Mulch is a 2- to 4-inch layer of material that overlays the top of your garden soil. It is typically used in the spring. Mulch is frequently added as needed throughout the planting season. It should thoroughly cover loose soil but never come into contact with plant stems or tree trunks.

Mulch is a layer of organic or inorganic material laid on top of the soil in a garden or across your landscape to protect it. It’s used to preserve moisture in the soil, keep weeds at bay, and make the garden bed more visually pleasing.

This article will discuss the many types of mulch, where and when to use them, and compare organic and synthetic options.

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20 benefits of using mulch in your garden

Why do you need mulch in the first place? These are just a few of the benefits of using the “marvelous wonder of mulch” in your garden.

  1. Increases the amount of organic matter in your soil. This improves the health of your garden and makes it more resistant to pests and diseases. (This reduces the cost of pest management.)
  2. Provides valuable slow-release nutrients and protects plants from vitamin loss. (This saves money on fertilizer.)
  3. Aids in the retention of moisture in the soil for a longer period. Mulch protects the soil from evaporation by sheltering it from the sun. It also lowers water run-off during rain and irrigation. This cuts down on the amount of water required. (This saves money.)
  4. Protects sensitive seedlings from direct sunlight. (A miniature umbrella.)
  5. Saves time on watering. (This saves both time and money.)
  6. It is a great insulator because it regulates soil temperature. Keeps roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter. (This reduces plant stress.)
  7. Acts as a natural barrier to prevent weeds from sprouting and competing for resources with plants. How? By obstructing sunlight. It will be easier to get rid of the few weeds that do grow. (This saves you time.)
  8. Boosts biological activity in your soil. How? By providing food for beneficial microorganisms and earthworms.
  9. Enhances soil conditions. It aids in the binding of sandy soils and the opening of clay soils.
  10. It saves you time and energy when it comes to cultivating the soil.
  11. Prevents nutrient leakage from the soil.
  12. Acts as a ‘blanket’ to shield plants from frost damage.
  13. Creates a clean surface for products such as fruit and nuts to fall and be harvested.
  14. As it decomposes, it improves soil drainage and structure.
  15. Offers support around plants, particularly young seedlings.
  16. Waste materials are recycled. Organic mulches, such as grass clippings and leaves, are one example.
  17. Keeps plants safe from mud splashes during watering or rain.
  18. Prevents soil erosion and compaction caused by foot activity on pathways and play areas.
  19. Enhances the visual appeal of your garden.
  20. Can serve as a habitat for plant-friendly insects.

Avoid using too much mulch, as this can result in a layer that does not break down or allow for root growth. Water and nutrients may be unable to access the roots if the soil becomes too compacted. This is readily avoided by removing as much of the old mulch as possible and then putting a new layer each year. Keep your mulch roughly 3 inches deep and away from the trunks of trees and shrubs.

Disadvantages of mulching

Although mulch has numerous advantages, it can also be harmful to the garden in some cases:

  • Too much mulch (more than 3 inches deep) can bury and choke plants, preventing water and oxygen from reaching the roots. A 2 to 3-inch layer of mulch is sufficient.
  • If mulch is placed around the trunks of trees and shrubs, it can lead to rotting bark. Mulch should be kept 6 to 12 inches away from the base of woody plants. There will be no more “volcano” mulching around trees! Keeping mulch away from the trunk deters wood-boring insects, mouse nibbling, and rot.
  • Mulch around plant stems is ideal for slugs, snails, burrowing rodents, and other pests. To keep slugs and snails at bay, sprinkle diatomaceous earth or wood ashes around the base of your prized plants.
  • If not applied properly, mulch can roast your plants in the middle of summer. (For more information, see the section below.)
  • Light-colored wood-based mulches such as sawdust or new wood chips can take nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. To counteract the effect, add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to the mulch, such as alfalfa meal, soybean meal, or cottonseed meal.

Types of mulch

Mulch comes in a few different varieties that are classified as synthetic or organic. Let’s go over each one:

Synthetic mulches

Synthetic mulch is a fantastic choice for individuals who don’t want to or can’t keep up with the maintenance required by organic mulch or like the aesthetic of synthetic material in their gardens. Although they preserve moisture in the soil, these mulches do not deliver nutrients to your beds.

  • Gravel or rocks
  • Tire shreds or black plastic
  • Landscape fabrics

Organic mulches

Organic mulches disintegrate over time and give additional nutrients to your plant beds. They are usually considerably easier to refill than synthetic mulches because they are biodegradable.

