The Ultimate Guide to Mulch in the Garden

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When my husband and I first purchased our chunk of property, we had a lot of swamp land.

When we built our house, this swampy acreage was then converted to sand.

We seeded in some lawn, and then we waited.

Flash forward five years later, and there are weeds. Literally. Everywhere.

We have weeds coming out of our eyeballs!

Luckily, last year I discovered the many benefits of using mulch in and around my vegetable, flower, and herb gardens. Mulch has made a world of difference, not just in reducing the amount of weeds we have, but also in helping to retain moisture during exceptionally hot and dry spells, keep the soil from becoming waterlogged during the rainy season, and keep insects at bay.

Mulch isn’t necessarily mandatory in a garden, but you’d be foolish not to use it. With so many different options out there for how you can choose to mulch your garden, there really is something for everybody.

What are the Benefits of Mulch?

Photo: Pixabay

Controls Weeds

Your cultivated plants will have access to all the nutrients they need if they aren’t competing with weeds for space, air, water, or nutrients. Your weeding chores will be cut in half – or more – once you implement a good mulching system.

Maintains Soil Quality

If you choose to use a biodegradable mulch, you’ll find that your soil texture dramatically improves. Worms are fond of nutrient rich soil, particularly damp nutrient-rich soil, and they will aerate and fertilize your plants once you have a good mulch in place.

Reduces Pests and Diseases

Mulch helps keep certain pests, like snails and slugs, away from your plants. Many pests prefer smooth surfaces, which mulch limits, and when plants are protected from the bare soil, you’ll also find that you have to do less washing when it comes time to harvest your plants.

Makes Your Garden More Attractive

An evenly spread layer of mulch can help your garden look neater and more well put-together. This is why it is often used

Maintains Moisture

Mulching offers a huge benefit in that it retains moisture. You won’t need to water as often, nor will you need to worry about overwatering your plants. Because organic mulch slowly absorbs water and lets it out equally slowly over time, you don’t have to be concerned about the sun or wind from zapping moisture from the soil.

Provides Cushioning

Mulch is often used on playgrounds and athletic tracks to help absorb shock. Using mulch in your garden can provide the same benefit, making it easier for you to work around your plants.

Reduces Erosion

Mulch helps prevent soil erosion by keeping soil in place. While wind, air, animals, and water can all wash away your precious soil, mulch will hold everything together for you.

What are the Challenges of Using Mulch?

Photo: Pixabay

Finding the Right Mulch

It can be tricky to find the right mulch for your garden. Remember – not all mulches work the same way. Some, like grass clippings, decay quickly, and can easily go to seed. Others can be too acidic for your plants.

Lowers Soil Temperature

Because mulch helps moderate soil moisture and temperature, it can lower the ground temperature in some cases (in others, it can raise it). This can be a bit of a pain if you are trying to start seeds or young plants. To avoid this, only mulch around plants that are already established.

Going to Seed

Some mulches can introduce weeds, so be mindful of this when you are choosing your mulch type. If you’re worried about your mulch going to seed, avoid options like grass clippings.

Attracts Some Rodents and Termites

Some pests are attracted to certain types of mulch. Straw and hay, in particular, are common areas for rodents to congregate, while wood chips and bark can invite termites. You also need to remember that during dry weather, some kinds of mulch can be flammable.

Can Leach Chemicals

Some synthetic mulches can leach chemicals. Rubber mulch, for example, gets hot in the sun and there have been questions about whether hot rubber can leach chemicals back into the soil.

Can Sometimes Lead to Rot

In rare cases, too much mulch that comes into contact with stems and branches can cause rotor damage to these pieces of the plant. This can weaken your plants, but can easily be prevented by mulching in moderation.

What is the Best Mulch for a Vegetable Garden?

red cedar mulch
Source: Pixabay

There is no one best type of mulch for a vegetable or herb garden. However, you need to keep in mind that there are dozens of options available to you, and it’s important to weigh the merits and disadvantages of each.

What are the Various Types of Mulch?

mulch on farm
Photo: Pixabay

There are two main “categories” of mulch, each of which can then be broken down into multiple subcategories. Mulch can be described as organic (biodegradable) or synthetic (non-biodegradable). While all of these can provide the myriad benefits listed above, keep in mind that each will offer varying benefits and challenges for your garden.

