not always organic. The most often used types of mulch are hardwood, softwood, and wood chips or shavings, which are available in garden centers in bags or bulk. Pine needles, pine cones, hay, straw, rice, buckwheat hulls, cocoa, other agricultural wastes, tree leaves, and grass clippings are other mulches.

Rubber, plastic sheeting, and geotextiles like newspaper, cardboard, and landscape fabric are examples of synthetic, man-made mulches. While plastic degrades over time into tiny bits that eventually contaminate the environment as microplastics, only the final two disintegrate.

The third category of mulches consists of naturally occurring, non-biodegradable materials such as broken seashells, gravel, pebbles, stone chips, and slate.

Applications of Mulch

Mulch is used to landscapes and garden beds to help with three things: weed control, moisture retention, and aesthetic enhancement. Mulch slows down the rate of soil evaporation by assisting in moisture retention. The sort of mulch you use will determine how efficient it is at keeping weeds away; the denser and thicker the mulch, the harder it is for weeds to grow through it. Finally, although this is a matter of taste, a flower bed covered with mulch appears more orderly and tidy than one that is bare dirt.

Can Mulch and Compost Be Used in Place of Each Other?

As mulch and compost serve different purposes (soil covering vs. soil fertilization and amendment), it is generally not a good idea to use them simultaneously.

There is a catch: organic mulches eventually enhance the soil with nutrients and organic matter as they decompose. The decomposition process of bark mulch and other woody materials is drawn out. On the other hand, fresh plant matter such as grass clippings breaks down more quickly. However, for the soil’s microbes to effectively break down these materials, they require nitrogen. They take it from any surrounding plants during that period. Chlorosis may result from this stress on the plants. This is also the reason it is not advisable to add compost to the soil until it has completely broken down.

It can also be troublesome to use other organic materials that haven’t completely decomposed as mulch. For instance, if a thick layer of entire leaves is piled up without first being chopped, air and water cannot get to the soil. A build-up of moisture can result in fungal infections and cause neighboring plants’ roots to decay.

When to Use Mulch vs. Compost

Depending on your objective, mulch or compost should be chosen. Mature compost should be worked into the top few inches of your garden soil if your main goal is to enrich the soil with nutrients and enhance its texture. Apply mulch, ideally one that breaks down gradually so you may also improve your soil, if your main goal is to reduce weed growth and water usage.

Ideally, you mulch your garden beds and recycle as much of your cooking leftovers and yard debris as possible.