Types of Mulch – The Ultimate Guide

Mulching is highly beneficial as it can improve the health of your plants and give your garden a neat and professional look. If you’re a novice gardener, deciding on the right type of mulch for your garden can be a daunting task, especially with all the options available on the market.

That’s where we come in! This ultimate guide has all the information you need to know about the different types of mulch and we’ve also included some products for you to check out.

What is Mulch?               

Mulch is a mixture of materials used to cover the surface of the soil by spreading it around your plants. There are various types of mulch available on the market, sorted under two main categories: inorganic and organic mulch. Let’s take a look at these two categories in detail.

Organic Mulch

Organic mulch is any type of mulch made with residues from animals or plant materials.  There are numerous types of organic mulch to choose from because of all the natural agricultural waste that’s produced every day. Here are some examples of the most common and popular kinds of organic mulch.

Compost

compost

This is one of the most often used types of organic mulch. Compost is made from various types of organic material such as food waste, animal manure (especially cow dung), and natural garden waste, to name a few.

Compost can be used as a layer of mulch by itself or mixed with natural soil and added to the roots of plants directly. Either way, over time it helps your plants to grow healthily with its natural fertilizing qualities. When compost is used as mulch, a layer of 1-2 inches in thickness is usually enough to protect the plants and maintain soil temperature.  

There are numerous compost products on the market you can buy at a fair price. However, it’s really important to find good quality compost to ensure that your plants will grow well. High-quality compost has a black or dark brownish color that looks like loamy fertile soil and it should have a crumbly structure.

If there are any large and visible particles or flecks in the mixture, it’s likely that the compost is not of good quality.

organic compost
Organic compost by Blue Ribbon Organics. See it here.

Wood Chips and Bark Mulch

While wood chips are made by shredding scraps of the inside of a tree, bark mulch is made from the rough, outer layer of wood that peels off. This type of mulch can come either from hardwood trees like oak, maple, and walnut or softwood trees like pine and spruce.

wood chips and bark mulch
Wood chips and bark mulch by Fungionline. See it here.

Wood chips and bark mulch is typically scattered around trees and bushes. It works by suppressing the weeds while keeping the soil cool or warm as necessary. Over time, the chips and bark decompose, breaking down and adding nutrients to the soil. Depending on the size of the pieces a layer of 2-4 inches is considered thick enough for most plants.

Mulch made with softwood is slightly more acidic than hardwood mulch so it can take longer to break down and decay.

You can always use wood chips and bark mulch not just for gardening but also for landscaping purposes like decorating pathways to improve the appearance of your  yard or garden

Straw

Straw is what’s left of crops such as rice, wheat, barley, and oats once they’re harvested and the grain is removed. These parts are considered agricultural waste and a byproduct of such grains.

Straw mulch is perfect for recently seeded yards and lawns as well as for vegetable patches with newly planted seeds. This is because it helps to keep grass seeds from being washed away with water. Straw mulch provides a home for insects that can safeguard the freshly sown seeds by repelling any pests attracted to them.

straw mulch
Straw mulch by EZ Straw. See it here.

Straw mulch can also be cleaned easily by using a common garden tool like a rake which doesn’t require a lot of hard work. If you’re using straw mulch in your garden, a layer of 2-3 inches will be enough for your plants.

This kind of mulch is recognized as one of the least expensive organic mulches on the market. However, it can be easily confused for hay mulch since the two products are fairly similar in appearance, so make sure you’ve got the right one. The main issue with hay mulch is that there could be leftover seeds in it that could grow into weeds later on.

Living Mulch

Simply, any type of low-growing plants that are grown as cover crops (plants used to slow down erosion) belongs to this category. Living mulch is mostly used in orchards, either planted in between the main crops or after harvesting. Thyme, barley, buckwheat, field pea, ryegrass, oats, rosemary, and annual clovers such as rose clover and crimson clover are a few examples of living mulch.

living mulch
Rye seeds for living mulch by CZ Grain. See it here.

