Leaf Mulch vs Wood Mulch: Which is Best for Your Garden?

Leaf mulch versus wood mulch? Is there a clear winner? Mulching is an essential practice for gardeners, providing numerous benefits to plants and soil. In this article, we will delve into the characteristics and advantages of leaf mulch and wood mulch, and their unique properties, helping you make an informed decision about which type of mulch suits your gardening needs. So, let’s dive in and discover the distinct qualities that leaf mulch and wood mulch bring to the table.

Rotted wood chips as mulch in an organic vegetable garden with fallen, red leaves on top.

What Is Wood Mulch?

Wood mulch or wood chips is a type of mulch that is made from chipped or shredded wood materials. It can be derived from various sources such as tree branches, bark, or other wood waste.

For most gardeners, this is the free or cheap stuff that arborists deliver in huge trucks.

There is also something called ramial chipped wood.

Ramial chipped wood refers to the practice of chipping young, still-living tree branches and twigs, including the bark and leaves. This type of wood material is rich in nutrients and contains a higher ratio of bark to wood compared to mature branches.

Benefits of Wood Mulch

  • Moisture Conservation: Wood mulch acts as a natural barrier, reducing evaporation from the soil and helping to retain moisture. This can significantly reduce the need for frequent watering, especially in hot and dry climates.
  • Weed Suppression: Wood mulch forms a dense layer that inhibits weed growth by blocking sunlight and preventing weed seeds from germinating. This reduces competition for nutrients and water, allowing your plants to thrive.
  • Soil Temperature Regulation: Wood mulch helps regulate soil temperatures by insulating the soil from extreme heat or cold. It keeps the soil cooler during hot summer days and warmer during cold winter nights, providing a more stable and favorable environment for plant roots.
  • Nutrient Enrichment: As wood mulch breaks down, it gradually releases essential nutrients into the soil, enriching it and providing a sustainable source of nourishment for your plants. This helps improve soil fertility and promotes healthy growth.
  • Erosion Control: Wood mulch helps prevent soil erosion by reducing the impact of heavy rain or irrigation. It acts as a protective layer, preventing the soil from being washed away and helping to maintain its structure.

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A big green bag full of dead, fallen leaves to be shredded for mulch.

What Is Leaf Mulch?

Leaf mulch is decomposed or shredded leaves that is applied to the soil surface as a protective and nourishing covering. It is created by allowing fallen leaves to break down naturally over time or by shredding them into smaller pieces.

Decomposed leaves are referred to as leaf mold specifically whereas leaf mulch can either be decomposed or not and is a catch-all term.

See my article on how to shred leaves for mulch, compost, or leaf mold for more information.

Benefits of Leaf Mulch

While leaf mulch shares some similarities with wood mulch, there are a few distinct differences in their benefits:

  • Nutrient Content: Leaf mulch tends to have a higher nutrient content compared to wood mulch. As leaves break down, they release valuable organic matter and nutrients into the soil, enhancing its fertility and providing a rich source of nourishment for plants.
  • Organic Matter Addition: Leaf mulch contributes a significant amount of organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. This organic matter improves soil structure, moisture retention, and nutrient-holding capacity, creating a more favorable environment for plant growth. Leaf mold is also a sustainable and better alternative to peat moss!
  • Soil Amendment: Due to its higher nutrient content and organic matter, leaf mulch acts as a natural soil amendment, enriching the soil and enhancing its overall health. It supports beneficial microbial activity and promotes a thriving ecosystem within the soil.
  • Weed Suppression: Similar to wood mulch, leaf mulch forms a protective layer that suppresses weed growth by smothering weed seeds and blocking sunlight. This reduces the competition for resources and minimizes the need for manual weeding.
  • Moisture Retention: Both wood mulch and leaf mulch contribute to moisture retention by reducing evaporation and improving water infiltration into the soil. However, leaf mulch, with its finer texture, may have a slightly higher water-holding capacity.

While wood chips offer benefits such as moisture conservation, weed suppression, and temperature regulation, leaf mulch provides additional advantages in terms of nutrient content, organic matter addition, soil amendment, and weed control.

Both types of mulch can be valuable additions to your garden, and the choice between them may depend on specific garden needs and available resources.

Leaf mulch is certainly lighter too, so if you’re deciding on whether to use wood chips or leaf mulch in an annual vegetable garden, it’s easier to move aside leaves to add compost and plant seeds and started plants.

