Popular Types of Garden Mulch

TEG Project Manager

Deeply Rooted
Jul 9, 2012
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Mulch is essential to all gardeners! In addition to saving water, mulching reduces weed growth, improves soil fertility, and enhances plant health. Despite this, everyone has a different preference for garden mulch.

Several popular types of mulch will be discussed in this article, along with their pros and cons. If you know what type of mulch will work best for your garden, you can make an informed decision.

Today we'll explore the following types of mulch:
  • Compost
  • Bark mulch or wood chips (including rubber bark)
  • Straw
  • Gravel, stone, or rock
  • Leaves
  • Cardboard, paper, or burlap
  • Other plant matter
  • Plastic sheeting or landscape fabric

Different types of mulch may be appropriate for different areas of your garden. One material might be used in vegetable gardens, another around trees and flower beds, and yet another as a pathway material.

1) Compost​


Compost is essentially any organic matter that has decomposed well, including plant matter and animal manure. It is possible to make compost at home or to purchase it in bulk or in bags.

  • In addition to reducing evaporation, compost insulates roots and nourishes soil life.
  • For vegetable gardens, flower beds, herb gardens, and containers, compost is a fantastic choice due to its fluffy, fine texture and high nutrient content. There is no difficulty in working with it and planting around it.
  • As opposed to other chunkier materials, compost allows ground-dwelling bees to burrow through it without encountering any problems.
  • As compost is created from food, landscaping, and animal waste that would otherwise end up in landfills, it is extremely sustainable and environmentally friendly.

  • It is necessary to replenish compost mulch more frequently than other types of mulch because it decomposes so quickly.
  • The use of a substantial layer of mulch may be necessary to effectively suppress weeds.
  • Plants can suffer from excessive nitrogen levels in improperly-composted or fresh animal manures. When using animal manure compost, make sure it has been aged well. You should avoid using any manure from dogs, cats, or pigs, since they may contain harmful pathogens.

2) Wood Chips or Bark Mulch​

Wood Chips or Bark Mulch

Wood chips or bark come in many forms, including large nuggets, small pieces, shavings, and shredded pieces. A garden center can provide you with a bag of bark. In addition, your local landscape supply company or tree trimming company should be able to supply you with bulk bark or wood chips.

  • Purchasing bulk bark is a relatively inexpensive option. Make sure you ask around! There are even some municipalities that provide homeowners with free wood chips that have just been ground.
  • You can use bark mulch as a natural organic mulch as long as the bark is not dyed or colored.
  • When it breaks down, it provides nutrients to the soil and improves the structure of the soil.
  • Bark that has been layered thickly suppresses weeds well.
  • Mulch products come in a variety of sizes and styles, making them suitable for a wide variety of landscaping purposes. For example, you can use finely shredded bark around delicate vegetables and flowers, and chunky bark as a border or pathway.

  • As bark mulch eventually decomposes, it must be replenished periodically. There are many factors to consider, such as your climate and the type or size of bark mulch you are using.
  • Some decorative colored bark is treated with chemical dyes, which makes it unsuitable for organic edible gardens. The dyes used in some of these are toxic.
  • Mulching large areas with bagged bark creates unnecessary plastic waste. As little as half a yard can be delivered and dropped off by most landscape supply companies!
  • The acidity of pine bark is greater than that of hardwood mulch, such as cedar, fir, or redwood. As a result, pine bark can be used in vegetable gardens or around trees instead of directly in vegetable beds. Using cedar bark around your flock's range space or coop is not recommended since it is toxic to chickens.
  • In the native habitat of ground-dwelling bees and bumblebees, dense bark will not allow them to burrow through it. To make your garden pollinator-friendly, leave some soil exposed or mulch with compost.

3) Straw​


Wheat, barley, and oat straw are the most commonly used types of straw mulch. Straw should not be confused with hay! Grain crops produce straw, which is a dry byproduct. A very small amount of seeds may be present, but it is more likely that none will be present. Grass cultivated for animal fodder, such as hay, can contain weed seeds (often quite noxious ones) that will sprout in your gardens and cause trouble.

