Mulching has been driving a revolution in gardening. Look at the picture if a garden from decades ago and a modern one and you will find a huge difference: now we use mulch in flower beds, borders and even vegetable gardens!
Mulching has many uses and qualities though, so, what is the best mulch to use in your garden or containers?
There are various types of mulching for the home gardener however, there are some key groups: short term mulch (e.g. straw), long term mulch (like wood bark), which is often decorative (red cedar bark, pumice etc.), fabric mulch (rugs and landscape fabric) and non-organic, or synthetic mulch (plastic sheets). Each material you use has its qualities, costs and functions.
The key to choosing one for flowerbeds, the garden, shrubs and trees, or for a walkway will depends on exactly what you are mulching, and where it will be going.
To help you to choose type of mulch best suited for your unique needs and application, In this article we are going to see 18 types of mulches along with tips on when and how to apply each in your garden.
The Advantages Of Mulching
Let’s start with a simple point: mulching has advantages but no disadvantages. The “mulching revolution” is very much tied to the organic revolution and it is at the basis of permaculture.
So, this simple method of managing the soil has become a fundamental farming and gardening tool.
But why so mulching so good?
18 Different Types of Mulch for Your Garden And Landscape
You need to know the qualities of each of the following types of mulches, because some are good for small flower beds, others for large fields, for example. And the 4 categories will help you with this.
Short Term Mulch
Short term mulch is any organic material you use to cover the ground for a short period of time, usually a few months. But why would you do so? It is actually very useful for vegetable gardens.
If you need mulch for the time of a crop (usually a few months) and you then want to replant the bed with a new crop, you want something, light, cheap and preferably that you can turn into organic matter very quickly.
This way, you can just turn it into the soil at the end of the crop and you have already (partly) fed it too!
Straw is possibly the most common type of organic mulch used in vegetable gardening. It is cheap, it is light, it insulates perfectly and it protects the soil extremely well. What is more, thanks to its light reflecting surface, it also makes ripening faster.
Your tomatoes, eggplant, peppers etc. will receive sunlight from the sky but also an extra dose of reflected sunlight from below, from the very mulch you use. Strawberries are called so because they are traditionally grown in straw mulching in the UK.
Straw also has excellent qualities when it comes to water: it slides off the t surface very easily, as it is smooth and it remains waterproof for some time (it starts to break down after some time, usually 6 to 10 weeks depending on the climate).
Using straw as mulch is ideal for vegetable gardens, not for decorative ones. You can also use it to cover the soil while not in use, especially over the cold months, as it is very cheap, and very light, and you can turn it into the soil when you need to plant if it has started decomposing.
It is ideal for dry gardens, because in wet gardens it may decompose fast and it may even help the spread of fungi under the mulching layer.
2. Leaf Mulch
Dry leaves are very easily available as mulch. In fact, in most cases, you can “produce your own mulch” with a leaf rake and a bit of patience when fall comes. Just put the leaves you collect somewhere dry and they are ready to use.
Dry leaves do not last long, and they may look a bit “messy”. So, they are not your best choice for decorative gardens nor for long term solutions. On the other hand, they break down easily and become plant food at no cost at all.
Therefore, they are excellent for productive gardens, to mulch under trees and, hear hear, for soil regeneration!
If your soil is very impoverished, mulch it with an abundant layer of dry leaves and leave it to rest for 2 to 2 moths, especially over winter. Then dig the rotting leaves in and it will have greatly improved. Dry leaves are good to stop a weed infestation too.
3. Grass Cuttings Mulch
Using the grass cuttings from your lawn or anyway grass land is a cheap and easy form of mulching. It will only last a few weeks, but it can be a temporary solution, especially for vegetable gardens. It is light, you can produce it yourself and it will become excellent food for your plants too.
Depending on the type of plant, you can even use it to replenish the nitrogen of your soil. However, do keep in mind that it will thin out (and down) fairly quickly and it cannot be a permanent solution.
However, I need to warn you about a little danger: do not use grass cuttings from mature plants.
If the grass you use has seeded, it will end up sowing itself into your flower or vegetable beds! Finally, if you want to use grass cuttings mulch, don’t do it all in one go.
Lay down a thin layer, wait till it has dried up and then add another layer, wait till it dries and go on till you reach your desired height. If you leave moist grass at the bottom, it will start rotting.
