Types Of Mulch

Types Of Mulch Materials And When To Use Them

If you look into the various types of mulch materials, you can get a pretty good idea which might work best for you. There are several reasons for applying mulch around trees or shrubs, new plantings, in your vegetable or flower garden, or simply for landscaping. Some types of mulch are good for a number of purposes, others are best for a specific purpose.

Uses - Most types of mulch perform several functions. They provide effective weed control, they retain moisture in the soil, they allow the soil to warm up more quickly in the spring, and they protect roots of plants against early or late frosts. Some types of mulch are used specifically for landscaping, applied primarily for the sake of appearance. Obviously not all mulch types fit into this latter category.

Mulch can be divided into two main categories, organic mulch and inorganic mulch. Organic mulches have one advantage in that as they decompose, they can add nutrients to the soil. Once the mulch has served its purpose, you can simply spade it into the soil as an amendment. A disadvantage of organic mulches is that they may attract insects, and some types may contain weed seeds, and a beautifully mulched area one year can become next year's weed patch. Inorganic mulches add nothing to the soil in the way of nutrients. Some will eventually break down, others, like rocks and gravel will not. If you change the layout of your garden, disposing of rocks and gravel can be a headache, though other types of inorganic mulches are usually easily removed. Some are reusable, others are not.

Bark - One of the most popular types of mulch on the market today is bark, often called beauty bark. You can buy it by the sack, or by the truckload (much less expensive that way). Bark is a very effective and very attractive mulch. It will often last for several years, though many turn dark after a season or two. Bark is one of the more attractive of the mulch types you can have, and works equally well in a garden bed, in a container, or around a tree. Bark is seldom used in the vegetable garden.

Wood Chips - Wood chips can be an attractive mulch when applied over large areas. Wood chips are as effective as bark, though not quite as attractive, but can encourage insects to invade the area being mulched, and it may be necessary to apply an insecticide or dust while mulching in some areas where bugs are especially plentiful. Wood chips, like bark, can be applied to a depth of about 2 inches. A thicker layer is generally not advised, and the mulch should not come into contact with woody plants or the walls of a house or shed, as the mulch retains moisture which can cause problems in a structure. A problem wood chips can cause is, unlike shredded bark or bark nuggets, the chips have a tendency to draw nitrogen from the soil. That is fine as far as weed control is concerned, but it may be necessary to give plants in the mulched area an occasional dressing of fertilizer containing nitrogen.

Pine Needles - If you live in an area where there are many pine trees growing, or at least a couple of large ones, collect the fallen needles, and use them as mulch. Pine needles make an especially fine mulch when placed around individual plants or in containers. The needles have a tendency to lock together, and will not easily blow away. If you find yourself with a small surplus of dry pine needles, they make excellent fire starters.

Shells - Two popular types of mulch, used primarily for landscaping, because they are a very attractive mulch, are pecan shells and cocoa bean shells. The only disadvantage with pecan shells is that they are only easily available in areas where pecan trees are grown, so can be expensive to purchase in bulk. They are not toxic however, which is the case with cocoa shells. Cocoa shells should never be used as a mulch where pets, especially dogs, may be present. They are highly toxic to dogs, and dogs are attracted to the shells.


Hay And Straw - Both hay and straw make a fine temporary mulch, especially for plants which require mulching to overwinter. Neither is particularly attractive, but of the two, straw is the better choice. Hay often contains weed seeds, and if you mulch with hay, you may pay a price come spring. Straw can have the same problem, but generally is relatively free of weed seeds. Neither is a good choice if you have wild turkeys on your property. They delight in spreading it around as they search for possible goodies the mulch may be covering.

Rocks - Rocks won't add anything to your soil, except the rocks themselves, but a 2 inch layer of rocks is quite effective as far as suppressing weeds is concerned. Rocks can be a very attractive landscape mulch, and if used in conjunction with landscaping cloth, is an excellent barrier against weeds. Use rocks in places where the area being mulched is expected to be permanent, or you'll be faced with having to move the rocks at a later date.

Landscape Fabric - Landscape fabric keeps weeds down, but allows moisture into the soil. It is seldom if ever used as the sole mulching material, but instead is used with a layer of rocks or a layer of bark on top. It provides a permanent mulching solution, yet if you wish, it can be easily removed, and reused in another location.

Plastic - Black plastic is an excellent weed suppressant, retains moisture well, and is often used to warm up the soil during the beginning of the growing season. Black plastic is often used in vegetable gardens between rows of vegetables, or covering the entire area, with holes cut out where the plants are to grow, plus holes as needed to allow rain to seep into the soil. Sheets of black rubber serve the same purpose, but this method is only advisable if you have some surplus rubber sheets on hand, as it is much more expensive than black plastic, and harder to handle. The use of clear plastic is not advised as a mulch unless you are planning to grow weeds. Clear plastic acts a hothouse, encouraging anything under it to sprout and grow.

Rubber Tires - One of the more unusual, and probably the most controversial mulch, is ground rubber from old tires. The effectiveness of ground rubber as a mulch is not in question, especially as a landscaping mulch. The controversy deals with what to do with the mulch if you no longer want or need it, how much ground rubber you are willing to allow to work into the soil (it will last longer than you will), and what are the long term effects on the soil.

As you can see, when it comes to the various types of mulch, there are plenty of options. Some are good for the garden, some excellent for landscaping, and others, such as hay, clear plastic, and cocoa bean shells, are probably best avoided.