  • There is a wide range of straw available at an affordable price.
  • When separated from the bale, it is lightweight and easy to handle.
  • Provides soil with fresh organic matter & nutrients as it decomposes.

  • If you use straw in your garden, you may be introducing pesticides or herbicides that have been applied to the straw.
  • You may also find that some straw contains seeds, which will add to your weed problems rather than reduce them. For your garden, choose an organic straw mulch that is free of seeds and pesticides (pesticides).
  • Due to its lightweight, straw blows around easily in the wind and can be messy. It is also necessary to replenish on a seasonal basis.
  • Straw makes a convenient hiding spot for pests and insects. Although straw is a prime habitat for these insects, many types of mulch have this problem.

4) Gravel, Rock, or Stone​

Gravel, Rock, or Stone

You can choose from rock and stone options such as pea gravel, lava rock, river rock, and crushed granite. Despite some people's misconceptions, gravel can serve as both a mulch and a landscaping product.

  • Mulch options like rock gravel are durable and long-lasting. Unlike other types of mulch, gravel does not require replenishment after it has been purchased and installed.
  • Winds and rain aren't likely to disturb most gravel mulch because of its weight.
  • The result can be a space that looks very attractive, sharp, and clean.
  • Ideal for pathways, between gardens, open spaces, and xeriscape gardens. It should not be used in vegetable beds, flower beds, or underneath trees.

  • The cost of gravel, rock, and stone mulch is often higher than that of other mulch types.
  • It has a fairly permanent nature and is heavy to work with.
  • In contrast to organic mulch materials, gravel does not feed the soil. However, it can provide a certain level of protection.
  • In hot climates, rock will create undesirable or excessive radiant heat, even if it provides insulation and prevents evaporation.
  • Pea gravel is susceptible to moving and sinking when you walk on it without gravel stabilizers. A wheelbarrow or garden cart can be difficult to maneuver in a space with loose rock. Gravel with more jagged edges provides added stability and better weed control.

5) Leaves​


Who wants free top-of-the-line mulch? Shredded leaves make the best mulch. A clump of whole leaves can prevent water and air from entering the soil. Simply pass a lawn mower over leaves to shred them. As soon as all the small pieces are collected in the bag, they can be mulched.

  • Leaf litter is often free to collect!
  • Working with leaves is easy because they are light and flexible.
  • Organic matter and nutrients are provided to the soil by shredded leaves, which decay readily.
  • A dense leaf layer works well to smother weeds.

  • Leaves may only be available seasonally unless you can store them.
  • There is a need to replenish leaf mulch every season.
  • There are a variety of pests that thrive in leaf piles, including snails, slugs, and pillbugs.
  • It is possible for leaves to mat and stop air or water exchange with the soil when they are not sufficiently shredded (or if they are very thickly layered with shredded leaves).

6) Cardboard, Burlap, or Newspaper​

Cardboard, Burlap, or Newspaper

If used with heavier organic materials like wood chips on top, natural cardboard can be used as 'sheet mulch' on its own. Get those delivery or moving boxes back to work by ripping off your shipping labels and tape! The same method can also be used with burlap fabric or several layers of newspaper.

  • The cost of cardboard is low or even free, and it is easily accessible.
  • Upcycling is a superior method of recycling that involves reusing cardboard from shipped items as mulch.
  • Under raised beds, on pathways, and around trees, sheet mulching is an effective way to hold moisture in the soil and smother weeds.
  • Using burlap sacks (like coffee sacks) or rolls of burlap fabric makes a great long-lasting mulch for your garden. For added protection, you could layer newspaper beneath burlap.
  • Paper mulch decomposes over time and releases nutrients into the soil. As opposed to paper, burlap takes longer to decompose and is also reusable.

  • The use of cardboard in full vegetable or flower beds is usually counterproductive due to its large size, thickness, and awkwardness.
  • Newspaper inserts with bright colors and shiny surfaces should be avoided. The dyes may be toxic and will not degrade easily.
  • Burlap fabrics made from non-biodegradable materials should be avoided if you intend to let them decompose on the soil surface.

