Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

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Adding the proper mulch to your garden will define the space and create visual interest, all while helping you grow healthier plants. Here’s how to choose the right type.

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When it comes to making a memorable garden, plants are only part of the equation. To truly define the space and keep things looking their best, you’ll want to lay down mulch.

When applied properly, mulch offers many garden benefits. It prevents soil from blowing away, helps the ground retain moisture, and suppresses weed growth for less maintenance in the long term. Not only does this form of ground protection make gardening easier, it’s one of the easiest ways to add color and texture to your growing space.

Choosing the right mulch can be overwhelming. Keep reading to learn about different mulch options and application techniques to get the best results for your situation.

Common Types of Mulch

All garden mulches can be divided into two main categories: organic and inorganic materials. Both have their advantages and disadvantages for plant growth and aesthetics.

Organic Mulches

These kinds of mulches are made from natural materials. They will break down into the soil over time and will need to be reapplied regularly to maintain their appearance.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Wood Chips or Shredded Bark

By far the most popular choice, wood chips make for an easy mulch option. You can buy them by the bag or cubic yard and spread them directly over plant beds. Popular varieties include pine and cedar, and the chips come in a variety of reds, browns, blacks, and more (both natural and dyed).

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

It’s also possible to request fresh wood chips or shredded bark from local tree-cutting services or to make your own from trees on your property. Plan to apply wood chip layers several inches thick, and to replenish them every few years as they break down into the soil.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Straw or Hay

Ideal for annuals or a vegetable garden, straw and hay can protect your soil for a season and break down before the next growing season starts. It adds a crisp look to the bed while protecting soil from evaporation and weed growth.

Note: Keep straw away from plant stems, so you don’t cause them to rot or encourage slugs and other pests.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Pine Straw

Made from bales of dried needles from the southeastern longleaf pine, pine straw makes for an attractive reddish-brown mulch with a grassy appearance. Note that it will make soil slightly acidic as it breaks down, meaning it’s best for acid-loving plants like azaleas and rhododendrons.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Cocoa Shell Mulch

Brown and smelling of chocolate, this form of mulch is a byproduct of chocolate making. Apply it up to two inches deep for a distinctive framing for your beds. Just note that applying too much can trigger mold growth, and that dogs and wild animals tend to try to eat it.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden
Inorganic Mulches

The appeal of inorganic mulches is that you can apply them once and know they will stay in your garden bed with minimal maintenance. However, they also don’t do much to improve soil health in the long term. Here are the most popular options.

Gravel, Pebbles, or Stones

Stones and gravel provide a striking, permanent landscaping solution. They are typically applied on perennial beds that are lined with landscaping fabric to suppress weeds. You can choose from various colors and sizes, ranging from pea gravel to smooth river rocks.

Note that prices tend to increase with larger rock sizes, and that removing rock mulch is both costly and labor-intensive.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Glass Mulch

If sea glass fits your style, consider using large chunks of tumbled glass as mulch. This eye-catching material is a better choice for small spaces or as a way to accent rock mulch.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Crushed Shells

For those living near the coast, seashells make for a striking garden mulch that adds small amounts of calcium to the soil. You can collect them at the beach or buy them in bulk at garden supply stores.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Lava Rock

Lava rock appeals as a landscaping material because it’s lightweight (meaning, easy to spread) and holds onto water. You can find it in shades of red, brown, gray, or black, although black might absorb too much heat and be unsafe for surrounding plants.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Plastic Mulch

For those looking for the lowest maintenance mulch available, it’s hard to beat black plastic. It won’t add much from an aesthetics standpoint, though this artificial barrier creates clean lines and suppresses weeds better than any other material.

For this reason, many vegetable gardeners use black plastic as a temporary mulch early in the growing season — it prevents weed growth while warming the soil in the weeks before planting.

You’ll need to cut holes in this mulch when it’s time for planting, so it tends to work best for perennials.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Note: Using plastic around trees and shrubs can affect their long-term health by preventing the roots from accessing oxygen and water.

5 Tips for Using Mulch in the Garden

The way you use mulch will make a difference in the final result. Here are tips to keep in mind.

Cover the whole landscape: Patchy, sparse mulch is a bad look. Keep things cohesive by incorporating a thick layer throughout all the garden beds.

Adjust the thickness: Keep things pleasing to the eye by tapering the mulch thickness as you approach plants and pathways. Not only will this prevent them from suffocating, but it creates a cleaner look over the whole bed.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Clean out old mulch: If you’re re-mulching a garden bed, it’s best to remove some of the old mulch to prevent bulk. This is especially important if switching colors or mulch types.

Cover all bare soil: there’s no benefit to having bare dirt throughout your garden beds. Even spaces with annual flowers should be covered with a light, biodegradable mulch such as straw.

Top Tips for Choosing the Right Mulch for Your Garden

Prep well beforehand: Best success with mulch depends on the steps you take before applying it. Do your research ahead of time to determine whether the mulch material you chose will do best with landscaping fabric applied beneath it or whether you can use it directly on bare soil.