Sorts of Mulch: Selecting the Proper Mulch

Mulch is the be-all and end-all of an easy-care garden. Without them, we'd be so busy watering and weeding that we wouldn't have time to appreciate our own handiwork! Whether you are a first time mulcher or just want to make a change, we will help you navigate your way through all types of mulch and what to do for your garden.

Regardless of the medium, every type of mulch has the same goal: to keep the moisture in and the weeds out. Since it is a physical barrier between the ground and the sun, water evaporation is reduced and weeds have a hard time getting through. There are additional benefits of mulch like fertilizing, isolating the soil, or just looking good.

Before diving into any type of mulch, consider what your garden bed might use. Are you looking for something efficient yet decorative for your front yard? Something to soak up excess moisture at the bottom of a hill? A helping hand in the vegetable patch? Whatever mulch your garden needs, we'll help you with this quick overview of all types of mulch.

Organic mulch

There are many types of mulch, such as this straw mulch. Source: Thawley

Organic mulches are your part-time fertilizer. They decompose over time in the soil, replenishing it with nutrients and promoting plant growth. Often the used mulch can simply be milled into the ground. However, since they decompose, organic mulches must be refilled often (some even monthly!). These types of mulches tend to be the most environmentally friendly, especially since they are often by-products. Here are our top organic mulches that will stop weed growth and improve soil quality.

Straw mulch

Straw are dried up stalks of cereal crops such as wheat, oats or rice. Hay can make up a good portion of the straw, but it also tends to carry lots of unwanted, germinating seeds. Fortunately, hay and weed-free garden straw is available in both small and large bags in the Epic Gardening Shop. You can also get used bales for free from companies that created displays in the fall, but they won't be seed-free.

Straw mulch is one of the best options, especially for vegetable gardens and raised beds. It decomposes easily and is easy. However, they decompose quickly, so you'll need to add another layer of mulch every 1-2 months.

Did you know that you can actually grow some plants entirely in straw? Many gardeners grow potatoes in mounds of it or plant tomatoes and peppers right in a crumbling bale of straw.

Wood chips

Colored wood chip mulchWood chip mulch can be colored to achieve a uniform color. Source: mattwitmer

We are talking about normal or colored wood chips. These types of mulch are made from the trunks and branches of trees (unsold Christmas trees often meet this fate). When wood chips are sold by a retailer, they can be stained or treated to prevent weeds from spreading and to ensure that the paint has a long life. You can even find some with reduced flammability. This mulch usually only contains carbon or iron oxide based dyes, so they should be safe for your garden beds (always check the labels first!).

Wood chips are larger than most other tree-based mulches. Because of this, they are usually best for landscaping and other places that won't be disturbed much. The disadvantage of the size is that the parts can be easily washed away. You can regularly step colored chips into the countryside as you stroll down the sidewalk. Mulching with hardwood shavings on hills should definitely be avoided (they don't last long!).

Wood shavings from the arborist

This type of mulch is the wild side of hardwood chips. Arborist's wood chips are made from the by-products of pruning and removing trees. They often contain a lot of leaf material and other parts of trees, shrubs and other woody plants. This variety of textures is actually beneficial as it prevents the mulch layer from compacting. And if you are into Back To Eden gardening, you will find this is your best bet!

Arborist mulch is usually free if you know who to ask. Try calling a local arborist or landscaping company (you can even stop a truck). You usually have to pay to dispose of your tree waste, so offer your garden beds as a free landfill! Sites like ChipDrop also sell wood shavings for arborists for low to free costs.

Even if not processed and treated, this type of mulch is generally safe for the garden. Insects and bacteria are usually killed by the chopping process and the dryness of the mulch. Look out for trees that have been treated with pesticides.

Some types of arborist chips are better than others. Walnut tree products are generally avoided because they contain allelopathic chemicals that are toxic to other plants. Heavenly trees and eucalyptus are also often avoided. Make sure you specifically request chips without these tree species.

This organic mulch is a slow decomposer, making it great for any landscape. Plus, it looks a little more sophisticated than straw in my opinion. It absorbs and holds moisture, which keeps the soil constantly moist. Overall, it's an amazing choice for many people.

Cracked bark mulch

Cracked bark mulchCracked bark mulch is very fine, but can be loaded with splinters. Source: pfilias

This is the mulch to use if you like the wood chip look but not the big chunks. Crushed bark mulch has much smaller chips that are less likely to wash away when it rains. They are made up of a variety of trees, but they still look pretty uniform. This is also one of the cheapest mulches on the market.

Crushed bark mulch is a slow decomposer which makes it a long lasting solution for your landscape. However, it can absorb nitrogen from the soil when it decomposes. If you plan on using it around nitrogen-loving plants, you may want to add some fertilizer to the shredded bark.