7) Other Plant Materials​

Plant Materials

If you look around, there are numerous other organic mulch materials available! Among the other natural mulch options, pine needles, dry grass clippings, sawdust, and living cover crops are also popular.

  • Almost any type of natural mulch material can be found in your yard - for free! These are the same types of things you'd gather for a compost pile or worm bin; especially things you'd add to a compost "browns" pile.
  • As these organic materials decompose, they feed the soil, simultaneously increasing its nutrient density and attracting beneficial microbes and worms.

  • Use grass clippings sparingly if the lawn has been treated with an insecticide or herbicide. The residue from synthetic lawn fertilizers would also not be welcome in my edible garden.
  • Overwhelmed with plant matter, soil (and the soil food web) can be smothered instead of gently protected. It is generally recommended to spread mulch in a layer of two to four inches thick. Testing new material is a good time to err on the side of caution.

8) Plastic Sheeting or Landscape Fabric​

Plastic Sheeting or Landscape Fabric

Plastic sheets and geotextile landscape fabric are examples of man-made, inorganic mulch products. As a lining beneath other materials - such as gravel or bark in pathways - they can be used directly on the surface of the soil. In most cases, landscaping staples are used to hold it down. Despite being synthetic, these products still have a number of beneficial properties that can complement organic mulch.

  • By suppressing weeds and reducing evaporation, black plastic sheeting and landscape fabric can save both water and effort. As a matter of fact, they often block weeds better than other kinds of mulch.
  • Sheet mulching with black plastic or similar materials warms the soil surface and radiates heat overnight, which is ideal for vegetables that prefer heat, such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
  • It also helps those plants survive longer into the early fall, or get a boost in the early spring. It provides soil and roots with insulation (although all mulch does this).

  • Other mulches add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, but landscaping plastic or fabrics do not. However, they can still help retain soil water, prevent erosion, and reduce runoff.
  • There are some plastic sheet materials that aren't very permeable, causing issues with drainage or pooling. Water-permeable and breathable products are recommended.
  • There are no two synthetic groundcover products created equally! Many thin materials tear easily, thwarting their purpose and causing a mess and waste. The good news is that there is also a wide selection of durable, high-quality materials available that will last many years - much longer than organic mulch.


Any mulch is better than no mulch, no matter what type you choose! There is a high chance of runoff, erosion, and quick evaporation in barren exposed soil. Keeping your soil and plants healthy is easy with mulch!

Do not, however, overdo it. Mulch should be applied two to four inches above the soil surface as a best practice. It is possible to cause root rot if the mulch layer is too deep. Mulch should also not be piled up directly next to tree trunks or tender plants, which can lead to rot and pest infestations.
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Garden Master
Sep 4, 2009
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East Central IL, Was Zone 6, Now...maybe Zone 5
I believe that the best and easiest mulches come from:
Compost YOU have made

Most newspaper uses soy based ink nowadays, and quite frankly, when was the last time that you Bought a newspaper?!?!? Generally, you might be using advertising newspaper from local realtors, for instance.
I have discovered that without doing anything, 2nd year compost of used stall bedding makes MY best compost.
Our Fall winds blow most of my tree's leaves across the street. I get many more leaves if I can gather leaves from established trees at my DD's house than from my own. Shame, bc leaves are perhaps the most underutilized free source of plant nutrition. Be sure to recognize a few trees from which you do NOT want to use their leaves, like the black walnut. Otherwise, SO many other trees drop great leaves.
In case you haven't seen me post this, Charles Darwin wrote a great book about his study of how earthworms turn leaves into dirt. Ever wonder how a gravel driveway becomes part of your lawn? The worms build up the dirt, the grass seeds it, and covers over the gravel after years of this happening.
Try not to use colored printed cardboard, but honestly, we are Drowning in cardboard from Amazon, and that is mostly black ink. Peel off and throw away the tape. Otherwise you will be finding bits in your garden and have to throw it away later.
I think our best friend nowadays is cardboard. Just watched the guy who flipped (in only 7 years!!) the house across the street and threw cardboard boxes in his trashcan to go to the landfill. I either burn mine or put it down where I just cleaned up the weeds, NOW for 2023 growing.

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