Last Updated on
If you are a gardening enthusiast then you'll already know about mulch and the role it plays in your garden.
Mulching is an ancient process which has improved gardens around the world. Mulch is any material that you spread around or over a plant to enrich and insulate the soil. Retaining moisture in the soil is one of the top benefits of mulch. And let's not forget about the ability of mulch to control weeds!
But, were you aware there are at least twelve different types of mulch?
Different types of mulch offer different benefits for your garden. We can separate mulch into two categories: organic and inorganic. Let’s take a look at your options and figure out which mulch is right for your garden.
Organic mulch can offer plenty of benefits to your garden:
- Reduces water loss because of evaporation
- Maintains even soil temperatures
- Slows down weed growth
- Helps prevent soil erosion
- Protects tender plants during winter
Another big plus you get from organic mulch is it decomposes over time. It returns nutrients to your garden soil and improves the soil structure. Good organic mulch provides inviting habitats for beneficial garden helpers. Earthworms, ground beetles, frogs and toads will feel at home and that's good for your garden.
Shredded hardwood bark is a popular and inexpensive mulch used in landscaping. It is a derivative of the lumber and paper industries and is a great way for these industries to recycle. The hardwood mulch is great when it comes to insulating roots and holding in water. They can help increase your soil’s fertility as they decompose. Be sure to keep the mulch on top of your garden soil and don't turn over the mulch. You can find out more about mulch and how it will improve soil quality here.
This mulch comes in a variety of sizes from larger nuggets to smaller shreds. Wood nuggets look great around trees, shrubs, and in perennial beds. It is a favorite among gardeners, me included.
Shredded bark comes in natural or dyed varieties. If organic gardening is your goal, be sure to check what type of dye is in your shredded bark. It's usually a natural vegetable-based dye, but the vibrant colors can be artificial. I’m always a little cautious when manufacturers introduce additives to natural products.
2) Municipal Tree Waste
Often mulch is available to homeowners at no cost from their city or municipality. Usually, it consists of larger chunks of wood. This mulch looks wonderful when used as material to create paths through your garden. This sort of mulch is not aged and the fresh mulch will consume more nitrogen in the soil as it decomposes. Get a detailed look at the importance of nitrogen here.
Once again, a word of caution as the key phrase here is waste. You will likely not get any sort of guarantee about the type of wood or absence of additives. But I’m not rejecting free mulch, especially for decorative gardening projects.
3) Coco Bean Hulls
Cocoa hull mulch begins with the roasting of cocoa beans. During roasting, the shell separates from the bean leaving the hull as a byproduct.
It is easy to see why the cocoa hull mulch is so popular. The mulch is organic, has a lovely sweet smell, and a rich inviting color. Roasting sterilizes the hulls so that they are free of weeds or microorganisms.
Many gardeners see cocoa bean hull mulch as a gift from the chocolate industry. The hulls are easy to handle and give a nice finished look to your garden.
Apply hulls no more than 1” deep and water lightly to keep them in place. As wonderful as it seems, cocoa bean hulls have a few drawbacks. You need to replace them yearly because they decompose quickly. The largest problem in mulching with cocoa hulls is the potential to harm or kill if pets you have pets. The chocolate byproducts may be lethal to animals if consumed. Learn more about cocoa mulch toxicity to pets here.
Once again, it is just my opinion, but better safe than sorry in regards to cocoa hull mulch and your pets.
4) Leaf Mulch
Gardeners sometimes avoid using leaves because they're not as attractive as commercial mulch. But what leaves lack in color they make up for in content.
Leaves contain around 80% of the tree's nutrients including carbon, potassium, and phosphorus. I’d prefer not to waste a fine resource like that. Leaves can help your soil by lightening heavy clay like soil and feeding earthworms.
Be sure to shred the leaves before using them in your garden. Whole leaves can pack together and make a fairly solid mat which rain cannot penetrate. If you don’t own a leaf shredder run them over with a lawnmower a few times. Do be aware that some types of leaves, like those of the eucalyptus tree, are not suitable for use as mulch.
Also, be on the lookout for leaves infected with some sort of blight like leaf spot, scab, or Anthracnose. You should dispose of these leaves instead of composting for mulch.
