Garden Advice

Different Types of Mulch – Which Should You Use?

If you’re a gardening enthusiast, you’ve probably heard time and time again how important mulching is for the wellbeing of your garden. So, you’ve decided to give it a go! But inevitably, you’ll get to the hard part – choosing the best type of mulch.

This decision can quickly turn into a nightmare if you don’t know what you’re looking for, or even what options are out there! And with so many kinds to choose from, it’s no wonder you’ve turned to the internet for help.

Luckily, you’ve landed in the right place! Get ready, as we go over all the different types of garden mulch, what they are, what they do, and when to use each one.

So, if you:

  • Are fond of gardening and want to improve your green space;
  • Have heard of mulching and wish to incorporate it into your gardening practice;
  • Are wondering what the different types of mulch are and which one is right for you,

Then keep on reading! This post has the answers.

What is garden mulch?

Mulching is the practice of covering the soil in your garden with a protective layer to reap the benefits (and they are plenty). Garden mulch is essentially any type of material you can use to cover the ground, be it a solid sheet or a loose covering.

But why is mulching so important?

As we mentioned, this practice has tonnes of benefits, some more common than others. The main advantages of mulching your garden are that it improves the soil’s water retention and (in some cases) its structure, and that it keeps those pesky weeds in check. And, of course, mulch can make your green space look neat and attractive, too.

If you’d like some more detailed information, head over to our dedicated blog post. There, we cover what mulching is, what its advantages are, and what common mistakes to avoid when mulching.

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Now, let’s get to the matter at hand.

What are the different types of mulch?

There is definitely no shortage of mulch types available. Finding a specific kind that suits your garden’s needs exactly is a piece of cake! To make things a bit more simple and organised, all types of garden mulch can be placed into two categories: organic and inorganic.

Let’s take a look at both kinds separately.

Types of organic mulch

Organic mulch is also called natural or biodegradable. These mulch types are the most widely used ones among expert gardeners and hobbyists alike. This is primarily due to their wide range of benefits.

Organic mulch refers to any mulching material that naturally breaks down over time and improves the soil. It has many advantages over the inorganic kind. Some of the benefits exclusive to biodegradable mulch include:

  • Providing nutrients to the soil;
  • Keeping some pests away;
  • Offering a favourable environment for earthworms and other beneficial organisms.

Of course, natural mulch has its drawbacks, just like everything else. Ironically, one of its main desirable properties is also its greatest disadvantage – the fact that it breaks down. While this does improve the soil significantly, it also means you have to replace it occasionally. But we’d say the benefits greatly outweigh the drawbacks, as do most professional gardeners.

Now, let’s cover the most popular types of organic mulch and their specifics.

Compost

Image source: Shutterstock / Ruslan Khismatov

Compost is by far one of the best types of mulch if you’re looking to add nutrients to your soil without changing up the look of your garden too much. It blends into the soil seamlessly while still offering all the benefits that other, more decorative kinds have.

One of the great things about compost is that it lets you repurpose all of your garden waste and some of your kitchen scraps, too. There are tonnes of nutrients left in these materials that will just go to waste if you chuck them out. You can make much better use of them if you compost them at home instead! All your plants will thank you – flowers or veggies, in pots or the garden.

Spreading a layer of compost over the soil will not only provide the plants with nutrients, but it will also add some insulation, keeping the roots warmer during cold spells. It can even improve the soil texture and help it retain more water and dry out slower.

Something you need to keep in mind is that the compost needs to be moist. Dried out mulch is not necessarily the best for your plants, so make sure to keep on top of watering.

Compost can also work when it comes to weed control. When emerging weeds get buried under a good layer of mulch, they will have a hard time and most likely just die out. However, the compost itself can contain some viable weed seeds, or they might end up in it after you apply the layer. As you know, compost is a fantastic growing medium, and those lucky seeds will start growing without any problems.

To prevent this, you can add another layer of mulch, preferably one that’s better at keeping weeds down. Wood chips, for example, are a good choice.

Composted manure

Image source: Shutterstock / sharon kingston

Another fantastic all-rounder when it comes to mulch types is well-rotted animal manure. It doesn’t sound delightful, we know. But composted manure is full of valuable nutrients that can boost your veggie garden.

Its benefits are pretty much the same as those of compost when used as mulch, however, it’s most commonly tilled into the soil and used as fertiliser, instead.

Make sure you only use well-rotted manure, as the fresh kind can burn the roots. Also, steer clear of cat and dog manure – they’re known to carry organisms that can cause diseases, which you wouldn’t want around your veggies. Chicken, cow, and sheep manure are often good choices.

Of course, any type of animal manure can contain harmful pathogens, and grazing animals, like cows, can end up with weed seeds in their stomach, which will then make their way to the manure. If you want to be sure that the material is safe to use, get the store-bought, already prepared kind. Avoid buying fresh farm manure.

Bark or wood chips

Image source: Shutterstock / sigurcamp

Wood and bark chippings are some of the more popular mulch types used in borders and flower beds. This isn’t really a surprise – they’re a pretty attractive option!