  • Hay
  • Homemade compost
  • Woodchips
  • Compost manure
  • Newspaper
  • Lawn clippings or fallen leaves

A look at synthetic mulches and their uses

In this section, we’ll go through each of the above-mentioned synthetic mulch choices in further depth.

Black plastic mulch

Seedling on a black plastic mulch cultivation

In the spring, black plastic mulch helps warm the soil, decreases water loss, and is convenient. In limited growing seasons, this can make a large difference. However, it is more difficult to water; it also degrades when exposed to sunshine. If the soil beneath the plastic is not shaded by leaves or covered with additional mulch in the heat of summer, it becomes quite hot.

Silver plastic mulch

Silver plastic mulch is good for warming soil in the spring, but it does not manage weeds; transparent plastic makes the soil even hotter in the summer, and plants can be injured if the plastic is not shaded.

Landscape fabric

Weeds are suffocated by landscape fabric, allowing air, fertilizer, and water to pass through and into the soil. They have been treated to resist decomposition and to aid in the retention of soil moisture. It is important to secure the cloth so that perennial weeds do not push it up.

Gravel

Mulch made of gravel or stones can be more visually pleasing than plastic or tire shreds. However, if you decide to redesign your garden bed, it may be more difficult to transfer. Not only are they natural-looking and beautiful to look at, but they’re also ideal for plants that prefer a little more warmth (such as Mediterranean gardens) or gardens that require a lot of drainages.

Keep in mind that if you use larger stones, some weeds may sneak between the cracks. This mulch alternative may necessitate minimal upkeep once every few weeks.

A Look at Organic Mulches and Their Uses

In this section, we’ll go through each of the above-mentioned synthetic mulch choices in further depth.

Composted Manure and Homemade Compost

Compost is a fantastic addition to gardening, whether it is prefabricated or prepared for oneself. You may use it as a top layer of mulch to cover and nurture your garden as it grows by pouring a thin layer of compost in the plant holes for added nutrients.

Homemade compost can be formed from leftover or unused vegetables, fruits, leaves, grass clippings, potato skins, and so on — but avoid adding meat in your compost because it attracts grubs and other unpleasant creatures.

Hay

closeup photo of hay bale

Hay is usually used as a mulch in vegetable and fruit gardens. It keeps plant-eating pests away, stops walkways from becoming muddy, and decomposes slowly (so you don’t have to refill it as frequently).

The EZ-Straw Seeding Mulch is our favorite hay mulch. It is finely ground, decomposes fully into the soil over time, and can be placed directly on top of seeds to help speed up germination, shield the seeds from birds, and keep them from blowing away if they sit atop the soil.

Woodchips

firewood lot

Woodchips are the most popular and visually appealing mulch option for flower gardens, under trees, and in areas along pathways. At your local garden center, you can buy beautiful mulch in various hues such as black, red, or natural wood tone.

Because woodchips decompose slowly, you will need to reapply the mulch the next growing season. Because you’ll have to dig and work around them every year, they’re not suitable for vegetable or annual flower gardens.

Leaves and lawn clippings

close photo of green grass

Lawn clippings and leaves are a great source of mulch that is both healthy and readily available. Though you should leave some grass clippings on your lawn to fertilize it, gathering any grass that has made its way onto sidewalks or the road will be quite beneficial to your garden beds.

For added nutrition, mix any fallen leaves in your yard with the lawn clippings. This mulch is ideal for edible plant areas and will provide nutrients as it degrades.

Newspaper

assorted newspapers on top of table

In recent years, the newspaper has become a major fad among gardeners. It’s inexpensive, the dyes are becoming more organic, and it works wonders for gardening! If you choose this mulching method, use 4-6 layers of newspaper, soak it, and set it on top of the soil.

For a more appealing appearance, place the newspaper behind a thin layer of gravel or woodchips, similar to how you would use plastic or cloth for your garden beds.

Cocoa shells

Cocoa shells

Another common option is cocoa shells. They have a wonderful color and a chocolatey aroma. Please keep your pets a safe distance away from them. Cocoa shells are the seed covers for cocoa beans, which are used to make chocolate. Chocolate is toxic to dogs and cats.

Pine needles

Pine needles

Pine needles that pile under your evergreens are a mulch that you may already have on hand. They’re great mulch for acid-loving plants like blueberries and azaleas. They lower the pH of the soil as they decompose, making it more acidic.

