Mulching keeps weeds down, beautifies your yard, and can make a safe space for your kids to play, so choosing the right type is essential
Mulch can have many uses in your yard, from controlling weed growth and maintaining moisture levels to making a play area softer and safer for the kids. It also protects plant roots from extreme heat and cold, can improve soil quality, and can add color and texture to bare or bland areas.
This guide walks you through the different types of mulch, the characteristics of each, and what they're best suited for, so you can choose the right one for your property.
How to Choose the Right Type of Mulch For Your Yard
Which mulch you should pick isn't always obvious. Choosing the right mulch can help your yard to flourish, but the wrong one can cause serious issues and even kill off your plants.
There are many factors to consider, including whether you want to grow plants through the mulch, create a decorative area in an otherwise bland piece of yard, rejuvenate soil, or create a play area. Your climate also has a significant impact on which mulch you pick, as does your level of commitment to environmental sustainability.
And, once you've decided which type of mulch you want, you'll need to figure out how much mulch you need. You'll also need to prepare your landscape for the mulch application, although you can always hire a local landscaper to take care of that (and the whole mulching process) for you.
Types of Mulch
There are two broad classifications of mulch: organic and inorganic. Organic mulch is anything natural that breaks down and replenishes the soil, like wood, grass clippings, leaf mold, and straw. Inorganic mulch is anything that doesn't break down and condition the soil. Inorganic mulches include gravel, rubber, black plastic, and landscaping fabric.
Hardwood and softwood chips or bark make up wood chip mulch. It's often made of waste products from paper and furniture production industries, so as long as it's from sustainably sourced wood, it's a solid eco-friendly choice for mulch.
Waste wood chips from furniture and paper are dried and aged so you can apply this mulch straight onto your garden beds. If you're lucky enough to score free fresh wood mulch from your local municipality, either let it rot down for a year or only apply it to pathways.
Green wood—wood that has been freshly cut and hasn't dried or cured yet—draws a lot of nitrogen from the soil as it starts to decompose. Letting it sit for a year ensures it passes the nitrogen-gathering stage, so that when you eventually apply it to your beds, it slowly releases its stored nitrogen back into your soil.
Also, make a note of what type of trees are in your mulch. Pine is acidic and takes longer to decompose, but is better suited to use around large, established trees and shrubs. Hardwood chippings are more neutral and well-suited to plants and trees of any type and size.
Grass clippings and general shredded garden waste pull double duty as free mulch. In thin layers, garden waste makes a good, nutrient-rich mulch for flower and vegetable beds. Apply it in thin layers after planting and, at the end of the growing season, just till or dig it in. Remember not to use clippings from grass that's been sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or fungicides to avoid contaminating your garden beds.
Compost produced from your own kitchen scraps is fantastic nutrient-dense mulch for your garden beds—and it's free. It costs you nothing to make your own mulch this way and reduces the waste you send to landfills, so it's great for the environment, too.
Composted or rotted-down manure from farmyard animals like pigs, horses, cows, and sheep is also fantastic and high in nitrogen. Both of these mulches slowly release their nutrients into the soil as they decompose. When you dig the top layer in at the end of the season, it helps to condition and improve the soil structure, creating a light, open structure that allows for the free movement of water and air.
A thick layer of compost or manure also suppresses weeds and acts as insulation, warming the soil earlier and keeping heat in longer than bare earth, helping to extend the growing season.
Straw from wheat, barley, and oat makes a fantastic temporary mulch. It decomposes quickly and doesn't add much in the way of nutrients, but as it gets worked into the soil, it improves structure and drainage. Used around soft fruits and vegetables like strawberries and zucchini, it keeps the delicate fruits off the floor and away from the worst of the moisture and mud that causes rotting. Straw mulch also conserves water and deters slugs and snails.
While mulch delivery and installation costs vary depending on weight and quantity, straw mulch carries the lowest cost because it weighs very little. In fact, because it's so easy to move, you may be able to transport it and apply it yourself.
