Using Mulch in Your Garden

By: Julie Day

Pinestraw mulch under tree

Nature has a simple and effective process for feeding and enriching the earth. When plants die or drop their leaves, the organic matter decomposes and returns nutrients to the soil.

During the winter, this layer of organic matter protects seeds from the cold, and in the spring it holds in moisture to encourage seed germination. If the layer is thick enough, it will discourage new growth and protect established plants.

Gardeners have taken this natural process and turned it into the concept of mulching where a thick layer of organic matter is applied to planting beds and gardens.

Advantages of Mulch

Mulching helps the garden by providing:

  • Weed control
  • Soil enrichment
  • Moisture retention
  • Visual appeal

Mulch in a flower bed

Types of Mulch

Mulch is both functional and decorative, with many different types available. When choosing mulch, consider the density and texture relative to the plants in your garden. Tender seedlings will have a hard time pushing through a thick layer of coarse mulch while large areas around trees and shrubs may benefit from a heavy weed-preventative barrier.

While your choice of mulching material should primarily be based on its purpose, it’s also a matter of taste and budget. Some popular options include:

Organic Mulches that Break Down in One Season

  • Leaves: While readily available, uncomposted leaves are susceptible to blowing winds when dry and can pack down tightly when wet. Perfect for natural areas, they work best in formal gardens when composted first.
  • Pine straw used as mulch

    Pine straw used as mulch.

  • Grass Clippings: Plentiful during the mowing season, lawn clippings provide great soil amendment but may look messy until they begin to break down.
  • Compost: Compost packs a double punch as both mulch and an excellent organic fertilizer.
  • Paper: A layer of old newspapers work great as a weed barrier underneath mulch or straw. Try to use papers with biodegradable inks. Shredded waste paper may also be used.
  • Hay and Straw: Often used for newly seeded lawns and vegetable gardens since they break down quickly. Hay and straw often contain seeds that may sprout.
  • Other Mulch: Less common (but effective) one-season organic mulches include shredded corn stalks, manure, peat moss, and rice hulls.

Organic Mulches that Last More than One Season

  • Wood: The different varieties of mulch made from ground up trees ranges from shredded and stringy to chipped and chunky. Chipped cedar mulch is both attractive and aromatic. Wood mulches come in single- double- and triple-ground, with the price increasing each time it goes through the grinder. For an inexpensive basic mixed ground mulch, check your local landfill – many cities collect and grind lawn and tree waste, then sell it for as little as $5 per pickup load.
  • Wood chip mulch

    Wood chips used as mulch.

  • Bark: Beautiful and durable, bark nuggets have the disadvantage of drifting out of unedged beds, especially in a heavy rain. While relatively expensive, bark can be easily purchased in convenient lightweight bags and provides a nice finished look.
  • Pine Straw: Acid-loving plants love pine straw. Longer needles last longer than shorter ones. In areas with a lot of foot traffic, pine needles tend to break down quickly.
  • Dyed Mulch: Many shredded wood varieties of mulch are now being dyed every color of the rainbow. So if you’ve always wanted the color of your mulch to reflect your favorite sports team, you just might be in luck.
  • Other Mulch: Other multi-season organic mulches include seed and nut hulls, cocoa bean hulls, corn cobs, and sawdust.

Inorganic Mulch

    Gravel mulch

    Gravel used as mulch.

  • Rubber: Often manufactured to look like wood or bark, recycled rubber mulches are commonly used in playgrounds and walkways. Rubber mulch is the topic of debate among environmentalists, as the benefits of recycling weigh against the potential for off-gassing of toxic chemicals into the air and ground water.
  • Rock: Stone, gravel, and crushed rock are highly resistant to wind and maintain their appearance for years. Since rock absorbs heat, it often gives gardens a parched appearance.

Applying Mulch

Spread mulch to a depth of 2” to 4” and keep it back slightly from stems and trunks to avoid smothering the plants. Avoid a “volcano” effect around tree trunks – trees grow their roots to varied and specialized depths and can be sabotaged by an extremely thick layer of mulch.

Beautifying Your Garden with Mulch

River stones used as a border

River stones used as a border.

In designing your garden, think of mulch as the elegant background that allows your ornamental plants to show their stuff. In the photo below, notice how the edged lawn and mulch accentuates the shape and color of the crimson pygmy barberry.

Mulching not only makes mowing easier around trees but also calls attention to attractive bark and trunk shapes. For a balanced appearance around small ornamental trees, consider making the mulch ring the same diameter as the treetop.

Mulch can also be used to set off an area in a pleasing shape and act as a design feature in its own right to:

  1. Eliminate the need to grow grass in a shady area.
  2. Accentuate a prize tree or shrub.
  3. Provide a shapely curve in the overall lawn design.
River stones when wet

Wet river stones.