Comfrey

Comfrey

Comfrey, a perennial herb, has a long taproot that allows it to absorb nutrients and minerals that shallow-rooted plants cannot. Comfrey leaves can be used as mulch, slowly breaking down and enriching the soil.

Different colors of Mulch

Browns and reddish browns are natural colors of organic mulch, however the colors decrease as the mulch weathers. Mulch with extra color provides more design options as well as longer-lasting color. This mulch, which comes in brown, black, and red, can be used to create eye-catching mixes in your garden. Consider your plants’ leaves and blossoms, as well as the color of your home. Here are some ideas for using mulch colors.

  • Brown mulch complements a wide range of plant colors and makes an excellent backdrop for green foliage. It fits into the surroundings and has a natural appearance. Depending on the hue of brown, it can even resemble soil.
  • Black mulch can also be used to mimic the natural appearance of some types of soil. It presents a striking contrast with white flowers and might complement a contemporary or modern-styled home. Black mulch absorbs more heat than other colors, which may be a benefit or drawback depending on your climate and plants.
  • Red mulch adds an eye-catching, unexpected element to your garden. It contrasts with the green of your grass or the leaves of your bedding plants, shrubs, and trees. It’s also effective against lighter-colored plants.

In addition to prepackaged mulch in brown, black, and red, DIY mulch dyes can be used to create custom mulch colors.

While varied hues of mulch can add beauty to your landscaping, the color can transfer to your hands, clothes, or surfaces such as concrete or decking when the mulch is new and moist. Wear gloves when spreading mulch and do not store or stack it on sidewalks, driveways, or decks.

Keep in mind that color selections aren’t limited to organic mulch. Colors of inorganic mulch include red brick nuggets and lava rock, white marble and brown, dark red, and even green rubber mulch.

Mulching’s Influence on soil pH

The pH of your soil has a significant impact on plant health. Given that landscape mulch has the potential to alter soil pH, it’s logical that people are concerned about how mulch affects soil pH.

Spreading fresh pine needles and oak leaves, for example, may result in more acidic soil. While oak leaves are acidic when new, specialists like David J. Williams of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign claim that when the leaves degrade, “the overall outcome is an alkaline reaction.” Furthermore, it is often assumed that decomposing pine needles reduce soil pH to a minor extent, if at all. And any acidification potential occurs only for uncomposted pine needles, as the act of composting neutralizes them.

Some people assume that landscape mulch has little or no effect on soil pH. However, if you want to be on the safe side, assess your soil’s pH levels and avoid applying the same mulch type year after year.

How to mulch properly

When it comes to using mulch to fight weeds, there are two golden guidelines to follow. First, apply the mulch to weeded soil, and then apply a thick enough layer to stop new weeds from growing through it.

A four-inch layer of mulch will keep weeds at bay, though a two-inch covering is usually sufficient in shady areas. If you know a garden bed is overrun with perennial roots or weed seeds, use a double-mulching strategy to prevent weeds from sprouting. Set the plants in place, water them thoroughly, cover with newspaper, and finish with mulch.

Mulches that hold moisture (such as wood chips) can help to reduce soil warming and avoid fire. Pull mulch away from perennials and bulbs in the spring to promote faster development. Wet mulch stacked against flower and vegetable stems can cause plants to decay; keep mulch one inch away from stems and crowns.

Mulch piled up against the wooden stems of shrubs and trees can promote decay and attract rodents (such as mice and voles) to nest there. Deep mulch should be kept six to twelve inches away from the trunks.

How to apply mulch

Mulching in autumn

Except for bare, unplanted garden areas to prevent erosion, we don’t apply mulch in the fall. If you did not plant a winter cover crop (which you would till under in the spring), you should cover the barren soil with a thick layer of soil-conditioning compost or well-rotted organic matter. Shredded leaves could also be used. It should be at least four inches deep.

Otherwise, avoid applying mulch to your landscape in the fall. Plants may continue to grow if the soil does not cool rapidly. New growth will not harden and may be harmed by the winter cold. In addition, mulching in the fall keeps the soil moist, promoting root rot and plant mortality.

Mulching in winter

Spread winter mulch around the base of any delicate perennial or young plants once you’ve experienced several freezes (usually around Thanksgiving or after). Mulch generously around grafted plants, such as hybrid tea roses.