5) Grass Clippings
Using grass clippings is a great way to mulch your garden. Firstly, they decompose quickly. And you can also turn them under the soil at the end of the growing season to help add nutrients to the soil.
It is best to mulch with grass clippings in a thin layer; wait for each layer to dry before you add another layer. Wet, thick layers of grass clippings easily mold and have unpleasant smelling decay.
Mulching with grass clippings is extremely helpful for your vegetable garden. You should work green clippings into the soil, as they still contain plenty of nitrogen. Keep brown grass clippings for use on top of the soil. To prevent grasses from growing in garden beds do not apply grass clippings that have turned to seed.
Also, do not use grass clippings treated with chemical weed killers or pesticides. The soil can easily absorb the chemicals and become contaminated.
Gardeners sometimes overlook or misunderstand the idea of using shredded newspaper as mulch. Traditional black and white newsprint is an effective and inexpensive garden mulch. If lead-based ink concerns you don’t worry. Newspapers have not used lead in their ink for several decades. But, don’t use the slick or colorful pages, like those used in comics or advertising. Ink containing heavy metals will contaminate soil and harm plants.
Also using your old newspapers as garden mulch is a great way to recycle. Shredded newspapers are obtainable in some parts of the country. Check with your local recycling center to see what is available in your area. I find that newspaper mulch is helpful during cold weather keeping your plants safe and warm. And it's terrific for keeping weeds at bay.
Some gardeners feel shredded newspapers are unattractive as mulch. One ideas is to mix a layer of newspaper mulch with another variety of natural mulch on top of the newspaper.
7) Straw Mulch
Gardeners and farmers have used straw as mulch for decades.
Notice that I said STRAW and not HAY. I know some of you dear readers are asking yourselves, “what’s the difference?” while others are thinking, “how can anyone mistake the two?” For anyone looking for an in-depth explanation, this link will help.
Straw has many qualities that make it a great choice for your garden. It is convenient, holds moisture well, adds nitrogen to your soil, and it controls weeds. And you can till straw right into your soil when you begin to prepare the garden next year. Many people love the natural, down-home look that straw brings to gardens. Its light color is not only a nice break from the usual dark or red mulches. Also, straw reflects sunlight away from plants and helps to regulate soil temperature.
Vegetable gardens thrive under straw mulch. This video will tell you more about using straw mulch in your vegetable garden.
Straw mulch has some drawbacks not found in other mulch. The straw that comes from meadows tends to have seeds from various weeds mixed in with it. You can avoid this problem by purchasing straw from the production of cereal grains. A problem with using straw mulch is that it makes an inviting home for all sorts of critters. If you live where rodents, moles, and rabbits are a problem, I would suggest that you avoid using straw mulch. Especially if you are protecting perennials.
Decomposed compost is an ecological way to mulch your garden. Composting is an ancient practice, which is both cheap and green.
Organic gardeners especially like to make their own compost. and use it as mulch and to improve their soil. This link can help you learn to make your own compost.
Compost mulch has benefits of regular mulch as well as extra nutrients for your soil. Compost mulch is also free if you make it yourself. This is easy to do because compost is basically yard and kitchen waste allowed to rot.
However, as my father always said, nothing can compare to animal compost aka manure! Using manure as mulch does wonders for soil quality especially if you add it to new garden beds. The key to using manure is to be sure that it composted for four to six months. Ideally, the manure will have spent a week or more at temperatures between 130 to 140 Fahrenheit. This will eliminate organisms bearing harmful diseases. Avoid using fresh manure in your garden beds. For starters it will smell bad and because it can burn tender plant roots.
Inorganic mulch is simply a type of mulch that was never alive. Some popular kinds of inorganic mulch are man made and synthetic. Also there are natural inorganic mulches such as types of rock.
- Plastic sheeting
- Landscape fabric
- Bits or pellets of recycled rubber tires
- Rocks and pebbles
Inorganic mulches do not easily decompose and do not add to the quality of your soil. But they can look great and are effective weed barriers. They often cost more than organic mulch.
9) Pea Gravel
Pea gravel is a frequently overlooked mulch material. Its name comes from its size and shape, ranging in size from 1/8 inch to 3/8 inch. You can find pea gravel near bodies of water. The stones have a nice smooth surface created by natural weathering. Pea gravel comes in a range of natural colors like ecru, rust, gray, white, and translucent. Pea gravel looks wonderful around containers, trees, or garden beds.