4. Newspaper As Mulch
Have you ever thought of paper as mulching? Those old newspapers can become good gardening assets if you know how to use them. One big question, is the ink biodegradable? It depends on local legislation, for sure in the EU, USA and Canada newspapers and magazines must use biodegradable ink by law.
Ok, they are not decorative and, unless you are artistically minded and you want a “newspaper themed garden” they will not look good between your petunias or marigolds!
But if you need to weed off a plot of land, a vegetable garden or flower garden, just put down layers of about 10 sheets of of newspaper pages, overlap them, give it a good watering (on top, yes!) and l have them there for at least 2 months.
You can also use newspaper sheets for vegetable gardens, and in some forms pf permaculture, they are placed as a layer under the outer layer (straw or leaves); this seals the soil into the raised bed, keeping all moisture in, while the straw keeps the heat in… This is actually called “sheet mulching” in permaculture.
For a shorter term, you can use shredded paper as mulch. This will soon decompose into the ground and become food for your plants.
It is not as good as paper sheet mulch as a weeding system and it does not seal the moisture as well, but it is an easy (if unsightly) quick and cheap solution for vegetable patches.
Cardboard mulch has similar property to newspaper sheets mulch. It may be less pliable, but it is also very easy to use.
However, you need to water under the cardboard, not on top of it, unlike what you do with newspaper sheets!
It is cheap, simple and it is one the best mulching materials to weed beds prior to planting.
In fact you can literally eliminate weeds already in full growth without even cutting them. Just get big cardboard sheets.
Press each one on the grass and walk on it, stepping it down. Then do the same with the next leaving some overlap.
Walk on the cardboard sheets every now and then. Leave the cardboard sheets there for 2 to 3 months and when you remove them you will have perfectly clean soil.
Or you may have a few blades that insist, but they will be easy to remove.
Using compost as mulch is fairly common indeed, especially in decorative gardens. You only need to spread a few inches of compost on top of the soil, and it will form that layer of insulation from the rain, wind and sunlight, and it will temporarily slow down weeds as well.
The effect on the whole is fairly pleasing to the eye; the dark mulch can set off flowers and plants quite beautifully.
However, it is not a long term solution for weeds. There is usually no live seed within compost, but weeds can grow through it from underneath.
On the other hand, it’s a perfect way of feeding the soil. As it rains, the water will bring the nutrients into the ground.
Long Term Mulch
Long term mulch is far more common in decorative gardens than in vegetable ones. Of course, if you have a beautiful flower bed and you want to keep your flowers’ “feet” warm and well fed, but you don’t want weeds to take advantage of it, you will want something that looks beautiful and lasts. This is especially true if you have perennials.
Having said this, some urban vegetable gardens, especially the now popular ones with raised beds, do use long term mulching for their zucchini and tomatoes as well… It is also a matter of availability and value for money.
If you have a permanent bed, even if a vegetable one, which you can manage well, without disrupting it too much between crops and cheap mulch, why not?
Long term mulch will last you for years, but you will have to top it up every now and then.
There are many types of long term mulch, wood chips, bark, but also gravel or even expanded clay. The aesthetic range is huge.
7. Pine And Conifer Needle
Pine or conifer leaves (needles) too can be used as mulch. However, you cannot use them generically.
Let me explain…They are very cheap and easy to use. They are actually one of the most adaptable types of mulch, and they squeeze in perfectly into small spaces and tiny crannies.
They also have a fairly good decorative value… They will decompose pretty slowly and they become a constant source of food food for your plants, and what is more, they will stop any weed from taking hold.
Perfect weeders, but they have a “sting in the tail”: they acidify the soil. This means that you cannot use them unless you want your soil to become acidic.
They are good for camellias and other acidophiles, but if your purpose is to “weed” a vegetable garden, forget using pine needles.
Most vegetables like neutral to alkaline soil. On the other hand, if you have a very alkaline soil, maybe chalk based, then pine needles will correct its pH!
8. Wood Chipping
Wood chipping is actually a good type of mulch, as long as the wood chips are seasoned. Let me tell you a little secret: if you put fresh wood on the ground, it actually absorbs nitrogen from the soil! Careful! It’s a natural process, and you can’t help it.
So, you need to age your wood chips for at least one year. At this stage, the chips become inert, which means that they do not have a chemical reaction with the soil itself.
So now you can use them. Wood chips can last longer and they are more decorative than other types of mulch like newspapers, leaves or straw.