Winter mulch might be shredded mulch, straw, pine needles, or shredded leaves. 3 to 4 inches is sufficient. It is important to apply enough mulch in winter to completely cover the frozen ground, ensuring that the plant remains dormant until spring, regardless of the warm or cold periods.

Wrap burlap around the branches and buds of evergreen or semi-evergreen shrubs like viburnums and rhododendrons for insulation, or protect them with a tree guard filled with shredded leaves.

Mulching in spring

The optimal time to put mulch is in the middle to late April.

Remove winter mulch in the spring after all threat of a heavy frost has passed so that the earth can thaw and new growth is not stifled.

Consider using porous landscape fabric on several beds if there are many weeds on the ground where you wish to grow.

Alternatively, before adding any organic stuff, lay down a layer of cardboard. Wet the cardboard thoroughly to aid in its decomposition. The cardboard will act as an additional barrier to weeds, tiring and finally killing most of them. Once the growing season begins, any weeds that make it through will be much easier to eliminate.

We place soaker hoses in each bed when the soil has warmed up from a few spring raindrops.

The hoses are then covered with cloth to hasten the shift in soil temperatures and warm the soil in preparation for earlier planting.

Planting holes are cut at various spacings for various crops. Watering is more efficient, and maintaining a big area is simplified.

When the plants grow in size, the cloth is covered and does not look ugly! We also use organic mulch such as wood chips, straw, grass clippings, leaf mold, and shredded leaves for crops that prefer milder temperatures.

Mulch with organic stuff regularly. Replace old mulch as it rots or becomes integrated into the soil to keep it fed and gradually built up.

Where should mulch be applied?

Mulches and mulching

Mulching hellebores with bark mulch

Mulching around spring bulbs as the foliage dies back will nourish them while also locking in moisture when needed. Mulching also reduces the need for digging, which can easily result in bulb damage.

Under hedges

Aside from regular trimming, hedges are frequently overlooked. Their roots are densely packed and benefit from an annual mulch to keep moisture and feed the plants. Before mulching, make sure the soil is damp or properly watered.

The dark organic mulch around herbaceous perennials — dark organic mulch aesthetically separates herbaceous perennials. If you’ve just divided and watered them, mulching around the new plants will help them get started in the growing season.

Bushes and fruit trees

Bushes and fruit trees require a lot of moisture around their roots, particularly when the fruit is developing. Weeds will be suppressed, and the plants will be healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases if they are mulched regularly.

How much mulch is needed?

A layer of 2 to 3 inches is sufficient for most organic mulches. The thinner the layer required, the finer the material.

Inorganic mulch is frequently shallower. A mulch of small stones, for example, usually only has to be one inch deep.

If You Want Mulch This Deep……You Will Need This Much Mulch to Cover 100 Square Feet
2 inches18 cubic feet
3 inches27 cubic feet

Dry mulches can catch fire, such as sawdust, peat moss, woodchips, and dry straw. To be on the safe side, keep them away from buildings.

Don’t use bad mulch

The biggest hazard, according to Day, is purchasing your mulch from an untrustworthy supplier. Mulch, for example, may be contaminated with toxic weed seeds if it was stored near a weed field. “You might have to pay for that for a long time,” she continues.

Other uses for mulch

Mulch can be used for more than just adorning and protecting your plants and trees. Mulch can be used to make paths. You may add a dramatic, useful touch to your landscape by creating a pebble path or filling in around stepping stones with wood mulch. Mulched areas can be used to create borders around sidewalks, driveways, patios, and pools, separating them from the rest of your landscape.

If you want to reduce the size of your lawn, stone and rubber mulch can be used to replace parts of grass while also boosting the variety of your landscape. More ideas can be found at Lawn Alternatives.

Some varieties of mulch are ideal for use as loose-fill material beneath swing sets and playsets.

Last thoughts

When it comes to finding the best mulch, you have the option of using organic or synthetic materials. Both are great for retaining moisture and nutrients in the soil, but natural mulches are considerably healthier for the earth and your gardens, in our opinion.

We recommend ornamental mulch if you’re seeking a visually appealing option. We recommend hay or grass clippings for edible garden beds since they decompose and offer valuable nutrients to the soil. We recommend landscaping fabric with a thin layer of woodchips or gravel on top for mulch around trees and walkways.

Whatever mulch you choose, you can be confident that it will help maintain your garden lush and attractive!

Good luck with your gardening!