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch is a great choice for a garden because it can usually be obtained for a free or low-cost price. It contributes nutrients back to the soil as it decomposes, and there are tons of organic options. Plus, it is all natural, so your garden will be just as nature intended it to be.

Wood Chips

Wood chips are an excellent source of mulch because you can buy them in multiple formats depending on how you want your garden to lok and to function. You can buy them as the byproduct of tree pruning, or as finely shredded chips.

Grass Clippings

Consider collecting your grass clippings to use as a mulch after you have mowed the lawn. You will probably want to mix grass clippings with compost or fallen leaves before adding them to the garden.


If you’re looking for free mulch for your garden, look no further than leaves! You can use these around the base of a tree or even as a winter mulch for your raised garden beds.


Straw is easy to come by and it rots down relatively quickly, making it an ideal choice for vegetable gardens or as a cover for lawns that have recently been seeded. However, it can blow away easily, so you’ll want to wet it after you’ve applied it to your garden. Bales are easy to transport

Rock Mulch

I lump rock in the organic mulch category, even though it’s not technically biodegradable and is inorganic (it was never living). However, it’s a “natural” mulch that will work well in many cases.

You can use gravel, pebbles, or rocks in your garden and the benefit of these kinds of mulch is that they won’t decompose. They will stay in place for years and you can find them in all kinds of textures. Weed growth will be limited, but finding enough rocks to mulch your garden can be tricky and expensive.

Cardboard and Paper

Cardboard is an excellent source of mulch because it is recyclable. The easiest and best way to add cardboard to your garden is to pre soak it in water and then use it as a base layer for heavier mulching materials.


Many people use bark as a mulch because you will often find it in landscapes. Most people utilize bark mulch in layers.

Cedar Mulch

Cedar mulch, also known as black mulch or red mulch depending on the color you purchase it in, is a great choice for flower beds and herb gardens.  It is a long-lasting organic landscape mulch and actually helps to repel insects. It has a pleasant smell and does well with plants that prefer acidic soil.

Pine Needle Mulch

Pine needles are a good choice for a mulch. You can purchase these in bales or simply rake them up from beneath your own trees. These are incredibly lightweight but pack down nicely. They are great for large areas, but keep in mind that they do leach a lot of acid – so you should only use them around plants that prefer this.

Cocoa mulch

Cocoa mulch, or cocoa hull, is one of the most gorgeous mulches because it has a gorgeous color and texture. It also smells fantastic! However, it is poisonous to cats and dogs, and it can mold in humid climates. It can also be somewhat expensive.

Mushroom compost

This type of compost offers tons of nutrients – but you may get straw mushrooms popping up here and there.


Seaweed can be tough to find (unless, of course, you live near the ocean) but it’s a great source of nutrients for your garden.

Pine Bark Mulch

This is a cost-effective choice that many people use in flower beds. It doesn’t break down as quickly as finer mulch types, since the chunks are larger, and it draws in moisture. However, the pieces are still lightweight and can be blown away by the wind.

Synthetic Mulch

Synthetic mulch, on the other hand, will be cheaper in the long run since you won’t have to pay to replace or replenish mulch year after year. It tends to provide better shock-absorption and requires minimal maintenance. Plus, although synthetic mulch doesn’t necessarily come from nature, it does recycle material that would otherwise end up in the landfill.

Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch is a common type of mulch for playgrounds and other similar facilities. It looks a lot like bark mulch, but it lasts indefinitely. Rubber mulch is made out of recycled materials, so it can still be an environmentally-friendly option, but it will not decompose or blow away.

Landscape Fabric

Landscape fabric is another alternative to organic mulches in the garden. I’m not a huge fan of landscape fabric because you still need to put another layer of mulch on top of it for aesthetics. Plus, any weeds that land on top of it will establish into the fabric, making them more difficult to remove.


I use plastic sheets in my vegetable garden – because our weather is relatively cold here, plastic sheets offer us a great method of trapping heat and locking in warmth. We can warm the soil early in the growing season, and we also don’t have to worry about weeds popping through. Keep in mind, though, that plastic will obviously not decompose so you will need to tear it up every season.

When Should I Mulch?

mulch and bird
Photo: Pixabay

Ideally, you should mulch twice per year. The exact timing is up to you. Depending on the season, there are different ways you can mulch and different benefits associated with each.

