How to choose the right mulch

Updated Mar 29, 2024

Mulch Tlc Magazine

Believe it or not, choosing the right mulch for the right project can be a difficult task. There's just more to it than people tend to realize.

However, with a little help and research, landscapers can help landscapes flourish by choosing the right mulch for the right place.

According to the Grounds Guys, mulch can help control weed growth, erosion and moisture retention in flowerbeds.

The company offers three ways to help landscapers choose the right mulch:

Decide between organic and inorganic mulch
Bark, leaves and newspaper are the most common types of organic mulches. Organic mulch adds nutrients to landscapes as it decomposes, but needs to be reapplied often.

Inorganic mulches, like rubber or stone, decompose less quickly than organic mulches and have many of the same benefits, though they don’t add nutrients to soil.

Determine how much weed prevention is needed
Most types of mulch offer some protection against weeds, but there are other things landscapers can do to stop the growth. Adding a layer of newspaper under regular mulch can help keep weeds out. Using newspaper helps cut down on using as much traditional mulch, and is generally better at suppressing weeds than mulch alone.

Landscape fabric and plastic can also be used below traditional mulch to keep weeds from growing in gardens. However, leaves, grass, and dirt can get on top of the fabric or plastic and decompose, leaving a place for weeds to grow.

Consider appearance and maintenance
The appearance of mulch is just as important as its function. Shredded leaves are organic and easy to get, but many people consider them unattractive so they shouldn’t be used in formal gardens. Stone mulches can be useful and eye-catching in many gardens, but need to be cleared often of leaves and other debris to look tidy.

In addition to choosing between organic, inorganic and placing the right lining, landscapers need to know the difference in seasonal mulch.

Even though there is no such thing as the perfect mulch, landscapers should understand that there is such a thing as “winter mulches” and “summer mulches” according to Cornell University’s Department of Horticulture.

Winter mulches are used primarily as insulation for woody plants, laid down in late fall to keep the soil evenly cool throughout the winter. Straw, shredded leaves, and pine needles are all effective winter mulches. 

Summer or growing mulches are normally applied after the soil begins to warm in the spring. The primary roles of summer mulches are to warm the soil, reduce weed growth and retain soil moisture.

Additionally, here are a few tips on how to choose the right mulch for the right location:

  • Black plastic and straw are commonly used in vegetable gardens or small fruit plantings.
  • Wood chips, bark chunks, and pine needles are appropriate mulches for shrub beds or around trees. 
  • Fine mulches, such as bark granules, wood shavings, cocoa shells, and buckwheat hulls, are attractive when used in annual or perennial beds. 
  • Fine gravel or crushed stone mulches look most natural when used in rock gardens.
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