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Mulch vs. Ground Cover: Which Should I Use?

Updated on October 16, 2017
Juli Seyfried profile image

Juli has been gardening in her yard for 17 years. She has been growing houseplants for longer than that!

Perennial geranium, a ground cover, surrounded by mulch.
Perennial geranium, 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. Which to use? Compare the benefits of both and see which one is best for you.

Mulch

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.

Pros and Cons of Using Mulch

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

Neither mulch nor ground cover are foolproof when it comes to weeds.

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

Pros

  • 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 plant energy, helps clear the air of toxins. They absorb carbon dioxide in the air and release oxygen, acting as a benefit to 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.

Cons

  • 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 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

Pros
Cons
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

Pros
Cons
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.


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.

© 2017 Juli Seyfried

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