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Mulch vs. Ground Cover: Which Should I Use?

Juli has been gardening in her yard for 21 years. She has almost run out of room for plants, shrubs and trees. Almost.

Perennial geranium, Geranium sanguineum, is a ground cover surrounded by mulch.

Perennial geranium, Geranium sanguineum, is a ground cover surrounded by mulch.

Mulch vs. Ground Cover

There are many ways to cover the space underneath trees, bushes, and plants. Both mulch and ground cover plants have their good and not-so-good points. So, which to use? Compare the benefits of both and see which one is best for you.


Here we’re talking about tree bark chips or shredded bark mulch that comes in bags sold by garden centers. Towns and cities often have a mulch program where you can pick up your own or have it delivered to your driveway.

Mulch is such a great finish for landscapes. It helps the soil retain moisture and makes the flowers, bushes, and trees stand out on the landscape. The eye can see each and every plant specimen. Everything looks nice and tidy. It says "well cared for."

The Pros and Cons of Using Mulch


  • Mulch helps plants retain moisture. It acts as a barrier between the ground and sunlight, slowing down evaporation. Rainwater is trapped in the fibers, keeping the ground underneath wet a little longer. This means more water for the plants, less watering for the homeowner.
  • The barrier also keeps the ground cooler by protecting it from the heat of the sun.
  • It also cuts down on weeding chores. The recommended depth of mulch is generally two to three inches. Unfortunately, weeds will grow in the top layer of mulch but are usually easier to pull out.
  • Mulch eventually decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil, feeding the plants.
  • New plants get a good start with mulch placed around them. Mulch keeps moisture in and weeding down the first year.


  • Mulch requires yearly maintenance. Fluffing it with a rake will make it look fresh and last longer.
  • Often, new mulch is simply added to the top of the old mulch. If this is a DIY (do it yourself) project, it requires a lot of labor: digging, lifting, scattering, and then smoothing it out.
  • It has a strong smell that lets you know it is fresh. The nose knows the smell of decomposing plant material. It might take a week or two for the smell to go away, so timing is essential. Mulching the landscape the day before a big birthday bash might look good, but it won't smell good.
  • The cost of adding new mulch every year can make it an expensive way to keep weeds down. Wind, heavy rain, and melting snow blow and wash mulch away. It might wind up in the grassy part of the yard, collect in yard drains, or even make its way into a storm sewer. In that case, it’s not doing its job and is creating problems elsewhere.
Fluffing last year's mulch.

Fluffing last year's mulch.

Ground Cover

What about ground cover? Choosing low-growing plants that complement the plantings that are already there give the landscape a certain flow. The eye travels over the whole composition. Everything blends together. Ground covers add to the plant palette.

Its height, width, and how crowded it likes to be determine whether or not a plant can be used as ground cover. The height of ground cover plants, in general, can be anywhere from one to six inches. Some are shorter of course and some taller. Some grow like a mat. Some individual plants, like Lily of the Valley, grow close together.

Pros and Cons of Ground Covers


  • Once planted and established, ground covers do what their name says–cover the ground. Many grow thickly and smother weeds.
  • They also keep the ground cool by casting shade.
  • They draw rainwater into the soil, reducing runoff to the sewer system.
  • Photosynthesis, the plants' process of converting sunlight into energy, helps clear the air of toxins. The plants absorb carbon dioxide in the air and release oxygen, benefiting the environment.
  • Generally, it takes two years for most plants to become established. Always be sure to water well the first year.
  • Maintenance is low once they’re grown. Pull the few weeds that may come up and water when there hasn’t been enough rain. That’s it.
  • There are a large variety of plants for any condition you care to cover: shade-lovers, sun-lovers, vines, and mat-like plants. Many have flowers.


  • Since it takes a couple of years for ground covers to grow and spread over the area you want covered, weeding around the ground cover will remain a chore.
  • Some plants may die, leaving a hole in the area you want covered. They will need to be replaced.

Why Not Use Both?

A solution for the time it takes a ground cover to grow is to partner it with mulch! After planting a ground cover, scatter mulch around it. The new ground cover gains from mulch’s moisture and weed protection. When grown, the ground cover feeds from the mulch-enriched soil. Both work together to benefit the garden.

Recap: Mulch


Looks nice and tidy.

Repeat labor: have to fluff or add to existing mulch every year.

Makes individual plants stand out.

Repeat cost of buying more.

Helps retain moisture. Traps rainwater, keeping the soil beneath wet a little longer.

Heavy rain or melting snow washes it away.

Decomposes to add nutrients.

Cuts down on weeds.

Keeps ground cool.

Recap: Ground Cover


Complements other plants.

Can be more expensive.

Retains rainwater in the soil.

Some plants may die, leaving a hole in the design.

Once established, it grows and spreads.

Low maintenance.

Variety of plants to choose from.

Helps clear air.

Smothers weeds.

Keeps ground cool.

Smoothing new mulch with the back of a rake.

Smoothing new mulch with the back of a rake.

How to Mulch

  1. Lay three to four layers of newspaper over close-cut grass/weeds.
  2. Wet it down with a hose or watering can to keep it in place. It will decompose in about a year, improving the soil.
  3. Put one inch or more of mulch over the top of newspaper so it is covered. Often two to three inches is recommended.
  4. Make sure the mulch is not up against a tree so that the trunk does not rot.
  5. With the back of a rake, make it smooth, and distribute evenly.
Lamb's Ear, Stachys byzantina, a sun lover, forms a low growing mat near an evergreen.

Lamb's Ear, Stachys byzantina, a sun lover, forms a low growing mat near an evergreen.

Tips for Planting Ground Cover

  • Plan ahead by measuring the space you want filled and predicting how much ground the plants will cover once established.
  • Check plant tag to see how wide it can grow to know how close or how far apart you should plant them. This will help you decide how many to buy and plant.
  • Plan for right location: observe light, soil, water requirements.
  • What will the cover look like? Do you want plants to be all one color or variegated? Evergreens are an option because some grow close to the ground.
  • Water well the first year while roots get established. The usual guide is every day the first week, and at least once or twice a week for the rest of the growing season.
  • Depending on the plant, you can divide every two to three years and increase your ground cover.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Which is better: english ivy or running myrtle??

Answer: Neither one. Both are invasive in many parts of the country. Both require high maintenance to keep under control. Before buying a ground cover check with a site like the U.S. Forest Service's invasive plants list.

Question: Will ground cover take over grassy areas?

Answer: Ground cover will continue to grow wherever the conditions are right. It's low maintenance but still needs attention including where you want it to grow. Two ways to keep it in check: trim it back with an edge trimmer or place border edging a couple of inches into the ground to stop root spread. If they're too close to the edge you may have to dig them out. Best to buy slow growers and avoid those listed as invasive.

Question: Leaves are difficult to rake up with ground covers. Any suggestions?

Answer: Ideas you might try: 1) Before leaves fall, anchor plastic netting over the area and remove netting when full of leaves. 2) Use a narrow lightweight rake to pull gently over the ground cover. 3) Use a pair of hand rakes (look like giant salad tongs) to gently pick up leaves or wear waterproof garden gloves to do the same by hand.

Question: What can I do to plant flowers under a tree in my yard where I have mulch?

Answer: If you're planting the entire area: rake the mulch into a pile or several piles to the edge of the area, plant your flowers and use the mulch to cover the ground between plants. The remainder can be used in another area. If adding a few flowers: choose the spots you want to plant, brush the mulch aside using gloved hands or a hand rake or small shovel, plant your flowers and move the mulch to cover the ground around the plants.

© 2017 Juli Seyfried