If you mulch in the spring, your soil temperature will be kept level so that hibernating plants won’t be stressed from fluctuations in the weather. It also allows you to check over week or diseased plants and to reapply weathered mulch.

If you mulch in the summer, you can provide moisture retention so your plants don’t become dry in the heat. Plus, organic mulches like grass clippings are in high abundance during this time of the year.

If you mulch in the fall, you will help to avoid weed germination while the plants are dormant. Plus, it’s a pleasant time to be outside.

Finally, if you mulch in the winter, you can protect your plant roots from freezing and guard the soil against a frost.

How Much Mulch Do I Need?

cedar mulch
Photo: Pixabay

Start by figuring out how much mulch you need. You can easily calculate your needs by using a mulch calculator like this one or by simply factoring each area by multiplying the width and length. You should plan on covering the area with two inches of mulch.

Often, it is easier to buy bulk mulch or mulch by the yard than it is to buy it by the bag. Keep in mind, though, that buying by the bag can be a bit more convenient for spreading and pickup, although many stores do offer free or inexpensive mulch delivery.

Best Mulching Tips

Photo: Pixabay

To start mulching, begin by preparing the area. Get rid of weeds by manually removing them or applying a pre emergent herbicide. It’s easiest to spread mulch after your plants are already established.

Spread mulch by leaving a few inches between the mulch and the base of each plant. When you layer too much mulch on top of the base of the plant, you increase the risk of disease or pest infestation. Spread mulch evenly to help prevent weeds and retain moisture.

When you’re finished mulching, spray the area with a gentle stream of water. This will help prevent the mulch from blowing away, and it will make the area look fresh and ready to go.

Here are some other tips to help you get started:

  • Use mulch as a statement. There are so many different colors and styles of mulch available, you can easily complement the colors of your home or the rest of your landscape design.
  • Don’t overdo it. Your plants should be the main attraction – not the mulch. Try to incorporate as much vegetative cover as possible before adding your mulch.
  • Re Mulch and clean your beds regularly. You will probably need to re mulch every year. Remove old mulch before doing this.
  • Purchase high quality mulch. Don’t purchase mulch from an unreliable source. It can be delivered with weed seeds that will make it more difficult for you to get anything done in the garden.
  • Keep an eye on your quantities. You should use about three inches of mulch for your beds, and you should mulch twice a year.

What is Sheet Mulching?

Photo: Pixabay

Sheet mulching truly deserves a post of its own, but it’s something worth talking about – albeit briefly – in this mulching guide. Sheet mulch is a technique of mulching that is designed to improve soil health and reduce the need for excessive watering. Here’s how it works.

You start with an area of chopped down vegetation, removing only large plant material. The clippings that you leave on the ground will decay and replenish the soil with nutrients. Then, you put down cardboard or newspaper, which will limit light penetration. Then, you add a layer of compost or aged chicken manure. Finally, you add a layer of mulch (which must be free from weed seeds) to help produce an attractive appearance.

When you’re ready to plant, all you do is puncture the cardboard with a knife and then place the plants in these oil beneath the mulch. Sheet mulching provides so many benefits, and it’s a great option for people who need to build up soils that are lacking in nutrients or proper structure. It can reduce your reliance on tilling, too.

Where Can I Buy Mulch?

mulch for sale
Photo: Pixabay

You can find mulch on sale just about anywhere you turn. If you don’t have a reliable source of free mulch, however, the cost can quickly start to add up.

There are several ways you can score free mulch or even make it on your own to save some money. For example, you could chop up your organic garden waste with a garden shredder, or you could use a mulching lawn mower to get free leaf or hay mulch.

Call around, because landscaping companies are sometimes looking to get rid of wood chips. You can often get these for free and you will pay far less than if you purchased wood mulch at a lawn and garden store.

My favorite method of mulching? Sheet mulching! I sheet mulch in my garden using cardboard. Often, I lay another source of mulch down on top of the cardboard for aesthetic purposes – usually hay or straw. The cardboard is just leftover from packing boxes from various things I’ve purchased online, and this saves me tons of money (and keeps all that waste out of the landfill!).

My favorite time to mulch? In the spring! It’s one of my must-do springtime gardening organization tasks, and I make sure it’s on my list each year. What other tips do you have for mulching that I haven’t covered?

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Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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