Some shredded bark, such as B. Cedar mulch, can also have an additional ability: aromatic cedar wood can reduce the presence of some pests. But these bark mulches tend to have a lot of splinters, so wear gloves when working with them.

Leaf mulch

Every fall our lawns are covered in leaves, so why not use them? If you have a bagged lawnmower, just drive it over and dump the shredded leaves. A thick layer of leaf mulch will help isolate the soil through the winter and keep the dormant roots happy.

It's tempting to just rake the leaves together and set them right in the garden. If you omit to shred them, the large leaves are more likely to compact or become matted and mold. The layers must be adequately ventilated to trap soil moisture without becoming anaerobic.


You have already prepared your lawnmower for the leaf mulch, so let's collect some grass clippings too! They're just as easy to use, and you'll have a constant supply all summer.

Grass clippings are a good source of nitrogen and have great texture for vegetable gardens. The downside, however, is the smell. While grass smells wonderfully freshly cut, the clippings can smell slightly as they rot. They form a dense mat that lacks oxygen, resulting in smelly, anaerobic decomposition. The smell only lasts for a week or two, so we recommend using only clippings in areas outside of your home.

Cocoa shell mulch

Cocoa mulchCocoa mulch is beautiful, but poisonous to dogs and other wildlife. Source: beavela

Did you know that you can feed your garden chocolate? Well, it's not quite the sweet treat that people are so addicted to, but actually the by-product. Cocoa shells are separated from the cocoa bean during processing. Instead of just disposing of them, however, these “waste products” are often given a second life as environmentally friendly mulch. The best part? Cocoa shell mulch smells amazingly chocolaty when wet.

Cocoa shell mulch has a lot of nutrients added to the soil. Thanks to its unique texture and freshly roasted color, it is also one of the most beautiful mulches. However, this mulch has some serious drawbacks that make gardeners reluctant to use it.

First, cocoa shell mulch is not pet friendly. Like chocolate, it is potentially toxic to dogs and cats and should be kept away from them.

Next, when things get mushy, cocoa shells can attract pests and bacteria (the complete opposite of what we're trying to do!). This mulch material is not a good option for damp growing areas.

Pine straw mulch

Pine straw mulch sounds fancy, but it's literally just dried pine needles. Like leaf mulch, pine needles are readily available when you have the right trees. It's just a matter of sweeping up the needles and distributing them around the garden. You can also buy pine needles in bales for even less than bark mulch.

This mulch is great for filtering water and isolating the soil. It also helps protect the soil from erosion. This is also an excellent choice for plants that prefer acidic soil.

Pine straw mulchPine straw can be a beautiful and free resource. Source: Carlin Joe

Wood chips

This natural mulch material is smaller than chips but larger than sawdust. Thanks to their niche size, they absorb moisture well, but slowly. The small, textured pieces are also a deterrent for snails and other mollusks. Shaving mulch is usually reserved for sidewalks or a decorative landscape as it first absorbs nitrogen from the soil. However, once it has completely decomposed in a couple of years, the nitrogen will be given back.

An excellent option is wood shavings, which were used to make bedding for horse stables. This brings all of the above benefits along with natural nutrients from horse manure. You will also likely find used horse bedding (and much of it) for free if you know a horse owner. The downside, of course, is that your mulch can be a little smelly.

Cardboard mulch

There are several ways to use cardboard as a mulch. For the least amount of initial effort, simply flatten some cardboard boxes and place them over any spots you want to kill the weeds and improve the soil. Soak the carton in water and make sure it's pinned in place so it doesn't blow away. Well, this isn't the most attractive method (pizza boxes don't really blend in with the landscape). Therefore, many gardeners put another mulch on top.

Instead of layering mulch, you can shred the cardboard before laying it out in the garden. This allows for better ventilation, especially if you are using corrugated cardboard. Cardboard coated with plastic doesn't decompose nearly as well in the garden. Pizza boxes should only be used if they have minimal grease stains.

Newspaper mulch

Don't you like what you see in the papers? Use it as a mulch! Whether shredded or whole, paper absorbs moisture and is quickly broken down in the garden. If you want to create a solid layer of newspaper, it needs to be several pages thick. Fortunately, getting newspapers in bulk is pretty easy. In addition to asking your own, ask your neighbors, local schools, libraries, and even local newspaper offices about their old newspapers.

Newspapers should be a little easier to shred than cardboard because you can just put them in a paper shredder. Like cardboard, it has more ventilation and breaks down faster than layered newsprint. However, newspapers can become matted and form a thick layer, so you may need to break open them occasionally.