Like its organic counterparts, pea gravel stifles weed growth and holds moisture. Unlike organic mulches, it does not decompose. This makes it an ideal choice for landscaping as well as mulching.
Paths, patios, driveways, and playgrounds are just a few areas that are perfect for pea gravel. Pea gravel is versatile and you make stunning landscape features with it.
This video contains some impressive ideas for using gravel in your yard:
Cost. Pea gravel costs between $35.00 per cubic yard to $50.00 and up per cubic yard. Usually, the color of the pea gravel dictates the price. Pea gravel’s biggest drawback is its inclination to travel. When installing pea gravel, make sure to edge the area well so you do not find it in your yard.
Be sure not to confuse pea gravel with ordinary gravel. Ordinary gravel differs from pea gravel in a few ways. A machine that crushes the stone creates gravel. Gravel is ideal for driveways as well as paths and patios. It does provide good drainage, but because it absorbs the sun’s heat, it is a good idea to keep it away from plants.
10) Pumice rock
Pumice is a unique rock that forms during volcanic eruptions. It's attractive and makes a great addition to you garden.
Pumice is light and has characteristics that make it useful as mulch and in other areas of your garden. In all honesty, pumice is my favorite type of garden mulch because it has so many valuable traits.
Since it is light and porous, pumice gives great aeration to the soil and retains moisture well. Pumice allows your roots the space they need and it won’t break down, compress, or decay. This means it cannot provide a host to fungi, molds, or insects. Additionally, pumice can hold moisture; no other type of stone mulch can make that claim.
Pumice is useful and attractive mulch for flowerbeds and other perennial garden beds. Take a look at this video for more ideas of how to use pumice in your yard.
When it comes to versatility and beauty, pumice mulch is number one in my book.
11) Landscape fabric
Landscape fabric is a method to block weed growth. It comes in sheets that create a barrier between weeds and the upper layers of your garden soil. It is also a controversial type of inorganic mulching material. There are two distinct opinions about it. Gardeners either love it, or they hate it.
To be fair, it does have its place in the world of gardening when installed correctly. Landscape fabric does keep weeds from flourishing in your garden beds. And it does allow air and water to pass through.
Landscape fabric is best used along with organic mulches. And it decomposes faster than most other inorganic mulches.
Critics of landscape fabric explain that it drives away earthworms. They complain it's difficult to get water through and does not allow for easy transfer of plants. You will hear grumblings that it's expensive, and time consuming. And purists will argue that ultimately it does not do your garden any long-term favors.
This article has more in depth information about the drawbacks of landscape fabric.
12) Rubber shreds or pellets
Rubber mulch made from recycled or ground tires. It is a bit pricey, but it lasts for years. Rubber mulch is another controversial type of inorganic mulch. It has even stronger opposition to it than to landscape fabric.
First the positive. It does not soak in any rainwater, this allows water to reach plant roots unobstructed. Rubber mulch also does not feed nuisance insects like termites or carpenter ants. Unfortunately, it also deters beneficial insects.
One of the alarming criticisms of rubber mulch is possible toxicity. Also there a risk of flammability.
Rubber mulch is extremely slow to break down. Rubber mulch can actually remain in the soil indefinitely. The heavy metals and other chemicals found in rubber can potentially harm the soil. Not only that, this contamination is able to kill algae, plankton, snails, and fish.
Rubber mulch is quite flammable. It ignites faster, burns hotter, and is harder to extinguish than organic mulch.
Landscape professionals feel rubber mulch is hazardous and generally don't recommend it. This is true especially in areas where wildfires are common. I have to agree with this analysis; I do not see any benefits, which outweigh the drawbacks of rubber mulch.
Mulch Ado About Mulch
There is much more to mulch than meets the eye, the right mulch in the proper setting is a useful and beautiful thing.
I hope you have enjoyed our look at mulch as much as I have enjoyed it.
When gardening is your passion, it's rewarding to discover new things and share them. We only have one planet and I love doing my part to keep it beautiful and healthy. If you have any tips, tricks, or opinions that you would like to share, please feel free to comment; I’d love to hear from you. Until next time, I wish you healthy and happy gardening!