What is Mulch? | Types of Mulch | Mulching Guide

by Kimberly Hill

Mulching Guide

Mulch is one of the most talked-about subjects by gardeners, farmers, and homeowners whenever they meet. The topic is one of the most discussed in this niche due to the plethora of mulch types used in gardens or homes. From these discussions, different people have different preferences regarding mulching. Most of them use a combination of different mulch types suited for different conditions or climates. Other individuals prefer to alternate between different single mulch types to cut costs or provide the best environments for different plant species. Before we evaluate the different mulch types available in the market, we should understand what mulch is.

Mulching Guide
Mulching Guide

What is Mulch?

The word ‘Mulch’ has German roots, from the world ‘molsch,’ meaning ‘beginning to decay’. This probably was about biodegradable mulch, commonly used in the past.

Whenever you are walking through or camping in the forest, you might see a thick layer of twigs or leaves carpeting the floor. These layers crunch under the feet and can be thin or thick depending on the type of trees in the forest and the season. This layer, commonly known as mulch, protects the forest’s floor from excess evaporation.

Therefore, mulch is any later – thin or thick on the soil – that mimics the condition of forests. The layer is beneficial to the soil in many ways.

Benefits of Mulch

Mulch has numerous beneficial properties, making it popular in the gardening niche. Here is a detailed analysis of why mulch is special:

  1. Conservation of Moisture: Gardeners spend a large chunk of their time watering gardens. Although effective, the difference in temperature between the garden and its surroundings leads to loss of water via evaporation. Mulch helps the soil to retain moisture for long by creating a barrier between the soil and air.
  2. Protection Against Weeds: the protective layer that mulch forms between the soil and the sun (or hot atmospheric air) prevent weeds from sprouting and growing. Even if hardy weeds manage to sprout, they wilt and die most of the time due to lack of sunlight.
  1. Winter Protection: Mulching the ground will not stop it from freezing in winter. However, it prevents the buildup and throwing of snow (freeze and thaw cycles) from uprooting and killing your plant at subzero temperatures. Such plants thrive after winter.
  1. Improves the Fertility of the Soil: when organic mulch decays and leeches nutrients into the soil, improving fertility. The organic matter from mulch also encourages the growth of worms, which transport the organic matter and nutrients deeper into the soil.
  1. Prevents Soil Crusting; soil can form a thick crust whenever rain strikes it at high speed, impeding the growth of plants. The force of rain droplets can also scatter the fertile top layer of soil, thus lowering the fertility of lawns or gardens. Mulching can prevent such issues and maintain the productivity of soils by breaking the force of rain droplets. Water trickles through it and into the soil.
  1. The Aesthetic Perspective: Mulched grounds have an even and aesthetic look. Moreover, because it impedes the growth of weeds, it boosts the aesthetic value of lawns even further. While inorganic mulching methods such as stones do not improve the fertility of soils, they come in aesthetic designs that people love.

Types of Mulch

Mulch is of two basic types, organic and inorganic. Organic mulches have natural components that decay over time and therefore could contribute to the nutritional value of soils. They mimic the mulch found in the forest and does not require a lot of effort to install or maintain. Inorganic mulches do not decay over time. While they do not contribute to the fertility of soils, they have unique sets of pros.

Video | Different Types of Mulch

Organic Mulch

People use a variety of organic materials (mostly plants) to make organic mulch. It is one of the most popular because of its ability to conserve water and inhibit the growth of weeds. Moreover, unlike inorganic mulches that are “dead,” organic much improves the nutritional content of soil by encouraging the growth of worms.

Here is a review of the commonest organic mulches and their pros:

Bark Mulch

This mulch has two components softwood and hardwood.

Shredded hardwood is a readily available byproduct of wood industries that make paper or wood products. You can also find it in lumberyards in different sizes (ranging from a nugget to a small chip) at different rates and colors (dyed). Hardwood mulch is common around perennial plants and trees found in the home.

Softwood bark is also common in paper industries and lumberyards. Pine, for instance, is a major component of softwood bark mulches as it is everywhere. However, because pine bark is highly acidic, it might not be suitable for some species of plants. It also takes a significantly longer time to decompose compared to other mulches.