There are many different types of wood mulch out there – bark, hardwood, softwood, pine, cedar – you name it! You can also find dyed kinds, more commonly in black or red. These can look quite nice in your garden, but if you’re looking for a truly organic option, take the time to research precisely what that mulch or dye contains. Most wood mulch types you can purchase are aged, and each kind can have a different purpose.

Another option is to get your wood chippings from your municipality or other local organisations, often for free. However, if this is your go-to wood mulch source, keep in mind that it won’t be dried or aged. Fresh wood chips can leach nitrogen from the soil instead of enriching it.

Like pretty much all types of mulch, wood and bark chippings are great at keeping weeds in check, providing insulation, and helping water retention. Some kinds can help deter certain pests, too. Cedar, pine, and cypress chips, for example, can effectively protect against gnats and fleas. They do add some amount of nutrients to the soil, too, but this can take several years.

If you’re planning on mulching your veggie garden with wood chips, though, you might want to think twice. Unlike compost, this mulch type needs to stay only on top of the soil, so it will only be a nuisance when it’s time to dig and turn your vegetable or annual flower garden. Stick to perennial flower beds, shrub borders, and paths.

Leaf mulch

Image source: Shutterstock / claire norman

Another star on the list of organic mulch types is leaf mulch. This refers to a layer of shredded leaves layered on top of the soil. Just like other kinds, leaf mulch can provide the ground with lots of nutrients (and we mean lots). Additionally, it makes for the perfect environment for earthworms and can even help improve clay soil.

Another benefit is that you can turn leaf mulch into leaf mould to till into the ground as fertiliser – the decomposed leaves can greatly improve the soil’s structure and help with moisture retention.

Sure, it’s not the most attractive type of mulch, but it will do wonders for your vegetable garden or flower pots and borders. So, if you’re not aiming for aesthetics, give it a try. Best of all, both leaf mulch and leaf mould are super easy to make!

Of course, there are a few things to pay attention to here:

  • Always shred the leaves when making leaf mulch. If left whole, they can clump together easily and result in a nearly impenetrable layer that will make watering difficult.
  • Some types of leaves shouldn’t be used for leaf mulch – eucalyptus leaves, for example.
  • Pay attention to the leaves you’ll be using and check for any diseases. Infected leaves should be chucked out.

Grass clippings

Image source: Shutterstock / Luisa Leal Photography

Don’t you wish you could somehow use all the leftover grass clippings after you mow the lawn? Well, you can – use them as lawn mulch!

Grass clippings are a great source of nitrogen that can benefit both your lawn and your vegetable plots. Sure, you can buy them if you need to, but if you’ve got a lawn – why bother? All you need is right there! Just spread a thin layer of grass clippings over the lawn or soil, and that’s pretty much it.

Really pay attention to the “thin” part – a thick layer of grass will clump together easily, which can suffocate the grass underneath, mould very quickly, or make it difficult for water to pass through.

Another upside of grass mulch is that you don’t have to remove it once the growing season is over. Just turn the clippings into the soil to give it an extra nutrient boost!

As with leaf mulch, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t use grass clippings that have turned to seed if you don’t want grass to start growing in your veggie plots.
  • Don’t use clippings from a lawn that has been treated with pesticides or herbicides to avoid contaminating the soil.
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Straw

Image source: Shutterstock / Hans Verburg

Straw mulch is a fantastic option for veggie plots and strawberries. Just like the other types of organic mulch, straw helps prevent weeds, keep moisture locked in, and add extra nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Additionally, it keeps your fruit and veggies clean and mud-free in the rain.

Like other light-coloured mulch types, straw can keep plant roots from overheating in summer, as it reflects light away from the soil. It’s a great option for freshly-sown lawns, too, as it not only holds extra moisture, but it stops birds from picking off the seeds.

This kind of mulch also does a pretty good job at keeping slugs away from your produce, but it’s not always the best choice. To deter slugs away from seedlings and young plants, mulch around them with broken eggshells. Note, however, that straw can easily attract rodents, rabbits, and other critters that like to gnaw on it. So, if these kinds of animals are common in your area, maybe think about alternatives.

Be careful not to confuse straw with hay, which can contain seeds that then sprout in your garden as weeds. This can be an issue for meadow-sourced straw, too, so look into where it comes from.

Cardboard or newspaper

Image source: Shutterstock / Graham Corney

And last but not least, you can use shredded newspapers or cardboard, too! This is pretty effective if you want to keep weeds down and keep moisture in. And, you can make up for the practically nonexistent nutrients by adding another type of organic mulch. You’ll probably need to do so anyway since the paper is likely to fly all over the place if left uncovered.

If using this kind of mulch, only use black-and-white newspaper and uncoated, natural cardboard. Other varieties can leach toxic dyes and chemicals into the soil.

So, now that we’ve covered the different biodegradable mulch types, let’s talk about…

Types of inorganic mulch

Inorganic (synthetic, non-biodegradable) mulch refers to any covering that doesn’t decompose and add beneficial nutrients to the ground. These kinds still share some benefits with organic mulch. They can be a fantastic option when trying to kill off weeds, keeping moisture in the soil, and helping with temperature control.

