How to Choose the Best Type of Mulch for Your Landscape

With so many kinds available, it can be confusing when you're trying to figure out which mulching material to use. Here's what you need to know to pick the right mulch for your garden.

While mulching may seem like a simple part of gardening, there are a few must-knows about the different mulches you can use and the benefits of each. Though shredded bark might immediately come to mind, there are several other types of mulch that you may want to consider using in your garden. Knowing when to add mulch to your planting beds and how much to use is essential for keeping all your plants healthy. Keep these tips in mind as you're planting your spring garden and throughout the entire year, especially if you decide to add new beds or landscaping.

gloved hands planting cranesbill with surrounding mulch
Marty Baldwin

Benefits of Mulch

There are some advantages to adding mulch to your garden. In the summer, mulch helps the soil hold moisture, so you don't have to water as often. Soil also tends to dry out faster and harden in the hot sun. Mulch will help protect the ground from baking in direct sunlight and keep your plants happy.

Mulch also prevents weeds. Adding it to your planting bed will block light from reaching the soil, keeping many kinds of weed seeds from sprouting. By adding a thick layer of mulch, you'll ensure that the weeds never see the light of day!

Test Garden Tip: While an even layer of mulch is ideal, don't overdo it. The best depth for a mulch layer is 2-4 inches. Any deeper, and it can be difficult for oxygen to reach the soil, which can cause your plants to suffer.

Over time, some types of mulch, made from organic materials (those produced by or part of a living thing), break down and increase your soil's structure and fertility. This is especially true with compost used as a mulch because its nutrients will promote soil organisms and fuel plant growth. Plus, a layer of mulch can help fight climate change because covered soil holds onto carbon instead of releasing this greenhouse gas into the air.

When to Add Mulch

Every spring, check on the mulched areas of your garden and add more if the layer is starting to get thin. If you're mulching a large area of your yard for the first time and not just touching up a few garden beds, you might want to schedule a delivery from a bulk supplier. It'll be less expensive than buying a ton of bagged mulch from your local garden center, and you won't have to haul all of those bags in your vehicle to your yard either.

Check on your mulch again when late fall rolls around, and reapply if needed. In the winter, a good layer of mulch acts as insulation, helping to regulate the soil temperature. This reduces stress on plant roots and prevents frost heaving (where smaller plants are pushed out of the ground) as it repeatedly freezes and thaws. Make sure the ground has frozen a few times before adding mulch as a protective layer for the winter.

Types of Garden Mulch

Depending on your landscape design and what you're planting, these choices can make a good mulch.

01 of 05

Shredded Bark

shredded bark on stone for mulch
Marty Baldwin

Shredded bark is one of the most common and least expensive types of mulch. It comes from a variety of sources, including cedar trees. Shredded bark is one of the best mulch types to use on slopes, and it breaks down relatively slowly. As a bonus, some shredded bark mulches are byproducts of other industries and are considered environmentally friendly. Check the mulch packaging for more information.

Test Garden Tip: Shredded bark can take up some nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes. If you have poor soil, adding some organic fertilizer to the soil can help keep your plants healthy.

02 of 05

Straw

straw on stone for mulch
Marty Baldwin

Straw mulch has a beautiful golden color that looks great in the garden. It's also a bit slower to break down than leaves or grass clippings. Some gardeners like smaller, shredded straw pieces, while others prefer larger ones. Straw is classically used in more utilitarian gardens, such as vegetable gardens and around strawberry plants. Straw does a great job of keeping mud off of your edibles.

Test Garden Tip: Make sure the straw is free of weed seeds. Otherwise, it can cause more weeds than it prevents. (Oat straw is often particularly weedy.)

03 of 05

Compost

compost on tile for mulch
Marty Baldwin

Compost looks like soil, except it's darker, so it sets off plants nicely. This mulch material breaks down quickly but adds to your soil structure the most rapidly. Plus, it's inexpensive; you can create your own rich compost for free, even from grass clippings and leaves. Many municipalities give away compost as well.

04 of 05

Pine or Cedar Bark Chips

cedar pine woodchips on tile for mulch
Marty Baldwin

Often labeled as bark nuggets, these chipped pieces of bark are slower to break down than shredded bark, but they don't stay in place as well. As a result, they're not the best type of mulch for slopes or other areas where heavy rain may wash them away; the chips tend to float and take off like boats. The nuggets are available in various sizes; the bigger the nugget, the longer it lasts.

05 of 05

Stones and River Rock

river rock and stones on tile for mulch
Marty Baldwin

Rocks tend to be more expensive than organic mulches. But because they're inorganic materials, river rock, stones, and landscaping pebbles don't break down, so they don't need to be reapplied every year. However, it also means they don't improve your soil over time. Take caution when using stone as a mulch because stones tend to get really hot in the sun. Stones are often used in cactus and rock gardens. If you decide to use rocks and stones as a mulch in an area where plants won't be growing, such as under a deck, cover the soil first with sheer landscaping fabric. This will help prevent weeds from growing up through the rock.

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