Overall, wood-based bark mulches do not mix well with the soil. They are also problematic to handle and therefore work the best in low-maintenance areas where you will not have to dog often.

Video | Choosing the Best Mulch

Leaf Mulch

This mulch originates from fallen leaves and therefore is one of the easiest to prepare at home. It is also an economical mulching option as leaves are readily available free in most settings. To produce your leaf mulch in the fall, you will have to spend a few dollars on an effective leaf mulcher. The products are easy to use and prevent you from having overly thick mulch in your garden, which often has more cons than pros. It can act as a soggy mat, for instance, which not only impedes the growth of weeds but beneficial plants as well.

Leaf mulch is common on plant beds as the light leaf mixes used to make it decompose fast and mix evenly with soil. However, the downside is that leaves are susceptible to infections such as scab, leaf spot, or anthracnose. Therefore, before adding a batch to your garden, make sure that the leaves do not have any disease that can spread to your lawn or ruin your garden.

WORX WG430 | Mulch your Leaves

WORX WG430 | Mulch Your Leaves
A bladeless mulching system with an 11:1 mulch ratio.
WORX WG430 | Mulch Your Leaves

Wood Mulch

This type of mulch emanates from waste wood from pruned trees. While grooming your backyard, you will not generate thick batches of lumbar as people who cut large trees or clear forests do. However, the small branches you get from shrubs and small trees are equally beneficial as you can use them to control the moisture content of the soil in other areas of r lawns. They can also regulate the temperature of the soil and prevent weeds from sprouting and growing in a garden.

Like bark mulch, wood-based mulches offer a limited nutritional value, as they do not mix well with soils not decompose quickly. Thus, they are best to use around shrubs or trees. Do not use them around plants with soft stems as they often do more harm than good. Root rot, for instance, will not be a concern, as the soil will drain well.

Video | Mulching Tips

Wood Chip Mulch

Many people confuse wood chip mulch and wood mulch while selecting the best mulch for their homes. This should no longer be the case as the sources of these mulches are different. Wood chip mulch comes from treated or processed timber, often as pellets.

Cedar Mulch

Cedar trees are an excellent source of wood-based mulch. They are of different types each with their pros and cons. For instance, Cedars originate from Junipers. Other popular Cedar species for mulching include the Eastern Red Cedar, Southern Red Cedar, and Western Red Cedar, but which are generally less effective than the first batch. From the available research, Junipers grow on alkaline soil while the others thrive on acidic soil, making the former more nutritious.

Unlike other mulch types, Cedar has multiple interesting features that make it an ideal choice for mulching homes. For instance, freshly ground cedar has insect repellent properties. It also breaks down and decomposes faster, adding weak organic acids to alkaline soil. Thus, your plants will absorb nutrients better and grow faster.

A major drawback of using cedar is that their oils evaporate quickly at high temperatures, leaving the wood with a relatively high carbon to nitrogen ratio, which can cause yellowing of newly planted plants.

Pine Needle Mulch

Commonly referred to as the Pine Straw mulch, Pine Needle Mulch is another popular option for homes. With this product, you are getting a renewable source of mulch found in most regions of the world. In the USA, for instance, large volumes of pine needle mulch come from North Carolina, where pine needle trees are abundant. The product is also cheaper than its competitors due to its low production costs. All producers do is pick pine needles as they fall from trees, treat them if required, and process them for mulching.

Cypress Mulch

Cypress mulch emanates from cypress trees. The product has a fresh aroma and a special ability to limit or stop the growth of weeds if you apply a 3-inch thick coat to your lawn or garden. Since it takes a bit of time to break down, Cypress trees make long lasting mulch.

Cypress Mulch
Cypress Mulch

Unfortunately, Cypress has a few limitations. For instance, Cypress takes over 100 years to mature. Therefore, to produce mulch, you have to cut many old trees, which might not go down well with environmentalists. These trees do not regenerate in the future, making the environmental impact of cutting down Cyprus worse.

