Which Mulch is Best for Your Yard?

Find out what type of mulch is best for your yard, plus, get tips on the best way to buy mulch.

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Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: Preen.com

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Photo By: ProvenWinners.com

Photo By: Julie Martens Forney

Shredded Hardwood Bark

Mulch adds a finishing touch to any planting bed, but that’s not all it does. A good mulch helps the soil to hold moisture — so you don’t have to water as often. Put mulch down thick enough, and it helps keep weeds from growing. Shredded hardwood bark is one of the most common mulch choices and works well for flower beds and around trees and shrubs. It usually lasts from one to three years and adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. Look for double or triple ground mulch (experienced gardeners prefer triple ground).

Buy Mulch In Bulk

The cheapest way to buy mulch is in bulk. This is the way to go when you have multiple planting beds to cover. A local mulch company can help calculate how much mulch you need or search online for easy mulch calculators (you’ll have to measure planting areas). Visit your local mulch supplier to see what kinds of mulch they offer. Dyed shredded wood mulches often contain ground wood pallets, not bark (which is better). Read the bag or ask your supplier what is in the mulch you’re buying.

Pine Straw

Pine straw is the mulch of choice in the South simply because it’s readily available and cheap — or even free. Choose pine straw for areas where you’re trying to deter slugs (they don’t seem to like crawling through it). It’s a natural pairing with azalea, camellia and rhododendron, which often grow in the high shade of tall pines. Expect pine straw to last one to two years.

Landscape Glass

Landscape glass is a type of recycled glass that’s bright and colorful. It’s a permanent mulch that doesn’t break down. Install glass mulch over high quality (commercial grade) landscape fabric so it doesn’t sink into the soil. The glass is tumbled to remove sharp edges, but it does pose a threat to soft-bodied critters like slugs. Glass mulch is popular in xeriscape garden designs.

Shredded Leaves

An outstanding mulch that’s free for the taking, shredded fall leaves provide a great alternative for informal planting beds, vegetable gardens and shade gardens. As leaves decompose, they add fantastic organic matter to soil. Slugs tend to like shredded leaves, so use caution applying them around slug favorites like hosta or leaf lettuce. Expect leaves to last from one to two growing seasons. Always shred leaves with a mower or leaf vac before using them as mulch.

Straw Mulch

Straw is a more utilitarian mulch typically used in vegetable gardens or strawberry patches. Straw is simply the stalks of grain plants. Ask your local straw supplier if their product is clean (doesn’t contain grain heads) and weed-free. Prevent weed seed issues by spreading three sheets of damp newspaper under straw. Some gardeners let straw bales sit a few weeks so weed or grain seeds germinate. This leads to moldy straw — plan to wear a dust mask if you have allergies. Expect to get one to two growing seasons out of straw, depending on how thickly you spread it.

Colored Plastic Mulch

Colored plastic mulches are the result of university research, which has shown that certain vegetables have higher yields when grown on colored plastic mulch. The increased yields are most pronounced with plants growing under less-than-ideal conditions, such as less than six hours of sun daily. Red is the color for tomatoes. Other colors include green or blue for melons, silver for peppers and blue for summer squash (like zucchini or patty pan) and cucumbers.

Landscape Fabric

Also called landscape fabric or weed cloth, this type of mulch is usually woven polypropylene fabric. It suppresses weeds while allowing water and air to pass. It’s often used under inorganic mulches, such as stone or landscape glass, but also under shredded hardwood bark to help extend its lifespan. Landscape fabric comes in different grades; the label should state how long it will last. This is a commercial grade fabric that’s woven and needle punched with a 20-year warranty. The colored lines are 12 inches apart, which helps with spacing plants, especially in vegetable gardens.

Lava Rock

Consider lava rock as a mulch in xeriscape gardens or around shrubs, succulents or other plantings that won’t change much over time. This type of rock is lightweight compared to traditional stone mulch, which makes it easier to haul and handle without professional help. Individual rock edges tend to be sharp. Stone mulch doesn’t ever break down or disappear — it’s a permanent addition to the landscape. Place it on a layer of landscape fabric to prevent rocks from sinking into the soil.

Decorative Stone

Turn to decorative stone mulch when you want to give plantings a formal ambiance. Stone comes in a variety of colors and shapes. River rock usually has smooth, rounded edges, while quartz is more jagged. Stone mulch doesn’t degrade over time and doesn’t usually need to be replaced if it’s seated on landscape fabric. You might need to refresh the top layer of stones at times if it fades or discolors.

Mushroom Compost

Apply most mulches, including this mushroom compost, in a layer that’s two to three inches thick. Mushroom compost is an organic matter that’s been used to grow a crop of mushrooms. It usually contains some kind of poultry litter, along with other organic materials. If it isn’t well composted, it can burn seedlings. One way to use mushroom compost effectively is to combine it with triple-ground shredded hardwood bark in equal parts.

Watering In Shredded Bark Mulch

After applying organic mulches, water thoroughly to help the mulch bind together. If possible, time your mulching before rain and let nature handle the watering. To help prevent weeds, consider adding a pre-emergent weed preventer like Preen on top of the mulch. This type of weed control prevents weed seeds from germinating.

Fresh Wood Chips

Wood chips offer a long-lasting mulch option, taking up to four years or more to completely break down. As the wood decomposes, it robs nitrogen from soil. If you use wood chip mulch, apply fertilizer to soil to keep plants nourished. Many gardeners tend to use wood chips for garden paths, although permaculture gardeners like a thick layer to help retain soil moisture. If you want to use wood chip mulch, do some research first to make sure you create the best growing conditions for your plantings.

Living Mulch

A living mulch is a type of low-growing ground cover that blankets soil like a mulch. In this garden, golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea’) is the living mulch. Other plants that work well as living mulches include alpine strawberry, low juniper, vinca vine or short mints like Corsican mint. Be careful with living mulches that root along stems as they grow. These types of plants can easily become invasive and even try to overgrow lawns.

Corn Cobs

Corn cobs are a popular mulch is some regions of the country. The cobs are coarsely ground and sometimes dyed to give them a more traditional dark mulch appearance. Ground corn cobs take several years to decompose, don’t easily compact and don’t blow or float away. Corn cob mulch is also fire-resistant, which is a plus in areas prone to wildfires. This type of locally available mulch material varies by region and is usually inexpensive. Types include things like ground sea or crab shells in coastal areas, fine forest mulch or cottonseed hulls. Check with your local extension office to learn what kinds of local mulches are available.

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