Compost as mulch

If you are using compost in your garden, you have probably already used it as mulch without realizing it! By placing dense, abundant compost on the soil, you are also creating the barrier we are looking for. And since it looks so much like earth, no one else will notice that it is actually mulch!

The best part about using compost as a mulch is that it will fertilize your plant's roots as it decomposes. However, since it can be made from many different materials, you should check that it is compatible with the plants you are growing. For example, mushroom compost has a relatively low nutrient content, while coffee grounds in compost are a mild nitrogen fertilizer.

Compost as mulch can be free if you set up a compost bin at home. However, it takes a significant amount of time, so you can buy it prepackaged as well. However, whatever type you use, compost breaks down quickly and needs to be topped up frequently.

Inorganic mulch

Inorganic mulches don't get an extra dose of fertilizer, but they are still the right mulch for many situations. The best thing about inorganic mulch is that it's long lasting. You will replace or replenish it annually at most. If you are really looking for low maintenance, this category is for you!

Rubber mulch

Rubber mulchRubber mulch does not break down and stays in place. Source: beaver with toothbrush

Rubber mulch isn't as weird as it sounds. Usually these are just shredded rubber products like recycled tires. The end result looks surprisingly like many other types of mulch. It was hard to tell that it once belonged on a vehicle! However, unlike other mulches, rubber mulch retains its good looks for a while. It also stays well in place and stays dry and bacteria-free.

Rubber mulch is best used in a landscape, not annual gardens. Since it does not decompose, this mulch does not give anything back to the soil. It also can't be milled into the ground, so removing it can be a hassle. In addition, if improperly processed, rubber mulch can hold back metal contaminants.

Finally, you need to know that rubber mulch is flammable and poses a serious hazard if it catches fire. If you live in a fire prone area, rubber mulches are not a good choice.

Plastic mulch

Plastic has to be the ugliest of the inorganic mulches. But it is extremely efficient when used in a vegetable garden. You can lay out large sheets of plastic and cut holes for the plants to sprout. With this method, large areas can easily be covered with high efficiency. It prevents weed seeds from sprouting and isolates the plant roots well in winter and early spring. In my experience, it's especially useful for sprawling plants like pumpkins or watermelons, as it keeps the vines and leaves away from soil-dwelling insects and bacteria.

Plastic mulch has several disadvantages. First, it's inorganic so it won't do much to nourish the soil. Second, you need to plan your irrigation system around it. Aboveground irrigation will pool on the plastic, so it is best to attach drip lines directly to the plant bases. However, some plants, especially shrubs, will form shallow roots if the irrigation system is modified in this way.

Finally, one has to admit that plastic looks pretty ugly compared to cocoa pods, cedar bark, or even compost. If you really want to take advantage of plastic mulch without the industrial aesthetic, we recommend using thick landscaping fabric with organic mulch layered on top.


We've talked about tree care by-products, tire by-products, and even pizza by-products, but here's the coolest (or hottest) one: volcano by-products! Pumice stone is a relic of ancient volcanic eruptions. It has a unique texture as it is technically glass. Thanks to this and its abundance in the southwest, pumice stone is a great choice for mulch.

Pumice stone mulch can absorb and hold water from the ground. Its large size ensures better ventilation. It should be used on soaked soil or garden beds with desert plants that prefer less moisture. This mulch is also great for preventing soil erosion.

Although it catches water, pumice stone is still an inorganic stone. It doesn't decompose. However, over time it can break into smaller pieces and become less effective.


Pea gravel is an inorganic mulch that retains moisture and keeps weeds out, but doesn't break them down. This can be good or bad depending on where you place it. It keeps its good looks in a landscape and does not need to be replaced often. In the yard, however, pea pebbles don't give anything back and can get in the way when trying to work the ground. Therefore, pea gravel is best for decorative mulching around trees and bushes.

frequently asked Questions

Q: What type of mulch is best to use?

A: It depends on what type of garden beds you have. If you need something for an ornamental landscape, hardwood chips or pumice stone and efficient and beautiful mulch materials. If you need mulch for something like a vegetable patch, straw, fine wood chips, or compost mulch are the way to go.

Q: What is the best mulch for preventing weeds?

A: Most of the different types of mulch keep weeds out of the garden bed. Some of the most efficient ones out there are plastic and cardboard mulches as they create a solid barrier. If you want to use a different mulch, we recommend that you put landscape fleece underneath as additional protection against the spread of weeds.

Q: What's the best mulch for your home?

A: If you live in a location prone to forest fires, stay away from dried plant mulches such as leaves, pine needles, or cardboard. You should also avoid anything that can melt, like rubber. Stones and hardwood chips are the safest option here.

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