Hands Holding MulchAt the start of the season, your whole landscaping situation might be looking pretty rough. Snow, ice and rain took their toll on that once-thriving area of land that was so dutifully landscaped about a year ago.

Let’s say you’ve cleared the beds of last year’s leaves and mulch, you’ve turned the dirt, laid down new soil, planted your plants and now you’re ready to throw down the icing on the cake – your mulch.

You could run to the home improvement store and load up or have a shovel-full dumped in your driveway, but how do you know which one is best for your landscaping?

In this post, we’ll take a look at your options in mulch and explore a couple more unconventional options for landscape coverage. You’ll learn what’s best for your beds and how much is too much mulch.

Not Mulch, How About You?

If you’ve taken a walk around the block or a trip to a garden center, you’ll know there are plenty of garden bed coverage options out there. Colors, materials, synthetic, natural, organic, recycled – there’s a lot to consider. The first deciding factor you should consider, however, is effectiveness.

The purpose of mulch goes beyond the aesthetic. Sure, it looks nice to have a bed whose color complements your home’s exterior, but mulch is more than just a pretty face.

Mulch (which is technically anything that covers your soil) provides your garden with both moisture and buffer from the elements. When your landscaping is watered, mulch does a couple things. First, because most mulch is organic, it absorbs some of that water. Retaining that moisture slows the evaporation of the water from the soil underneath. Second, mulch can help mitigate overwatering by absorbing some of the water that would otherwise soak into the soil.

During the summer, when temperatures start to climb, maintaining the right amount of moisture plays a key role in the health and growth of your plants and flowers. Too much water can be just as bad as not enough water.

Mulch is a buffer from the elements as well. When Mother Nature throws a curveball at your landscaping, mulch bears the brunt of the abuse. On hot days, like I mentioned, mulch serves as insulation from evaporation. During cold snaps that can happen overnight, mulch retains some of the heat from the daytime sun to help regulate the temperature of your landscaping.

Mulch also prevents soil washout and erosion from either wind or rain.

And then there’s what some consider the most valuable benefit of using mulch: weed prevention. Mulch prevents weeds from germinating on the surface and taking deep root in the soil.

So it’s pretty clear why mulch is great, right? But since there are so many kinds of mulch, how do you know which is right for you?

What Wood You Do?

In keeping with our definition of mulch (anything that covers your soil) there are several options that are pretty cheap and downright free.

Grass and Straw

Some people use grass clippings to serve the same function as your traditional bagged mulch. Technically, yes, it protects beds against elements and helps retain moisture. But, aesthetically speaking, it’s not the first option most people would choose. There are a couple things worth considering if you’re using grass or straw. First, errant grass, straw and weed seeds will most likely find their way into your soil. Second, as grass breaks down, it releases nitrogen, which can be harmful to some plants in higher concentrations. Use thin layers when using grass clippings.

Pine Needles

Pine needles are a popular option for mulch. They stay in place once they’re laid down, which is very useful in windy or rainy areas. They take their time decomposing, and if you use them year after year, they can increase the acidity of your soil – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some plants, such as azaleas and blueberries, love acidic soil.

Bark Nuggets

You’ll recognize these as biggish chunks of wood material. Because of their size, they tend to migrate around in your beds. On a hill, they’re less than ideal. They take their time breaking down, making them a great low-maintenance option that can potentially last for years.

Wood Chips

This is probably the most commonly considered soil cover when one thinks of mulch. Wood chips or shredded bark stay put much better than bark, but still tend to move around. When considering a color, remember that dark-colored mulch, like black mulch for example, can soak up heat just as well as water. Don’t use dark mulch without considering which plants you’re planting, and make sure they’re tolerant to heat. Also worth considering is the sourcing of the wood to make wood chips or shredded bark. Some mulch is made by recycling pallets; therefore, it can contain flame retardants and other chemicals.

Hulls, Husks and Plant Shells

Materials like cocoa hulls, with their fine texture, have the potential to get blown away in windy areas. But if you appreciate a hearty mulch that retains its color and plays well with small-leafed plants, this is the way to go. A couple words of warning, however. Make sure your choice in this kind of mulch is pet friendly. Also, be prepared to pay a premium for a long-lasting and fade-resistant mulch like cocoa hulls.

Compost

When it comes to nutrients and soil health, there’s no better option than plain old compost. It could be considered a mulch by our definition, but it functions a lot like soil. What you lose in moisture retention, you make up in good, old-fashioned plant food. Gardeners and landscapers alike know how compost can condition your soil and help your plants thrive, but if you’re concerned about it fading or washing out, combining your compost with another layer of mulch protection might be the way to go.

Wood Isn’t the Only Way

There are some options outside of organic, plant-based mulches.

Rock (Creek Stones or River Rock)

It might not be the first thing to come to mind when you think of mulch, but it’s a valid option. When it comes to moisture retention, rocks aren’t your best bet. Rock is often combined with landscaping cloth, which satisfies the weed mitigation and moisture retention benefits of other mulches. Rocks tend to migrate. Sometimes it’s in the hands of a curious child or down a slight grade, but rocks seldom stay put. Also worth considering is the surrounding landscaping. Rock landscaping and lawnmowers do not play well together.

Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch comes in a variety of colors and it lasts much longer than wood mulch. It’s also softer, making it a great choice for children’s playgrounds. You sacrifice the soil enrichment benefits with rubber mulch over wood mulch, but if it’s that black-as-black (talking Spinal Tap black) look you’re after, you’ll get it and keep it longer with rubber mulch.

How Much Mulch?

The type of mulch you select will determine how much you’ll need to buy and how thick you’ll need to lay down. Too much and you’ll suffocate your plants; not enough and you’ll lose the benefits of having mulch in the first place.

So how much mulch do you put down? DIYNetwork.com has this to say about mulch depth:

Shredded bark should be about 3 inches deep. Shredded hardwood should be spread no more than 2 to 3 inches deep. Lay coarse nuggets 3 to 5 inches deep.

Also, give your trees about 8 inches of ground clearance between the trunk and dark mulch.

What’s your favorite type of mulch? Personally, I’m a black mulch, shredded wood kind of guy. What have you found works best for your beds and your home? Share your experience in the comments below.

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