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Benefits of Wood Mulch Over Leaf Mulch

The advantages of wood mulch over leaf mulch include:

  1. Longevity: Wood mulch tends to break down more slowly than leaf mulch, providing longer-lasting benefits in terms of weed suppression and moisture retention. This means you won’t need to replenish it as frequently.
  2. Weed Control: Wood mulch forms a denser layer, making it more effective at suppressing weed growth compared to leaf mulch. Its thicker and coarser texture creates a barrier that inhibits weed germination and limits their access to sunlight.
  3. Erosion Control: Due to its thicker composition, wood mulch is better at preventing soil erosion caused by wind or heavy rain. It helps stabilize the soil, keeping it in place and reducing the risk of nutrient loss.
  4. Pollinator habitat: the leaves that fall on your lands become host to many eggs which — if allowed to — will over-winter and be born in the spring. When we collect the leaves and shred them, we are destroying million and billions of native insects and beneficial pollinators. Beyond pollination activities, those insects feed songbirds and their young in the spring.
  5. Pest Resistance: Wood mulch, especially when made from certain tree species like cedar or cypress, can have natural pest-repellent properties. The strong aroma and chemical compounds in these types of wood may help deter pests and insects from your garden.
  6. Aesthetic Appeal: Wood mulch can enhance the visual appeal of your garden with its natural, earthy tones. It provides a clean and uniform appearance that complements various landscape styles.

It’s important to note that the choice between wood mulch and leaf mulch depends on specific gardening needs, availability, and personal preferences.

Both types of mulch have their advantages, and a combination of both can be beneficial for your garden, depending on the circumstances.

Combining The Two For Permaculture

A combination of wood mulch and leaf mulch can be highly beneficial for fruit trees and permaculture projects. Here’s why:

  1. Nutrient Diversity: Wood mulch, particularly ramial chipped wood, contributes carbon-rich materials to the soil, promoting fungal activity and enhancing long-term soil fertility. Leaf mulch, on the other hand, adds a variety of nutrients as it decomposes, including nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. Combining both mulches ensures a more balanced nutrient profile for the trees and plants.
  2. Moisture Retention: Wood mulch acts as a protective layer, reducing evaporation and maintaining soil moisture levels around the trees. Leaf mulch further enhances moisture retention by forming a dense mat that helps to prevent water loss through evaporation. This is especially important for fruit trees that require consistent moisture throughout the growing season.
  3. Weed Suppression: The combination of wood and leaf mulch creates a formidable barrier against weed growth. Wood mulch provides long-lasting weed control, while leaf mulch forms a dense layer that inhibits weed germination and establishment. Together, they significantly reduce weed competition, allowing fruit trees and permaculture plants to thrive without unnecessary competition for nutrients and water.
  4. Soil Improvement: Both wood and leaf mulch contribute to soil improvement over time. Wood mulch gradually breaks down, adding organic matter and improving soil structure. Leaf mulch enriches the soil with essential nutrients as it decomposes. Together, they enhance soil fertility, microbial activity, and overall soil health, creating a more favorable environment for fruit trees and permaculture systems.
  5. Sustainable Resource Management: Utilizing a combination of wood and leaf mulch promotes sustainable resource management. Wood mulch can be sourced from tree trimmings or chipped branches, while leaf mulch is often readily available as autumn leaves or through composting practices. By using these organic materials as mulch, you can recycle and repurpose natural resources while creating a healthy growing environment.

Incorporating a blend of wood and leaf mulch around fruit trees and within permaculture projects harnesses the unique benefits of each material, resulting in improved soil fertility, moisture retention, weed control, and long-term sustainability.

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Wood Chips Or Leaf Mulch In The Vegetable Garden?

Honestly, it’s up to you.

And if you’re surprised to hear bout wood chips being used in vegetable gardens, it’s nothing new.

The back To Eden gardening method, a variation of no-dig no-till gardening does just this very successfully.

The key in using wood chips is to add them on top of compost and soil that is richly amended with compost — up to 100% — but a minimum of 30% will suffice if a thin layer of compost is added on top of your beds each spring.

Wood chip mulch and leaf mulch offer distinct advantages for vegetable gardens.

Wood chip mulch provides excellent moisture retention by reducing evaporation and creating a protective barrier over the soil. It also helps suppress weeds effectively, thanks to its dense and long-lasting nature.

Additionally, wood chip mulch slowly breaks down, contributing organic matter to the soil and improving its structure over time.

