Dorothy is a Master Gardener, former newspaper reporter, and the author of several books. Michael is a landscape/nature photographer in NM.
Two Categories of Mulch
Mulch will protect your soil from erosion and prevent moisture from evaporating. It will stunt the growth of weeds and allow you to have a well-groomed landscape.
Although there are many various types of mulch that will be explained in detail further in this article, there are only two categories when it comes to mulch: organic and inorganic, each of which has its own advantages.
Organic mulches will keep your soil temperature moderate and help conserve moisture. They will keep the soil cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and reduce the temperature changes between daytime hours and nighttime hours. When they break down, valuable nutrients are added to your soil, which are moved to the roots of your plants by earthworms and other critters below the soil.
Inorganic mulches, including some manmade materials, are made from hardier materials that will decompose slowly or not at all (like stone or gravel). They will keep soils warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter. Unlike organic mulch, soil covered with inorganic mulch will have a greater temperature change from daytime to nighttime.
Most of these mulches are used for aesthetic purposes; they make an appealing sight, but they won't improve your soil. One major advantage to inorganic mulch is that there is minimal need for replacement.
So, with those things in mind, what are the choices you have?
You can decide which mulch is right for you by reading about the different types here.
"When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." The same is true when Mother Nature covers your yard with leaves in the fall. Shred them up with a mower, and you can create an excellent mulch that is suitable for all plants. Because the leaves break down quickly, you will need a layer of about three inches around your plants. You can use this type of mulch in flower beds and vegetable gardens, around trees and shrubs, or in containers. Keep shredded leaves from directly touching the stems and trunks of the plants.
Pine Needles (aka Pine Straw)
Evergreen pine needles make excellent mulch, and they are light and easy to spread around. They are harvested in the South, baled, and sold as mulch. If you've got pine trees on your property, rake the needles from beneath the trees, and put a thick layer around your garden plants (because they are so light, you need to have a more adhesive layer to keep weeds from germinating). If you have small plants, deep mulch (3-4 inches) may not be the best choice for you, and if you live in a windy or stormy area, you might have to rake them back into the garden occasionally.
If you have an area that is sloped, you might want to consider shredded bark, which breaks down slowly and is one of the least expensive types of mulch, as well as being the most common. It comes from a variety of sources, such as cedar trees (any type of bark will work for mulch, although softer woods such as pine and cypress attract insects. When possible, use cedar bark, which will repel most insects). Medium-textured mulch is usually the best, as smaller particles tend to pack down and retain moisture that evaporates before reaching the roots of your plants. Coarse-textured materials can be too porous to hold sufficient amounts of water.
If you receive a physical newspaper at your house and you are like I am, you hate to toss them in the recycle bin (still better, however, than tossing them in the garbage). Instead, I think it's always better to find a way to recycle them for the benefit of your own garden. Newspapers make an excellent, weed-suppressing mulch.
To use them as mulch, you can lay down a layer of about 5–6 pages thick and water them enough to keep them from blowing away in the wind. Then, cover them with topsoil and plant your flowers or vegetables. In time, the paper will biodegrade into the soil allowing roots to penetrate, and at the same time allow moisture and soil microbes to pass through.
Inorganic mulch is either manmade or mined. Although some of it will break down eventually, it takes a very, very long time. These are some various mulches from which you might choose:
Rocks range in size from tiny to tennis ball size, often mined from river beds. You can buy decorative rocks or gravel (or go get them yourself) in a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and textures. Rocks range from porous, black lava rocks to lightweight red rocks. Smooth quartz gravel can even be found in pink or purple. But, why would you choose rocks over an organic material that will break down and add nutrients to your soil?
- Drainage issues: Rocks will allow water to drain quickly.
- Low maintenance: If you have beds that are open and without plants, rocks require no maintenance at all.
- Trampling neighbors: If your neighbors like to take shortcuts from their home to yours, rocks are a good choice for a path that will allow them the shortcut while keeping you from becoming the neighborhood grouch.
- Great backdrop: If you've always dreamed of having a fountain in your backyard, rocks create a gorgeous backdrop.
If you have a raised bed, consider using black plastic mulch. You'll love the easy planting and low maintenance it provides. This type of mulch suppresses weeds, warms the soil and conserves moisture. Because foliage and fruits don't come into contact with the soil, soil-borne disease problems are minimized. Various websites online offer black plastic mulch sheets with holes marked and spaced perfectly. You only need to cut out the holes that suit your purpose. Spend less time pulling weeds and more time growing vegetables and flowers.
Of all the different types of mulch, rubber mulch is my least favorite, although it does have its benefits for certain situations (it is made from a repurposed waste product (namely tires), minimizing the impact on disposal). It is beneficial for soil moisture because it is non-porous and doesn't absorb water on its way to the soil. It can also reduce fungus growth and becomes a weed barrier (weed seeds dehydrate in the mulch before reaching the soil).
These are the disadvantages to consider:
- it's flammable;
- it doesn't biodegrade;
- it doesn't enrich the soil;
- it's difficult to remove once it settles in the soil; and
- rubber mulch could lead to soil contamination if tires were not processed properly before being turned into mulch.
Organic Mulch vs. Inorganic Mulch
A fresh layer of dark brown mulch is beautiful and it instantly transforms your yard from dull to dynamite! Unfortunately, organic mulch fades and breaks down in time, so you'll need to replace it every spring.
Inorganic mulch, on the other hand, is a great choice if you want to set it and forget it. The choice is up to you.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Mike and Dorothy McKenney
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on August 15, 2020:
I am so glad you find it useful; that's why I write. Thanks so much!
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on August 14, 2020:
The beginner garden in me totally appreciates this article and will share with my gardening coach. Very helpful! Thanks.
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on August 13, 2020:
Thank you so much, Devica!
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on August 13, 2020:
Informative and so interesting to know about the right type of mulch. You
Mike and Dorothy McKenney (author) from United States on August 12, 2020:
Thanks so much for reading!
Danny from India on August 12, 2020:
Good tips for gardening & planting. Thanks Mike & Dorthy for the information. Its always a challenge to support growth of trees, plants, shrubs, etc... With these tips, we can rest easy knowing that the trees are shielded against challenging natural conditions.
Lee A Barton from New Mexico on August 11, 2020:
Good info! I've used black plastic with a lot of success, but I, too, prefer an organic mulch.