Colored Mulch

Organic mulch often contains black, brown, or red dye. While other colors are available, Red and Black mulch are among the most popular due to their charming outlook. Moreover, research has demonstrated that the colored dyes used on these accessories are 100% safe (non-toxic). You can use them everywhere worry-free.

Aged Wood Compost

These emanate from hardwood trimmings left to compost and slightly decay in a controlled environment. To hasten decomposition, hardwood is broken down into shreds and fine chips using machines. This mulch not only has a stunning outlook on gardens and landscaped lawns but also boosts the nutritional value of the soil.

Earthquake 14267 Chipper Shredder With 212cc 4-Cycle Viper Engine
Converts brush piles from the garden and trees into usable mulch.
Earthquake 14267 Chipper Shredder With 212cc 4-Cycle Viper Engine

Cocoa Mulch

As the name suggests, the mulch contains cocoa bean shells – byproducts during chocolate production – as a base. Cocoa mulch is desirable in homes and commercial areas as it is light, fast-draining, and has a sweet chocolate smell that lingers on lawns for a few days.

Cocoa mulch also contains Theobromine – a naturally occurring stimulant that is toxic to cats and dogs. Therefore, if you have a pet at home, it would be wise to avoid mulch with cocoa bean shells.

Straw Mulch

For years, people have used straws to create a protective layer on gardens. However, because it is light and therefore susceptible to high winds, you should crimp and matt it to strengthen its structure. The product is affordable and boosts water retention in most soils.

Straw Mulch
Straw Mulch

Peat Moss Mulch

Peat moss, or ‘Sphagnum peat’, has grown in popularity over the years because of its longevity and availability in portable, neatly package parcels. Moreover, when wet, peat moss forms a dense crust between the soil and air to stop water from seeping through.

It is also rich in carbon and therefore easier to dispose of by burning once it is dry.

Video | Best & Worst Mulch

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulch has synthetic and non-biodegradable ingredients. While organic mulch is the most preferred in homes, inorganic mulches also appeal to a broad segment of the population and are therefore worth talking about/ reviewing.

Plastic Mulch

As the name suggests, plastic mulch consists of polyethylene pellets that create a thin sheet/ protective layer on the soil when in use. The material is stylish. Moreover, because plastic is impenetrable, sunlight, water, and nutrients cannot pass through it, making it an excellent natural control for troublesome weeds on gardens/lawns.

Plastic can also retain heat and is therefore suitable for maintaining the correct temperature for sprouting seedlings. Unfortunately, plastic is susceptible to UV damage and therefore does not last for long. It disintegrated quickly under the sunlight, making it a single-use mulch. You will have to replace your every season.


Did you know that many types of fabrics make excellent mulch for lawns and gardens? Synthetic carpets, for instance, are common in commercial settings. Other people prefer landscape fabric, which, compared to plastic mulch, lasts for many years. Therefore, you can use fabric mulch all year long across seasons without major issues.

The advantages of using fabric mulch are that it suppresses the growth of weeds completely but has a porous surface that allows air and water to circulate freely below the soil. You can use a landscape fabric singly or combine it with organic mulch to boost efficacy.

Electric Chipper/Shredder | Patriot CSV-2515

Electric Chipper/Shredder | Patriot CSV-2515
Produces 2 ½ inch thick chips from branches.
Electric Chipper/Shredder | Patriot CSV-2515

Rubber Mulch

Rubber is another popular inorganic mulch option for gardens and lawns. It contains recycled rubber from tires, which works as well as plastic and fabrics often do. Even though research is extensive in this niche, the impact of rubber mulches on the lives of humans and pets is underexplored. Available studies show that rubber mulches do not degrade as quickly as organic ones do. Instead, they stay in the soil for many years before they start to break down and are somewhat toxic to plants if you try to recycle your garden or lawn.


The use of stone in gardening and landscaping is widespread, making it one of the commonest mulching options for landscapers and gardeners. The material thrives as mulch, irrespective of the type. Marble chips, crushed gravel, and volcanic ash are the best.