Planting cover crops should be done at the right time using the right type of cover crop. This should be decided according to the seasonal climate changes and the crop you’re planting. For instance, if you’re planting roses, the living mulch used for this shouldn’t be something that grows higher than the rose bushes. In this case, small plants like rosemary are an ideal choice for living mulch.

Living mulch has various benefits for your garden including the following:

  • It nurtures the soil
  • Keeps out weeds
  • Prevents erosion
  • Attracts beneficial insects
  • Controls pests
  • Keeps your garden looking beautiful throughout the year

Other Types of Organic Mulch

When it comes to organic mulching, you can use almost any organic material apart from the above-mentioned types. Here are some of the most commonly used types you can try out:  

  • Saw dust
  • Coconut husks
  • Shredded leaves
  • Pine needles
  • Grass clippings
  • Cardboard
  • Newspaper
  • Coco hulls

Inorganic Mulch

Unlike organic mulch, inorganic mulch does not decay or break down with time, nor does it add nutrients to the soil. The many benefits of inorganic mulch depend on the type of mulch being used and what it’s used for. Some inorganic mulch is made from synthetic materials while others are taken from the natural environment. Some of the inorganic mulch types include:

Landscape Fabric

These are also called “geotextiles” or “weed fabric”. As the name suggests, these fabrics are used to cover the grounds beneath trees and plants mainly to suppress weed growth.

Landscape fabrics prevent the sprouting and spreading of weeds by blocking the air, sunlight, and the space required for weeds to grow. Made with non-woven fibers, these sheets have tiny holes through which water can seep into the soil. They also minimize evaporation, keeping the soil cool and moist, while reducing erosion.

landscape fabrics
Landscape fabrics by ECOgardener store. See them here.

If you’re using landscape fabric as inorganic mulch for your garden, remember to cover them up with a layer of another kind of mulch. This is because the fabrics tend to degrade over time due to sunlight. Adding another layer of mulch will protect them and ensure that they last longer.  

Rubber Mulch

This inorganic mulch is made with pieces of recycled and pulverized rubber that mostly comes from old tires. It helps conserve soil moisture through proper drainage and reduces weed growth.

rubber mulch
Rubber mulch by International Mulch. See it here.

Rubber mulch is also used for other non-agricultural purposes such as landscaping. For example, it’s often applied on playground floors since its mushy and cushiony texture protects children from falling and getting hurt.

Gravel, Pebbles and Stones

This is one of the most common kinds of natural inorganic mulch used for gardening and landscaping. It can be used to decorate your outdoor or indoor living areas and you can find it on the market in many varieties and colors.

Other than improving the appearance of your garden, a layer of this mulch can work wonders when it comes to controlling weed fluctuation. With their hard texture, gravel and stone chippings make it almost impossible for weeds to spring out. Gravel and stone layers are often applied as mulch for cacti and succulents.

gravel mulch
Gravel and pebble mulch by Voulosimi. See it here.

Other Types of Inorganic Mulch

Other common types of inorganic mulch include plastic, polyethylene sheets, and glass. If you’re using glass as mulch, however, remember to wear a pair of gloves to protect yourself from getting hurt.

Organic Mulch vs Inorganic Mulch

Even though these two types of mulch are varied in many ways, they’re both typically used to achieve the same set of agricultural and aesthetic goals. However, they certainly have advantages and disadvantages of their own.

For instance, organic mulch is a great way to provide your plants with slow-decaying natural fertilizer and nutrients. However, it has to be removed and replaced very often which means it requires a higher level of care and maintenance.

Inorganic mulch won’t give your plants any nutrients, but once applied, you won’t have to worry about replacing it again for a long time.

In terms of cost, inorganic mulch can be very expensive since it’s also very hard to find. However, most organic mulches are easily available on the market and cost far less.

The Take Away

There are many different types of mulch that you can use in your garden to keep your plants thriving. You can always find most of these types in your local garden store, but you can also search online for different options.

If you’d prefer to make your own mulch instead, check out our article on how to make mulch.

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