What Type of Mulch Do You Need?

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You might be overwhelmed when you see just how many different types of mulch options there are out there. I am going to break down the most common materials used for mulching both plant and vegetable gardens. By the end of this, you should know what type of mulch is the best for your needs.

Mulching is a beneficial gardening practice that involves covering the soil around plants with a protective layer of material. Mulch serves multiple purposes, such as retaining soil moisture, suppressing weed growth, regulating soil temperature, and improving soil fertility.

Let’s explore different things you can use as mulch when planting:

1. Wood Chips and Bark Mulch:

Wood chips and bark mulch are popular choices for mulching due to their ability to suppress weeds, conserve moisture, and gradually improve soil quality as they break down. They are commonly made from chipped or shredded wood and come in various sizes and textures. Cedar and pine wood chips are particularly prized for their natural insect-repellent properties. There are services like Chip Drop that can supply you with free woodchips as well as many cities give them away for free. You can also try calling a local tree company and asking for them, they are often happy to get rid of them.

Benefits of Woodchips and Bark Mulch:

  • Soil Health: Improves soil quality by breaking down over time, adding organic matter. The decomposition process encourages microbial activity, enhancing soil fertility and promoting healthier plant growth. This addition of organic matter also improves aeration, allowing plant roots to breathe and grow more effectively, leading to a more vibrant and resilient garden ecosystem.
  • Moisture Conservation: Retains soil moisture, reducing the need for watering. Wood chips and bark mulch help retain water by covering the soil and reducing evaporation. Their porous structure allows them to absorb moisture, which is then released slowly into the soil. This process helps maintain consistent soil moisture levels, benefiting plant roots and reducing the need for frequent watering.
  • Weed Suppression: Helps prevent weed growth by blocking light.
  • Make Your Own: You can buy or rent a chip grinder and make your own mulch out of fallen sticks.


  • Nitrogen Depletion: May temporarily reduce soil nitrogen levels as they decompose. When wood chips and bark mulch decompose, microorganisms in the soil consume the organic material, requiring nitrogen in the process. This consumption of nitrogen can lead to a temporary reduction in soil nitrogen levels available to plants, known as nitrogen immobilization. This reduction can affect plant growth because nitrogen is a crucial nutrient for plant development, especially for leafy growth and overall health. Over time, as the mulch continues to decompose, it will eventually release nitrogen back into the soil, offsetting the initial depletion.
  • Decomposition Speed: Breaks down slowly, which can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.
  • Pest Shelter: Can harbor insects and other pests if not monitored. Wood chips and bark mulch can attract pests like termites, ants, and rodents, which find shelter and food in the mulch. To minimize pest attraction, avoid placing mulch directly against building foundations, maintain a thinner layer of mulch (about 2-3 inches deep), and regularly turn or disturb the mulch to expose pests to predators. Using wood chips from hardwoods can be less appealing to termites compared to softwoods. Additionally, maintaining healthy soil conditions and encouraging natural predators can help control pest populations.

2. Straw and Hay:

Straw and hay are two different products but both are classic mulch options, especially for vegetable gardens and lawns. They create a light and airy mulch layer that helps keep the soil moist and suppress weed growth. Straw is particularly useful for winter mulching, protecting plants from frost damage. This is a little harder to make in a suburban environment, so you will likely have to purchase it.
Need a refresher on the difference between straw and hay?

Pros of Straw and Hay Mulch:

  • Soil Enrichment: Adds organic matter as it decomposes, improving soil structure and fertility. As straw and hay decompose, they break down into simpler organic compounds, enriching the soil with carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients. This decomposition process enhances soil structure by increasing its porosity and aeration, leading to better water infiltration and retention. The added organic matter also supports beneficial microbial activity, further boosting soil fertility and plant health.
  • Moisture Retention: Excellent at keeping soil moist, reducing water usage. Straw and hay mulch are effective at retaining moisture because they cover the soil, reducing evaporation caused by sun and wind. Their structure, which is loose and fibrous, helps trap moisture in the soil. However, this ability to retain moisture can also create a damp environment conducive to mold and fungal growth, especially if the mulch is applied too thickly or remains wet for extended periods. Properly managing the thickness and ensuring good air circulation can mitigate these risks.
  • Cooling Effect: By acting as a barrier between the sun and the soil, straw and hay help to keep the soil temperature stable, protecting plant roots.