Unfortunately, compared to other inorganic mulch types, stone does not retain moisture as they get too hot and can retain heat for long during summer months. When this happens, damage to the roots of plants is common. That is why you should not use stone mulch close to plants. Instead, place them at a fair distance as ornamental pieces.

Mulch Calculator | How Much Mulch Do You Need?

Data shows that the most effective mulch is around 3-4 inches thick. While this shows how much you will need to layer on the ground, it does not give estimates of the amount you will need for a given plot of land. Luckily, we have a formula that can simplify this entire process.

Mulch (in cubic yards) that you will need on your land equals the area in square feet multiplied by the depth of mulch in inches multiplied by 0.0031. Home Depot has an accurate Mulch and Top Soil Calculator online that eliminates manual calculation. It is easy to use.

Handheld Mulcher | WORX TriVac WG509

WORX WG509 TRIVAC 12 Amp 3-In-1 Electric Blower/Mulcher/Vacuum With Multi-Stage All Metal Mulching System, Black
Metal impeller a shredder blade has an 18:1 mulch ratio.
WORX WG509 TRIVAC 12 Amp 3-In-1 Electric Blower/Mulcher/Vacuum With Multi-Stage All Metal Mulching System, Black

Mulch Installation Checklist

Before adding mulch top your garden, follow this to-do list for the best experience:

  • Soil drainage: Check if your soil has sufficient drainage.
  • Plant species: Check if the plant in the vicinity of the ones you are planning to plant is compatible with the type of mulch that you are planning to use.
  • Preexisting mulch: Check if your garden or lawn has mulch. If yes, check its depth and break it into clumps before adding more.
  • The stems and the tree trunks: You should not pile a large amount of mulch next to tree trunks or stems. Instead, spread it away from the trunk or stem to give it space to breathe.

Mulching Landscape Beds & Planters

Mulching planters and landscape beds is a relatively simple task that most people can handle. Follow this systematic guide for best results:

  • STEP 1: Mark the area that you are planning to mulch.
  • STEP 2: Clear weeds and other undesired plants from the area by hand or using a machine – the method you use is up to you.
  • STEP 3: Add a weed barrier. Newspapers and commercial weed cloths work well in most areas and are relatively cheap. Use them to cover the entire area before adding mulch. Whatever you do, you should not use a plastic barrier at all costs.
  • STEP 4:  Spread a layer of mulch on your garden, ensuring that it does not exceed 4-inches. Overall, 3-4 inches of mulch is ideal.
  • STEP 5: The mulch should be around 1-2 inches away from the stem or trunks of your trees or plants.
  • STEP 6: Layer mulch on the outer edge of your garden and secure it in place. While most methods work, digging a small trench often works the best. Steel, stone, plastic, and wood edging are also ideal. Choose the most appropriate method.

Mulching Around Trees

Like planters and landscape beds, mulching the area around trees is simple. Here is an overview of how to handle the process:

  • STEP 1: Make a circle around your tree measuring around six feet in diameter.
  • STEP 2: Increase the mulch area by a foot every inch increase in the trunk’s diameter of the trunk’s diameter. This rule holds until 12 inches.
  • STEP 3: Add a weed barrier as we did with planters and landscape beds
  • STEP 4:Add a 3-4 inch deep layer of a mulch of your choice. This depth is suitable for all organic and inorganic mulch types
  • STEP 5: Maintain a consistent gap between the mulch and the tree. The product should not pile around your tree’s trunk
  • STEP 6: Organic mulch degrades some time. Therefore, you might have to top it up frequently when its level drops
  • STEP 7: Ass edging to the circumference of the mulch

From our discussions, it is evident that mulch types are diverse. Some are affordable and readily available all over the world while others are not. While choosing the best for your setting, factor in the types of plants you are growing and the soil type /quality of your garden. You should also know the cons and pros of your preferred mulch type and factor in cost before you head out to buy a product.

Learn more about mulches and mulching:

About Kimberly Hill

Now it is just me, Kimberly Hill living in New York city, N.Y.
Loves to blog about various aspects of life that matter most.
Received the BA degree in Art History from Stanford University of California.

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