What’s the Best Mulch for My Landscape?
- Types of Mulch - explore the pros and cons of 16 common mulches -

Posted on November 8, 2018

What’s the Best Mulch for My Landscape?
Mulch may be the most valuable tool in the gardener's tool box. It's decorative, adding color and texture to the landscape. It controls weeds around garden plants and helps the soil retain moisture. In the summer, mulch cools the soil and in winter, warms it--in both cases, protecting your plants' root systems. Mulch encourages the growth of organisms good for your soil, and, in most cases, adds healthy organic material to your beds.

How to Use Mulch:

Applying mulch to your garden is easy if you stick to these simple tips:

1. Spread mulch no deeper than three inches (eight centimeters): Any thicker and the mulch could either keep water from reaching your plants or trap moisture in the soil, leading to root rot and disease.

2. Don't let the mulch touch your plant stems or tree trunks: Mulch piled at the base of the plant can pool moisture there, causing rot, encouraging fungi, or providing a habitat for greenery munching pests.

3. Leave at least six inches (15 centimeters) between mulch and your house: Termites thrive in soil protected by mulch and spreading it up to your house is an invitation to those destructive pests to come on in.

Types of Mulch:

Here's a rundown of the pros and cons of 16 of the most popular types of mulch:

Mulch Type

Pros and Cons

Shredded Bark Mulch

Shredded bark mulch
Pros: Readily available; inexpensive; good for weed control and moisture retention.
Cons: Can cause nitrogen deficiency in soil; susceptible to fungus; if dyed, can include toxic chemicals.

Bark Nugget Mulch

Bark nugget mulch
Pros: Lightweight so easy to transport and spread; more attractive than shredded bark.
Cons: Easily blows away; susceptible to fungus; poor moisture retention; can cause nitrogen deficiency in soil.

Cocoa Bean Hull Mulch

Cocoa bean hulls mulch
Pros: Good water retention and weed suppression; improves soil texture without stripping nitrogen, smells like chocolate.

Cons: Expensive; toxic to dogs.

Coconut Husk Mulch

Coconut husk mulch
Pros: Lightweight and easy to transport; excellent moisture retention; discourages pests; brown color does not fade.

Cons: Too expensive to consider for large landscaping projects; provides no nutrients as it breaks down.

Compost Mulch

Compost used for mulch
Pros: Good weed suppression; encourages beneficial organisms including earthworms; repels diseases and pests; attractive.

Cons: Can contain weeds if not properly finished; expensive for large areas.

Crushed Seashell Mulch

Crushed shells used for mulch
Pros: Attractive coastal look, especially on paths and roads; slow to break down; adds some calcium to the soil.

Cons: Disturbs the soil's pH making it inhospitable to acid-loving plants; poor weed control; can contain residual salts.

Grass Clippings (Green) Mulch

Grass clippings used for mulch
Pros: Free (if you use your own grass clippings); easy to spread; provides nutrients as it decomposes; excellent to use on lawns by leaving after mowing.

Cons: Contains weed seeds; herbicides and pesticides could be present if the clippings are removed from a treated lawn.

Gravel Mulch

Gravel used for mulch
Pros: Low maintenance; attractive (especially on paths); modulates soil temperature well.

Cons: Poor weed and moisture control; heavy and difficult to spread; difficult to move if underlying soil needs to be worked.

Hazelnut Shell Mulch

Hazelnut shell mulch
Pros: Attractive, long-lasting, organic mulch.

Cons: Too expensive to be appropriate for large areas; hard to find in locales that do not grow nuts; no nutritional benefit for the soil.

Palm Leaf Mulch

Shredded palm leaves mulch
Pros: Inexpensive in tropical areas; good weed suppression.

Cons: Can be bulky and unattractive; collection and shredding is labor intensive.

Pecan Shell Mulch

Pecan shell mulch

Pros: Attractive, long-lasting, organic mulch.

Cons: Too expensive to be appropriate for large areas; hard to find in locales that do not grow nuts; no nutritional benefit for the soil.

Pine Needle Mulch

Pine needle mulch
Pros: Low maintenance once installed; good for modulating soil temperature; excellent weed suppression if spread over weed barrier (recommended).

Cons: Not commercially available so it is labor intensive to collect and haul the needles; adds little to no nutrients to the soil.

Lava Rock Mulch

Lava rock mulch
Pros: Low maintenance once installed; good for modulating soil temperature; excellent weed suppression if spread over weed barrier (recommended).

Cons: Difficult to remove once installed (so best in established beds and features where the ground is rarely disturbed); heavy and hard to spread.

Sawdust & Wood Shavings Mulch

Sawdust and wood shavings mulch
Pros: Inexpensive and lightweight; easy to find; repels slugs.

Cons: Depletes underlying soil of nitrogen; poor water penetration; can be toxic to plants, humans, and animals if made from painted or otherwise treated lumber.

Shredded Leaf Mulch

Shredded leaves mulch
Pros: Inexpensive (many municipalities make their autumn leaf collection available to gardeners for free); good winter insulation; good weed suppression; provides excellent nutrition to underlying soil.

Cons: Collecting and shredding the leaves is labor-intensive (and the leaves must be shredded if they are to serve as mulch--unshredded leaves are prone to blowing or clumping and will not break down in a healthy way for the surrounding plants).

Shredded Tire Rubber Mulch

Shredded rubber tires mulch
Pros: Cheap; good weed suppressant.

Cons: Unattractive; leaches industrial pollutants into the soil; stinks when it gets hot.

Straw Mulch

Straw mulch
Pros: Easy to move and spread; excellent insulation properties; attractive golden appearance.

Cons: Expensive and can be hard to find; blows away in high winds; flammable; contains weed seeds.

There are many safe and attractive types of mulch to use to protect and nurture your garden plants. A well-chosen mulch will keep your favorite garden beds hydrated, well fed, weed-free, and beautiful all four seasons of the year. What's your favorite mulch? Let us know by commenting below.



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Landscape Fabric

Landscape fabric placed around a tree then covered by mulch

Landscape fabric is a great way to reduce weeds while still allowing water to flow through. Simply cover the garden area with fabric and place your mulch on top of it.

Mold, Fungi and Toadstools

Crucibulum laeve, Bird's Nest Fungus

Mulches made from wood can be a perfect environment for mold, fungi and toadstools to grow. Most are harmless and can be easily removed by lifting with a shovel and disposing in a compost pile or the garbage.


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