Choosing The Best Mulch: How To Choose Garden Mulch

Choosing The Best Mulch: How To Choose Garden Mulch

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By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

When it comes to choosing mulch for gardens, it can be difficult to select from the many types of mulch on the market. Knowing how to choose garden mulch requires careful consideration of each mulch type.

Mulch Selection Info

Picking a mulch type is the first step when choosing mulch for the garden. Mulch is available in two basic types: organic mulch and inorganic mulch. Choosing the best mulch depends on a number of factors, including purpose, appearance, availability, and expense.

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch, made of plant matter that breaks down over time, includes material such as:

  • Bark chips
  • Composted yard waste
  • Pine needles
  • Straw
  • Buckwheat hulls
  • Leaves
  • Grass clippings

This mulch provides a number of benefits for home gardeners. It keeps plant roots warm in winter and cool in summer. A 2- to 3-inch (5-7 cm.) layer of organic mulch helps keep weeds in check and reduces watering requirements by minimizing evaporation. Organic mulches provide an attractive, natural appearance to the home landscape.

Most organic mulches are relatively inexpensive and readily available, but the mulch must be replaced as it breaks down. Luckly, the decomposing mulch improves soil structure and drainage while controlling soil erosion and minimizing dust.

One drawback of organic mulch is the combustibility of the material. Many landscape professionals advise gardeners not to place organic mulch within 5 feet (1.5 m.) of homes or wooden decks, especially in areas prone to wildfires. In case of a fire, smoldering mulch can go unnoticed for long periods of time. Shredded, small mulch or pine needles are more combustible than large nuggets or chunks.

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulches are made of manmade or natural materials that do not break down in the soil. Types of inorganic mulch include:

  • Stone
  • Pebbles
  • Ground rubber tires
  • Tumbled glass

Inorganic mulches are often applied on top of landscape fabric or black plastic to prevent the mulch from sinking into the soil. Most inorganic mulches aren’t easily displaced by wind or water, so replacement is rarely necessary. However, because inorganic mulch doesn’t decompose, the mulch doesn’t benefit the soil.

Although some types of inorganic mulch may work well in a rock garden, light-colored inorganic mulches are often detrimental to plants because they reflect heat and sunlight that damage plants. Inorganic mulch is sometimes messy and hard to maintain because pine needles and leaves that fall on the mulch are difficult to remove.

Rubber tire mulch provides a cushioned surface that makes it useful for walkways, but the mulch isn’t recommended for use around plants because it may leach toxic compounds into the soil. It does, however, make a good alternative for play areas.

Additionally, although most types of inorganic mulches tend to be fire-resistant, rubber mulch is highly combustible and burns at a very high temperature.

This article was last updated on

MSU Extension

Do weeds always get the upper hand in your garden? This year, mulch it!

The 2012 gardening season is well underway. Vegetable seeds and transplants are going into the ground with the expectation of a bountiful harvest by the fall. Before we can reap the rewards of our labor, all gardeners must run a gauntlet of challenges meant to prevent your harvest victories.

The chief among these challenges is weeds. More time can be and is spent on trying to control weeds than any other home gardening activity. This is particularly true if the weeds get a head start. One of the most effective ways to drastically reduce the time spent on weeding is by using mulches. Covering the ground with a mulch reduces the amount of light that reaches the soil surface which prevents or at least slows the germination of weed seeds.

There are a wide variety of mulches to choose from and, depending on the mulch selected, they have both advantages and disadvantages. Mulches can be used to increase or decrease soil temperatures, reduce the rate of moisture loss from the soil, increase crop yields, repel certain insects, slow the development of certain diseases, keep produce clean by preventing wet soil from splashing onto fruits and some add organic matter to the soil as they decompose. Mulches also have a few disadvantages. Organic mulches such as straws or hay can provide habitat for slugs.

Straw can contain wheat seeds which can become a problem. As hardwood chips decay, all manner of fungi can produce some interesting and disgusting mushrooms and the plants growing in a decaying mulch may require additional nitrogen applications for optimal growth.

Straw is an excellent mulch for crops that prefer cooler soil temperatures such as cabbage or broccoli, but it may slow the growth of warm season crops, such as tomatoes or melons. Straw mulch around squash, such as zucchini, in fall can result in greater damage to the plant after a light frost compared to squash on bare soil. When using straw, one large bale should easily cover 100 sq. ft. of area. If a six-layer newspaper mulch is placed on the ground before adding the straw, a larger area can be covered with one bale.

Landscape fabrics are great for warm season crops. The dark color will help to increase soil temperature faster under the fabric, which is beneficial to crops such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and melons. Melon yields can increase up to 50 percent when using either landscape fabric or dark colored plastics. Landscape fabrics are also a good investment since they can last 10 or more years and water can easily move through them and into the soil.

Most plastics mulches are impermeable and are designed for a single year use. Drip hoses or tape should be placed under the mulch to provide adequate moisture. Plastic mulches are available in a variety of colors including red, black, brown and metalized (reflective). Red is beneficial for tomatoes and strawberries. In the case of tomatoes, red mulch improves the quality of the fruit produced, but not necessarily the overall yield. The selective reflecting mulch like red has been shown in USDA tests to increase production from 12 to 20 percent of first quality, early tomatoes when compared to black mulch. The black and brown mulches provide the same benefits as landscape fabrics while reflective-metalized mulch tends to repel aphids. Reflective mulches are also being used to improve color on apples. Plastic mulches are subject to degradation from ultraviolet light. If they are not removed from the garden by the end of the season, they will become more brittle and difficult to remove.