Cons of Straw and Hay Mulch:

  • Weed Seeds: Hay, especially, can contain seeds that may lead to weed problems.
  • Decomposition Rate: Decomposes faster than some other mulches, requiring more frequent application.
  • Pest Attraction: Can attract rodents and insects if not properly managed.

3. Leaves:

Did you know leaves can alleviate a ton of garden issues? They are a readily available and cost-effective mulching option, especially in the fall when trees shed their foliage. Shredded or whole leaves can be used to insulate the soil, add organic matter, and promote earthworm activity. However, avoid using leaves from walnut or eucalyptus trees, as they may contain compounds toxic to some plants. We recommend mulching them up with your lawn mower, bagging them, and storing in a dry place until you need to use them. You can also add your leaves to water to make Leaf Tea Fertilizer.

Pros of Leaf Mulch:

  • Nutrient Rich: Decomposes into a rich, organic material that adds essential nutrients like nitrogen to the soil. Leaves, particularly when decomposed into leaf mold, release a wide array of nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, and potassium, which are essential for plant growth. Unlike some other mulches, leaf mulch can offer a more balanced nutrient profile, contributing to a well-rounded soil ecosystem that supports a variety of plant needs. This enriches the soil more holistically, promoting overall plant health and soil structure improvement.
    Especially when using as mulch around trees, mulchiing up the leaves and giving them back to the tree speedds up the process of them absorbing nutrients they need back.
  • Moisture Retention: Helps keep soil moist by reducing evaporation.
  • Temperature Regulation: Insulates soil, keeping it warmer in winter and cooler in summer.

Cons of Leaf Mulch:

  • Matting: Can form a dense layer that may prevent water and air from reaching the soil if not managed properly. It can also blow away easily in periods of extended dryness.
  • Pest Habitat: May harbor pests if not turned or replaced regularly.

4. Grass Clippings:

Fresh or dry grass clippings from the lawn can be an excellent mulch option for vegetable gardens. However, use them sparingly and in thin layers to avoid matting, which could prevent air circulation and lead to odors or mold growth.

Pros of Grass Mulch:

  • Soil Nutrient Enrichment: Grass clippings decompose quickly, releasing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium back into the soil.
  • Moisture Conservation: Helps retain soil moisture, reducing the need for frequent watering.
  • Weed Control: Can suppress weed growth when applied thickly.
  • Cost-Effective: Recycles lawn waste, saving money on mulch purchases.

Cons of Grass Mulch:

  • Rapid Decomposition: Breaks down quickly and may need frequent replenishment.
  • Disease Risk: Can spread lawn diseases to garden plants if the clippings are contaminated.
  • Matting Potential: Can form dense mats that prevent air and water from penetrating the soil if not spread thinly.

5. Compost:

Compost is a valuable mulching material that not only helps retain soil moisture and suppress weeds but also enriches the soil with nutrients. Applying a layer of compost as mulch provides a slow-release source of organic matter that benefits plants over time.
5 Rules of Composting


  • Soil Enhancement: Enriches soil with nutrients and improves its structure, promoting healthy plant growth.
  • Moisture Management: Excellent at retaining soil moisture while allowing proper drainage.
  • Eco-Friendly: Recycles organic waste, reducing landfill use and greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Pest and Disease Control: Can suppress certain soil-borne pests and diseases through the introduction of beneficial microorganisms.


  • Maintenance: May need to be replenished more frequently as it decomposes and integrates into the soil.
  • Weed Seeds: Poorly processed compost may contain weed seeds, leading to unwanted growth.
  • Variable Quality: The nutrient content and quality can vary depending on the source materials and composting process.

6. Newspaper and Cardboard:

Newspaper and cardboard can be used as biodegradable mulches to suppress weeds and conserve moisture. Wet the paper or cardboard before laying it down to prevent it from blowing away. Avoid using colored or glossy paper that may contain harmful chemicals. Also, remove any tape from the cardboard.

We do not use this as a finishing mulch but very regularly use it as a weed barrier before applying other materials.