On the other hand, leaf mulch brings a higher nutrient content to the garden. As leaves decompose, they release valuable nutrients into the soil, acting as a natural fertilizer for vegetable plants.

Leaf mulch also decomposes relatively quickly, allowing for faster nutrient release and soil improvement.

However, it will require more frequent reapplication compared to wood chip mulch.

And by the way, it is a myth that wood chips tie up nitrogen or steal it.

Only the top little bit of soil is affected in any “negative” way.

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Wood Chips Do Not Steal Nitrogen

While wood chips undergo a process called nitrogen immobilization during decomposition, it primarily occurs in the top few centimeters of the soil.

During this process, microorganisms utilize nitrogen from the soil to aid in breaking down the wood chips.

This nitrogen immobilization is a temporary phenomenon and typically lasts for a relatively short period.

As the wood chips continue to decompose, the nitrogen that was initially tied up is gradually released back into the soil.

The overall impact on nitrogen availability in the deeper soil layers is minimal, especially when considering the long-term benefits of wood chip mulch.

Read more about the benefits of wood chip mulch at that link to my article on the topic.

So feel free to use wood chips in your vegetable gardens as well as your perennial beds.

It may be annoying to move the wood aside to add more compost and plant, so keep that in mind.

Close up of a green metal raised bed. It is empty but underneath it is hardware cloth and it is sitting on top of a thick bed of wood chips. The hardware cloth juts out a few inches around the outside of the raised bed.

My Vegega metal raised bed on top of wood chips. This is from our garden build spring of 2023.

What We Do In Our Raised Beds

What do we do for mulch in our raised bed gardens?

Primarily chopped straw, grass clippings, and other organic matter.

We use wood chips in our perennial beds, fruit orchard, and flower beds.

I prefer the lightness and faster composting of those materials to wood chips and we do not have any shredded leaves although that will change this upcoming fall as I recognize how good they can be.

My raised metal beds: 9 in 1 Metal Raised Garden Bed Large From Vegega

Mulch To Mimic Nature

We mulch to mimic nature and nature abhors bare soil — with good reason.

Bare soil is exposed to the elements, making it susceptible to erosion, nutrient loss, moisture loss, and temperature extremes.

Nature’s instinct is to cover bare soil with some form of natural mulch, such as fallen leaves, grasses, or wood chips. This natural mulch acts as a protective layer, shielding the soil from the harsh impacts of sun, wind, and rain.

Why do you think your bare soil becomes colonized by weeds so easily?

By covering bare soil, natural mulch plays a crucial role in promoting soil health and fertility. It helps retain moisture by reducing evaporation and slows down water runoff, allowing it to penetrate the soil more effectively.

This moisture conservation is vital for the survival and growth of plants, as it ensures a consistent water supply.

Moreover, natural mulch acts as a buffer against extreme temperatures, keeping the soil cooler in hot weather and preventing frost heaving during freezing conditions. It also suppresses weed growth by blocking sunlight, thereby reducing competition for nutrients and resources.

Beyond these physical benefits, natural mulch fosters a thriving ecosystem within the soil. It provides a habitat for beneficial organisms like earthworms, insects, and microorganisms that contribute to soil fertility and nutrient cycling.

As the mulch gradually decomposes, it enriches the soil with organic matter, enhancing its structure and fertility.

Mimicking this principle in our gardens and landscapes by applying mulch not only emulates nature’s wisdom but also nurtures the health and productivity of our soils and plants.

For all the information you need on mulching in your garden, check out my guide Benefits Of Mulch In Your Garden {Ultimate Guide To Mulching} for all the best resources and knowledge.

Final Thoughts

In the debate of leaf mulch vs wood mulch, both options offer distinct advantages and considerations for your garden.

Leaf mulch, with its abundant availability and nutrient-rich composition, is an excellent choice for improving soil fertility, moisture retention, and weed suppression.

On the other hand, wood mulch provides long-lasting benefits, including effective weed control, moisture conservation, and temperature regulation.

Ultimately, the best mulch for your garden depends on your specific needs, preferences, and the characteristics of your plants and soil.

For a vegetable garden, wood chip mulch may actually be the superior choice if you have very little rainfall and no steady access to water.

Consider experimenting with a combination of leaf and wood mulch to harness the unique benefits of each and create a healthy, thriving garden environment.

By understanding the strengths of both mulch types and tailoring your choice to suit your garden’s requirements, you can maximize the benefits and create an optimal growing environment for your plants.

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