However, they won’t improve the soil itself at all, so apart from the benefits mentioned above, they’re mainly used for decoration. One of the better advantages of synthetic mulch is that it’s pretty low maintenance – since the materials don’t break down, you won’t have to replace the mulch as often, if at all.

Let’s take a look at what artificial mulch types are out there.

Slate, gravel, or other stone chippings

Image source: Shutterstock / Beekeepx

You might have seen various types of stone used in paths and driveways. But did you know stone chippings also make fantastic decorative mulch, too?

Stone mulch won’t provide many benefits to the plants themselves, but it can look beautiful in smaller gardens, both in flower beds and borders. It will also help you keep weeds at bay, too.

You might want to avoid it around trees, though, as lots of debris can get trapped in the mulch, and cleaning gravel can be a burden sometimes. You want to keep your garden looking neat, so this kind of defeats the purpose. Just make sure that, if using stone chips around plants, you water enough that the moisture can make its way through to the soil.

If you decide to use stone mulch around plants, keep in mind that it won’t do a great job at retaining moisture. This material can also result in heat stress sometimes, so use it with caution.

Rubber

Image source: Shutterstock / Kayla Blundell

Rubber mulch is usually made from recycled tyres. It’s a relatively cheap and very durable option, meaning it’s great for areas with lots of foot traffic – paths, playgrounds, and the like.

But if you’re planning on using it in your vegetable or flower garden, you better reconsider. Rubber has way too many drawbacks that are just not worth it.

Sure, it doesn’t attract any pests to your garden, but it keeps beneficial animals and insects away, too. And not to mention what studies have shown – rubber mulch can actually leach toxic materials and chemicals into the soil!

Oh, and it can also be a fire hazard.

So, it’s not surprising that professional gardeners don’t recommend using rubber mulch in your garden.

Plastic

Image source: Shutterstock / Attasit saentep

Plastic mulch, most commonly in the form of solid sheets, can be a good choice for your vegetable garden. Some of the benefits of sheet mulching include:

  • Helping keep the ground warm due to its heat absorption properties (black plastic, specifically);
  • Protecting the produce from rotting;
  • Killing off existing weeds or lawns (before removing them);
  • Improving soil water retention.

This might sound great, but it’s not a permanent solution, and there are a few specifics involved when using this type of mulch.

If you just lay a solid sheet of plastic down, water won’t make it through. At all. So, you’ll have to do some extra work. You can place drip or soaker hoses under the sheet to ensure the soil actually gets the moisture it needs. Or you can just water manually, but this can be pretty cumbersome if you have a large garden. The good news is that plastic mulch will do a pretty good job at keeping the moisture locked in.

Avoid using plastic sheets underneath shrubs, as they can do more harm than good. When water and air are blocked off, the shrubs’ roots will grow very close to the surface to try and find what they need, leading to a steady decline and then the shrub’s death.

So, if you plan on using plastic sheets, use them only when needed and in your veggie garden.

Landscape fabric

Image source: Shutterstock / Angurt

This type of mulch is also referred to as geotextiles. Like plastic sheets, landscape fabric keeps weeds from coming through and can kill existing ones, but also lets in water and oxygen.

Most of what we said about plastic mulch can be said about geotextiles, too. The main difference is that the fabric is permeable and that it’s better suited for long-term use. It’s just as unsightly as a sheet of plastic, though.

To get all the benefits of landscape fabric, combined with the advantages of organic mulch types, you can add a layer of natural material over it.

Which is the best type of mulch?

So, now you know all about the different types of garden mulch out there, both organic and inorganic.

But which one is the best?

Well, there really is no straight answer to this question. Which mulch type is right for you largely depends on your garden’s needs. Knowing the specifics, pros, and cons of each kind means you can make an informed choice, be it for your vegetable garden, flower beds or borders, or just to create a garden path.

Need a hand with your garden?

If you find all of this overwhelming, don’t worry! You can keep your garden healthy and attractive without all the stress and hard work. Just turn to the professionals!

Fantastic Services provides a reliable garden maintenance service, performed by specialists with years of experience in the field (pun intended). Rest assured, they can take care of your entire garden, from lawn to veggie plot. And should you need help with planning and planting your flower beds, the landscaping experts we work with will make sure you get the garden of your dreams!

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Takeaways

  • There are two main types of mulch: organic and inorganic.
  • Organic mulch refers to any natural material that breaks down over time and improves the soil.
  • Some types of organic mulch include wood and bark chips, compost, rotted manure, grass clippings, leaf mulch, and more.
  • Inorganic mulch is a material that doesn’t break down or improve the soil in any way.
  • Most artificial mulch types are used for decorative purposes, to kill unwanted vegetation or to prevent weed growth.
  • Inorganic mulch includes gravel and other stone chippings, plastic, and landscape fabric.
  • When choosing a type of mulch, consider your garden’s needs, as different kinds have different properties and purposes.

Mulching is one of the essential garden tasks that are best done in spring and autumn. To learn more about various other practices and when to do them, take a look at our year-round gardening calendar for the UK!

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We hope this post answered all your questions. If you have anything else you’d like to know, share it with us in the comments below!

Image source: Shutterstock / Dietrich Leppert

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