Since straw seems to be at a premium ($14 a bale at our local nursery) what are some alternatives? Can wood chips be used? Leaves?

With the wet spring we have been having, straw and hay are both at a premium, if you can find them. Before giving up on your favorite mulching materials, check with your local farmer and see if they have any old hay stashed away somewhere. In our younger days, we got all of our mulch from cleaning out barns for area farmers. Unused hay can be forgotten and can become unusable for animal feed but is still terrific for mulch. Nevertheless, you might still need to use substitutes for these two standard mulch products. Options for mulch include:

Newspaper. Layers of newspaper can be laid out in the garden rows and then topped with rocks, boards or a light layer of garden weeds to hold it in place. Wetting the newspaper before laying it down will help with the application. Shredded newspaper or other paper can be used in between the individual plants. Without some form of weight holding it down, it can blow away rather easily.

Wood shavings or sawdust. Not to be confused with wood chips, wood shavings are the finer shavings from using a plane or some other equipment to shave off thin slices of wood. Sawdust is a much finer product, being essentially the dusty residue from the cutting process. I have used both. Sawdust tends to mat down and create a thick mat that can absorb light rain and keep it from reaching the plant roots. Shavings are much coarser and maintain significant air pockets, allowing for better water flow and aeration. There is much dispute that both sawdust and shavings will deplete the nitrogen in the soil. On page 2 of this document, Dr. Linda Chalker-Smith disputes this claim although she does caution against using wood chips in annual beds or in vegetable beds. Her caution is based on a hypothesis, not a proven research result. That said, I have successfully used a mulch of sawdust/shavings that had previously been used as animal bedding in a horse barn. The addition of the animal byproducts could have helped with that success.

Wood chips. Wood chips are the coarser chips produced by arborists when cutting or trimming trees. These can be quite effective for mulch around established landscape plantings. Refer to the above-mentioned document for myths concerning the use of wood chips.

Cocoa bean hulls. Cocoa bean hulls can make a lovely mulch around your flower beds. However, be warned that they can also get moldy rather fast in wet weather. And more importantly, should your dog eat a lot of them, he could get sick.

Animal bedding. Be it sawdust, straw, shavings or hay, animal bedding makes terrific mulch after it has been allowed to age for a while. Chicken manure is particularly hot and spreading a mix of shavings and fresh chicken manure can burn the plants.

Leaves. Readily available in the fall and free for the taking, leaves make a spectacular mulch provided they are shredded into smaller pieces. Left on their own, larger leaves can mat together and create an impenetrable barrier. This blocks the weeds but can also prevent moisture from reaching your plant roots.

The problem with most of the finer-textured mulches is that they can provide a perfect seedbed for airborne weed seeds. A mulch of damp shredded leaves or sawdust, or even chopped hay can result in a lovely batch of weed seed sprouts so be aware of that and watch carefully.

Beverly Carney can be reached at