Pros of Reusing Newspaper and Cardboard:

  • Weed Suppression: Effectively blocks light, preventing weed growth.
  • Water Retention: Helps soil retain moisture.
  • Recycling: Utilizes recycled materials, reducing waste.
  • Soil Improvement: Breaks down over time, adding organic matter to the soil.

Cons to Using Newspaper and Cardboard in the Garden:

  • Aesthetic Appeal: May not look as attractive as other mulches.
  • Decomposition Speed: Can decompose quickly, requiring replacement.
  • Ink Concerns: Some newspapers or cardboards may contain inks or chemicals that are not suitable for all gardens.

7. Seaweed:

For coastal gardeners, seaweed is an excellent mulching option. Seaweed is rich in minerals and nutrients, which can benefit the soil and plants. Rinse the seaweed in fresh water to remove excess salt before using it as mulch.

Pros of Seaweed Mulch:

  • Nutrient-Rich: Provides essential nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and trace elements to the soil.
  • Soil Health: Improves soil structure, encouraging beneficial microbial activity.
  • Moisture Retention: Helps in retaining soil moisture, reducing the need for frequent watering.
  • Pest Repellent: Contains natural substances that can deter pests.

Cons of Seaweed Mulch:

  • Salt Content: May contain salt, which can be harmful to some plants if not thoroughly washed.
  • Availability: Not as readily available as other mulches, especially in inland areas. While you can get it online or specialty stores, the reason I have never used it is the significant cost. It would be a totally different story if I had it showing up on my doorstep.
  • Decomposition Rate: Decomposes faster, requiring more frequent replenishment.
  • Odor: Fresh seaweed can emit a strong odor as it begins to decompose.

8. Pine Needles:

Pine needles, also known as pine straw, are a durable and attractive mulch option for acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries. They break down slowly and help maintain soil acidity.

Pros of Pine Needles Mulch:

  • Acidic pH Level: Beneficial for acid-loving plants like azaleas and blueberries.
  • Lightweight: Easy to spread and handle.
  • Natural Look: Provides a rustic, organic appearance to garden beds. The other factor not many people seem to mention is the amazing smell that can come from fresh pine needles in the garden.
  • Soil Protection: Reduces soil erosion and maintains moisture effectively.
  • Cost-Effective: Often readily available in areas with pine trees, making it an economical choice.

Cons of Pine Needles Mulch:

  • Decomposition Rate: Breaks down faster than inorganic mulches, requiring more frequent replenishment.
  • Flammability: Can be a fire hazard in regions prone to wildfires.
  • Limited Nutrient Contribution: While they break down, pine needles do not add significant nutrients to the soil compared to other organic mulches.
  • Acidity Influence: May lower soil pH over time, which could be detrimental to non-acid-loving plants.

9. Gravel and Stone:

In certain landscaping scenarios, gravel and stone can be used as mulch to create a decorative and low-maintenance ground cover. They work well in drought-tolerant gardens and around succulent plants.

Pros of Gravel and Stone Mulch:

  • Durability: Lasts longer than organic mulches and doesn’t decompose.
  • Low Maintenance: Requires less frequent replenishment or replacement.
  • Weed Suppression: Effectively blocks sunlight, reducing weed growth.
  • Stability: Stays in place, preventing soil erosion in areas with heavy rain or wind.
  • Aesthetic Variety: Available in various colors and sizes to enhance garden design.

Cons of Gravel and Stone Mulch:

  • Soil Temperature: Can retain heat, potentially overheating plants in sunny areas.
  • Water Retention: Less effective at retaining soil moisture compared to organic mulches.
  • Soil Nutrition: Does not improve soil structure or add nutrients as it breaks down.
  • Installation Difficulty: Heavier and harder to spread than organic mulches.
  • Cost: Generally more expensive initially than organic mulches.


In conclusion, mulching is an essential practice in gardening that offers numerous benefits to plants and the soil. From traditional wood chips and straw to unconventional options like seaweed, there is a diverse range of materials you can use as mulch when planting. Consider the specific needs of your garden, the type of plants you’re growing, and the availability of mulch materials in your area to choose the best option for your garden’s success. By incorporating mulching into your gardening routine, you’ll create a thriving and beautiful landscape that yields bountiful harvests and flourishing flowers.

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