There are of course many types of wood chips, from cheap ones (like poplar or fir) to expensive ones (chestnut or oak) and even rare ones, even teak or mahogany if you wish…
Wood chips are one of the best mulches for flower beds, borders and even containers rather than vegetable gardens” It breaks downs slowly (depending on the type of wood too) and you can have it in many natural colors.
On this point, it is also available painted, but avoid it, the paint is not natural in most cases and it ends up in your soil, while you will see your mulch turn paler and paler, less and less attractive every day.
9. Wood Bark
Wood bark is high quality mulching material. It lasts long, there is a wide range of colors, textures, shapes and overall looks, but on the whole it is very decorative and beautiful indeed.
Some types of bark are more common than others and some are quite sought after, like red cedar bark, which, thanks to its natural warm color.
The same principle as applies to chipping applies to bark too: you need to season wood bark too before using it as mulch. It too needs to become inert. Choose natural bark though, not painted (which is becoming popular).
The latter in fact can have chemical and even toxic substances. Wood bark can double as growing medium too, which is in some gardens is a real plus, especially exotic ones.
Wood bark is of course indicated for long term solutions in decorative flower beds, borders and containers.
On the other hand, it would be a waste in vegetable gardens, especially large ones. It is high quality and sometimes even expensive material.
Of course even gravel can be used as a form of mulching. It is less common than others, at least in gardens. In pots and containers, though, gravel is very common indeed. Gravel does not have the same isolating qualities as organic matter though (bark, wood chips. straw, leaves and even paper).
Rainwater will seep through, and the gravel will only form a partial barrier; the rain will be less direct and it will have a reduced erosion effect, but it will not stop completely.
Of course gravel will not feed your soil nor will it insulate it from cold and heat as much as organic matter.
It will partly stop weeds but not totally. On the other hand, it does not deteriorate at all, and you can have it in many beautiful colors.
It is particularly useful for parts of your garden you want to tread on, like gravel gardens, paths etc. Its function, therefore, is mainly decorative.
11. Expanded Clay
Expanded clay can be used as mulch as well. In fact it is in some respects better than gravel. Why? It insulates better and it is lighter as well.
It is not as eco friendly as it appears though, even if it is organic. It is basically clay that is cooked at such high temperatures that it “blows up” forming beautiful pebbles that are reddish outside and porous inside.
That requires lots of energy (fuel etc.).On the other hand it’s a very common building material. And because it is light, decorative and isolating, it is a fairly good form of mulch.
It will retain moisture too, and then release it slowly to your plants! It can also absorb nutrients and then release them…
So, it is very good to lower maintenance and for gardens in dry regions or where rainfall is irregular.
It is far more common for containers and pots, or small flower beds, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t use it for larger ones. In terms of weeding it has only a partial effect, like gravel.
12. Pumice Rock
Another good material for mulching is pumice rock. This is a famous porous and floating volcanic rock which can be of many, even very lively colors (red, blue, green, black white, grey and even pink). It is very light and full of air bubbles.
Which will retain moisture and even nutrients. It has all the qualities of expanded clay, but it can be more attractive (there’s a wide range of colors), it is fully natural (therefore fully eco-friendly) but unfortunately far more costly…
For this reason, use pumice for containers and pots in full sight, where you want to achieve the maximum effect.
Alternatively, for small flower beds, especially in prominent positions and where the mulching itself is a protagonist of the composition.
Fabrics can double up as mulching too. Using the old carpet to weed out a flower bed is an old gardening trick. Now, in most cases, fabric mulching is used as “makeshift”. By this I mean that people who have an old rug rather than throwing it away, “get something out of it as mulch”.
Having said this the results can be excellent, especially to weed out flower beds before planting, or even vegetable beds!
Aesthetically, they can be a real problem, and a lot depends on the size, thickness, waft, material etc. of the material, if course.
Then again, as usual, business has taken a hint out of the old gardener who uses a rug as mulch and it has used the technology at its disposal to make the “market version of the old rug”: landscape fabric, which we will see soon.
13. Carpet And Rug
Use your pod carpet or rug as mulch before you throw it away! Why not? They have the same effect as cardboard sheets to weed out beds prior to planting. They also have the good qualities of preserving soil moisture and nutrients.
Rather than leaving soil bare, cover it with the old and dirty rug that’s been catching dust in the garage for years!Not all rugs are fully natural, actually, most have synthetic materials in them.