Black plastic sheeting makes a good ground cover for delicate edibles like tomatoes and peppers. Spread tightly over the bed, thick black plastic sheeting suppresses weeds and warms the soil by roughly 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
As long as it's spread tightly, with a slight downward slope toward the edges of the bed, the plastic remains dry, and the water rolls right off, keeping delicate fruits from sitting on wet ground. However, you'll need an irrigation system in place or will need to water by hand regularly as the plastic is waterproof.
Landscape fabrics let water and air through but help suppress weeds. They're not particularly attractive and, alone, are not terribly effective for long. But landscapers usually use these weed-suppressant fabrics in combination with a fancier top layer such as gravel.
The landscape fabric keeps the gravel or other substrate separate from the soil. So, if you ever decide to get rid of the graveled decorative area, you can do so without having to remove a layer of topsoil because it's contaminated by inorganic mulch particles.
Leaf mold is high in nutrients, but it has to be well-rotted. Fresh leaves can damage plants and harbor insects, fungi, and pathogens. Rake up all your fallen leaves, or mow them to shred them along with your grass clippings. Place them in hessian or plastic bags with lots of holes poked in to let water through, then let them sit for at least a year.
After this, you'll have rich leaf mold mulch that your garden will love. Like other organic mulches, leaf mold slowly releases nutrients as it breaks down and improves soil structure when you till it into the earth at the end of the growing season.
Stone chippings make attractive mulch for pathways and otherwise barren areas where not much grows. While marble chips and other stone mulches may look striking, you shouldn’t use them around plants, as they can cause heat stress from reflecting heat and ground heating, damaging the foliage and the root systems.
Stone chip mulches also don't retain water well. If there's no landscaping fabric between the chippings and the soil, removal is problematic. You'll need to get a local landscaper to remove and replace the topsoil to get rid of the stone entirely.
Rubber mulch is gaining in popularity as a mulching option because it diverts tires from landfill, it's durable, low maintenance, and inexpensive. And while it makes an excellent mulch for kids' play areas, it's not advisable for use in the home garden. Rubber mulch releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can cause significant long-term health issues, including liver, kidney, and neurological problems.
It also releases dangerous chemicals and heavy metals that leach into the soil, kill your plants, contaminate your growing space, and eventually make their way into the groundwater.
Crushed shells, if sourced sustainably, are a great eco-friendly mulching option for pathways and seating areas. Shells have a reasonably long lifespan, but they break down as you walk on them, so you'll eventually need to add more. Plus, the shells tend to migrate on your boots or slowly work their way into the beds alongside the path, which isn't a significant issue, but it does deplete them over time.
This is another mulch that needs separating from the soil with landscape fabric if you use it on beds, or it's difficult to remove cleanly.
Best Type of Mulch for Vegetable Gardens
Compost and straw are the best choices for vegetable gardens as they're natural. Plus, compost is rich in nutrients and is an effective insulator. Straw, on the other hand, is great for retaining moisture, deterring slugs and snails, and keeping delicate fruits off wet soil.
Using both mulches is a smart plan, applying compost at the end of the growing season to break down over winter, then straw in late spring once the plants are all in their final positions.
Best Type of Mulch for Stormy Climates
In windy or rainy climates, you need a heavier mulch. For growing spaces, your best mulch option is wood chips. For pathways and barren, decorative areas, stone chips are a good choice. Heavier mulches are less prone to washing or blowing away in inclement weather.
Best Type of Mulch in Areas of Elevated Fire Risk
If you live in an area of higher than average fire risk, in your garden beds, go for wood mulch. It's organic and holds water well, so it is slower to ignite and spread and burns at a lower temperature than many other mulches. For pathways, stone chippings are the best as they're fire-resistant. Avoid rubber, plastic, or exposed landscaping fabric.
Best Type of Mulch for Kids' Play Areas
If you want to create a safe play area in your yard, use wood chippings beneath and around play equipment. A thick layer of wood chips gives a dense, soft landing if a kid should fall while playing tag or making an epic leap from the swingset. Avoid rubber in the home garden because of its potentially harmful chemical and heavy metal content.
Best Type of Mulch for Ornamental Gardens
For ornamental gardens, wood chips are a nice compromise between nutrient value and aesthetics. Crushed shells create a pretty, decorative rustic or seaside theme and white marble chips give an elegant, refined look.