Although wood mulches such as chipped hard and softwoods, cedar, cypress and pine bark aren’t used much in vegetable gardens, they can be used around perennial vegetables such as asparagus or rhubarb. Cedar and cypress will last the longest because they are resistant to decay. Chipped mixed woods will break down faster, especially if leaves are mixed in. These mulches should be applied to a depth of 2 to 3 inches on the perennial vegetables. Some of the wood mulches are painted for appearance. If you are growing vegetables organically avoid these products.

For additional information on mulches and other gardening topics, contact your local MSU Extension office, call 888-678-3464 or visit the Gardening in Michigan website.

This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit To contact an expert in your area, visit, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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Do look at your entire landscape

Some landscapes have big expanses of mulch with a few shrubs poking around, says Susan D. Day, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources & Conservation and Department of Horticulture at Virginia Tech. “You want to design your landscapes so your shrubs cover all of the soil and you have complete vegetative cover. Then apply mulch to them, to control moisture,” she says.

12 Clever Ways to Landscape with Stone and Mulch 12 Photos

Consider using stone and mulch to create definition and interest in your next landscaping project.

Using mulches

Spread mulch on freshly cultivated, weed-free soil before the plants are large enough to interfere.

Apply organic mulch thick enough to leave a 4-inch layer after settling (Fig. 8). If the material is fine textured, 4 inches should be adequate. Coarser materials, such as straw, will settle and may require 8 inches or more initially. If you use newspaper, place eight layers on each side of the row.

If you use organic materials, add more mulch during the season. During the growing season, the mulch settles and gradually rots at the point where it meets the moist soil surface. Adding more layers assures continuous weed control, provides a clean resting place for the fruits of your labor, and creates a pleasing appearance all season long.

Figure 8. To get a 4-inch layer of mulch after settling, use 8 inches of coarse materials. Eight sheets of newspaper can also be a good mulch.

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The pros and cons of different colors and types of mulch

Chances are you’ve heard about the many benefits of mulch (or if you haven’t, read about why you should absolutely mulch your plants and trees here.)

But, what about different colors and types of mulch? Are there benefits to using organic vs. inorganic, red instead of black, or rocks in place of wood chips? Let’s dig into all of these questions to help you find the best pick.

Mulch color guide: Brown vs. black vs. red mulch

Lots of gardeners have their theories about the advantages of colored mulch. Some vegetable growers have said that red mulch works wonders on certain fruits, and some say black mulch is the best at warming up the soil in winter. There’s even research on it. This study concluded that red mulch did actually help grow more tomatoes and make sweeter strawberries than black mulch.

That being said, more often than not people flock to brown, black or red-colored mulch just for the look of it. Adding color to garden beds helps make plants and trees pop while still providing all the benefits mulch offers.

Ultimately, when it comes to choosing a colored mulch, there are just a few need-to-knows:

  • Colored mulch, which is typically dyed with chemicals, is safe to use so long as the product is certified by the Mulch & Soil Council.
  • Mulch dye can easily transfer to your hands, your clothes, pets, or even your driveway. Be sure to apply it with caution.
  • Colors fade, so the mulch will need to be replaced more often than a naturally-colored mulch.

Organic mulch vs. inorganic mulch: Does it matter?

The makeup of your mulch does matter. Here’s why—organic mulch breaks down into the soil over time, adding in nutrients. But inorganic mulch doesn’t dissolve, so soil quality pretty much stays the same.

Both types of mulch have their advantages, which can help you pick the right option.

Five things you should know about organic mulches (such as bark, grass clippings, wood chips or leaves) are that they:

  • Gradually convert into plant soil. That adds nutrients to help plants grow.
  • Help conserve soil moisture and even out soil temperature.
  • Have universal use in the landscape. They’re great for annual or perennial gardens, trees, shrubs, or fruit and vegetable gardens.
  • Come with a time stamp. Organic mulch needs to be replaced at least once a year.
  • Preserve water in the soil by reducing evaporation.

Six things you should know about inorganic mulches (such as stones, gravel or landscape fabric) are that they:

  • Are typically used for aesthetics, since they don’t help boost soil health.
  • Are fine for permanent plants like trees and shrubs but aren’t a good option for annual gardens.
  • Are good at deterring weed growth compared to organic mulch.
  • Have money and time-saving perks since they rarely ever need to be replaced once they’re set.
  • Can throw off soil pH, so you’ll want to do a soil test before going this route.
  • Rock mulch may raise soil temps in summer.

Bottom line: what type of mulch is best?

The best mulch is the one that meets the unique needs of your landscape. Take stock of your plants to figure out what you need. If you’re relying on looks alone to cover your garden beds, a colored or inorganic mulch might be right for you. If growing flowers and fruits is your main goal, you should reach for organic mulch.

Whatever the case, when you choose to mulch, your plants will thank you!

Once you’re ready to go, here’s how to properly mulch your plants and trees.

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