Also consider using more then one type of mulch for design purposes. In the garden above, river stones were used as an edging, with shredded wood mulch around the plants themselves.

While river stones often appear white or gray when dry, they can display beautiful colors when wet.

Whatever your design or purpose, your plants will be protected from extreme temperatures, weeds, and short dry spells by a protective layer of mulch.

Further Information

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14 Comments on “Using Mulch in Your Garden”

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  • Tina Hurtado Says:
    September 17th, 2016 at 8:13 am

    I was told from someone who does pest control that mulch and pine straw next to the house are bad because of termites. Living in Florida i want to do all I can to keep termites away. What kind of mulch or ground cover do you recommend next to the house?



  • grannie john Says:
    May 20th, 2015 at 9:32 pm

    Can I mulch my potted plants (herbs & veggies) with uncooked white rice or corn flour?



  • penny schlehuber Says:
    March 10th, 2015 at 7:36 am

    I was talking to a landscaper, he was telling me he added something to the mulch to weigh it down. I cannot remember what it was. Any ideas?



  • Chris studies Mulching Says:
    March 24th, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Cool. There’s even an article for it. I actually use grass cuttings, leaves and some dried stems. I’ll check out the seedling bank for mosses too.

    Thanks!


  • Official Comment:


    Julie Day Says:
    March 12th, 2010 at 8:34 am

    Chris, you can mulch your potted plants the same way as garden plants. Also, in pots, you can use more fragile mulches (such as mosses) that would break down too quickly in the yard. Check out our article on How To Dress Up Your Houseplants With Mulch – the tips apply both to indoor and outdoor potted plants.



  • Chris studies Mulching Says:
    March 12th, 2010 at 1:53 am

    Hi! Most of my plants are actually in pots, whereas most of the tips I find are for full scale gardens. Should the same principles apply? I really just want to mulch so I can recycle organic material in the garden.


  • Official Comment:


    Ben Erickson Says:
    June 12th, 2009 at 3:20 pm

    Hi Denny,
    You can read the answer to your question about coloring mulch here: How to Change the Color of Mulch



  • Denny Says:
    May 29th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

    My neighbour cut a tree and the lanscaping company which cut the tree was kind enough to give a half load of natural wood mulch. Is there a way to color these wood chips to Cedar red color, so that it goes well with my lanscape?

    Any input will be helpful.



  • MRS. TEDDER Says:
    October 1st, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    QUESTION: A SECTION OF MY FRONT YARD HAS THE 1/2″ ROCKS
    WHERE I HAVE PLANTED VARIOUS PERINNIALS; CAN I SPREAD MULCH ON TOP OF THE ROCK AND THEN MORE 1/2″ COLORED ROCK ON TOP OF THE MULCH OR DO I NEED TO REMOVE THE ROCK FIRST IN ORDER TO SPREAD THE MULCH?



  • DIY: Rental House Flower Bed Solutions - Danny Lipford Says:
    August 21st, 2008 at 11:01 am

    […] The easiest way to make your flower beds look nice and neat, without even needing plants, is with mulch. First pull out any weeds, grass, or brush. Then put down some landscape fabric or plastic, to keep weeds from sprouting. Finally, put down a thick layer of the mulch of your choice. You’ll be amazed how it makes an area look “tended.” […]



  • DIY: Xeriscape for Drought-Tolerant Landscaping - Danny Lipford Says:
    July 8th, 2008 at 10:01 am

    […] Using a layer of mulch around plants increases moisture retention and helps keep roots cool. See Using Mulch in Your Garden. […]



  • Julie Says:
    June 23rd, 2008 at 8:49 pm

    You can buy polished river stones that look more like the wet stones. For a sample, check out:

    http://rocktumblingsupplies.com/polished_river_rocks.htm

    As for the bulk river stones at your local landscaping supply yard, the only solution I know of is to coat them with a “wet look” sealer, lacquer, or shellac. One example of such a product can be found at:

    http://www.glaze-n-seal.com/sealers.html

    I would recommend reserving that method for stones that will not be in contact with dirt or ground water, due to the environmental impact. Practically speaking, the sealers work best with stones imbedded in mortar, such as on a fireplace or backsplash.

    If you find any other solution, please share. The stones just come to life when they are wet – it’s amazing.



  • Dave Says:
    June 18th, 2008 at 4:36 pm

    Is there a way to keep the river rock used in landscaping looking wet? Thanks, Dave



  • jeff-naturehills Says:
    June 6th, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Your river rock bed looks great. I have one for drainage purposes but seeing your picture of he wet river rock makes me think about installing a small water feature.


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