So, careful; you don’t want to use one that’s falling to pieces or losing bits, as they will end up in your soil.
Again, they are better for vegetable gardens and prior to seeding or planting. They are hardly a viable option for your front garden flower beds!
14. Blanket Mulch
Use the old duvet or blanket as mulch if you wish. While these are not ideal for flower beds, they do come in handy in other ways. In fact, they are mainly suitable for winter mulching.
You have that tender exotic plant? That banana tree or palm at the back of the garden? Is winter approaching? Do you suspect it needs a bit of warmth? Wrap it up in that old blanket you don’t use any more.
Blankets in particular are not suitable to weed out beds; weeds will simply grow through them. Wool will keep the soil isolated, but it will be no barrier to rainfall…
So, blankest have a limited role as mulching. But they can save your plants from dying off during the cold months…
15. Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is basically a tailor made solution to mulching. It is basically a thickly woven fabric that you can cut to measure and use as mulching.
It is made of biodegradable materials, so, once it has served as mulch, it will break down into the soil and fertilize it.
It’s the “high tech” solution to mulching. It does not have many negative points at all, apart from the fact that you may not need it at all because there are so many other similar materials you can get for free.
If you have a commercial garden, maybe you want to look professional and use landscape fabric instead of straw or cardboard, but the choice is yours.
It is, like cardboard, very good to stop weed growth prior to planting, and like straw good to stop it after planting.
Synthetic Materials Mulch
You can use synthetic materials as mulch, as ling as you don’t leave them in the ground. In some ways, carpets may end up in this category, but not necessarily.
Of course, synthetic mulch materials are fine to stop weeds and even to protect the soil, but they are no use when it comes to feeding the soil.
They are also often recyclable, which, as you will see, can be a very good advantage.
16. Dark Plastic Sheets
You can see how dark plastic sheets can be used as mulch. You can lay one on the soil and place holes where you want to grow your plants. It is in fact, a fairly common method of stopping weeds in even large vegetable gardens and fields.
They are so easy to use, just roll them out, put stones on the sides to keep them down, pierce holes and plant your crop. These will also hold heat, moisture and nutrients in the soil.
They will also direct rain water towards your plants…They can be re-used year after year, but they do weather, so, they won’t last you a lifetime. Of course, unless you have a very twisted aesthetic sense, they are not suitable for decorative gardens.
17. Transparent Plastic Sheets
Transparent plastic sheets are different from dark ones as mulch. Don’t use them for crops, because they will work as lenses, concentrate the light from the Sun onto the soil and literally burn it. So, what’s their use then?They are exceptional weeders prior to planting or seeding.
Especially if you have a weed infested field, especially if you are facing a very tough type of weed, like couch grass, then transparent plastic sheets are the solution you have bern looking for…Just choose a time of the year when you expect lots of hot sunny days.
Spread the sheets over the area you want to clear. Do not water. Put some weights on them to keep them down. Wait for a few weeks (3 to 8 weeks, depending on how strong is the Sunlight).
Remove them and no weeds will grow. The sheets will literally “sterilize” the land and burn most of the seeds in the soil. They are like cheap, safe and eco-friendly weed killers!
18. Rubber Mulch
Rubber mulch comes in different forms, like shreds, pebbles and pellets. It is made from recycled car tires.
But they are not (only) black: you can get them in all sorts of colors, and they last for many years. In a way it’s a “clean” type of mulch because these pellets etc.
do not get dirty, they don’t deteriorate etc. When it rains, it washes them and they look even more “beautiful”.
Of course, they have a good effect from a distance, but from a close by, they appear as rubbery and plasticky and artificial as they are.
Not sure this is the impression you want in a garden.
The problem is that they disperse in the environment, so, they are the “leas clean” of all types of mulch, and there are also serious questions about their toxicity, and – there is a risk that they catch fire. On the whole, the worst type of mulching you could choose.
Whichever Mulch You Choose, Never Leave The Soil Bare!
Here we go… Everything that covers the soil is actually mulch. But it depends on what you want most from your mulch.
If you want to have a very decorative flower bed and you need a colorful backdrop for your pansies, then pumice stone, bark chips or gravel will do.
If you want to “sterilize” the soil and get rid of very stubborn weed, a transparent plastic sheet is your best option.
We have seen 18 different types of mulch, short term, ling term, fabric and even synthetic, but whichever one you choose, remember, if you leave your soil uncovered, it will start leaking moisture and nutrients straight away!
After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.