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Whether you’re a new homeowner looking to tackle landscaping or an avid gardener aiming to boost plant growth, having the right mulch can really help you on your way.

Though it’s a task dreaded by any child that’s come home to a pile of woodchips in their driveway, mulching is a much needed part of keeping your yard, flower beds, and vegetable gardens growing. Not only does it help conserve moisture, but it suppresses weeds, reduces erosion, and provides some much-needed nutrients to deprived soil.

And to make choosing the best mulch easier, we’ve compiled an in-depth guide below!

Sections:

I. Calculating How Much You Need

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The first step in mulching is figuring out how much mulch you need. An easy way to calculate this is to multiply the length and width of the area (in feet) and divide the result by 3. This should give you the volume needed to cover a bed at least 4 inches deep.

(And if you want to skip the math, we have a handy mulch calculator to help you find the price by yard.)

Once you’ve figured out the amount required to cover your garden beds, you can set up a mulch delivery with a local landscaper or go to a home improvement store like Lowes to purchase your mulch. Most home improvement stores carry a variety of mulches in bags, so make sure you have space in your car to load up!

Or, if you are looking specifically for wood chips, try checking with your local municipality as the utility companies involved with tree removal often have an excess on hand.

II. Choosing a Mulch Type

The next step is choosing mulch that will best suit your needs. For example, are you looking for something that will help fight weeds or is your aim to provide more nutrients to the soil?

Below we’ve broken down each mulch type into categories to give you a better idea of what you need.

Nutrient Rich
  • Leaves
  • Grass Clippings
  • Compost
  • Shredded bark
  • Wood chips
  • Pine Bark Nuggets
Weed Control
  • Pea Straw
  • River rock
Water Retention
  • Shredded Bark
  • Wood Chips
Longevity
  • Pine Needles
  • Cocoa Hull
  • River rock
  • Rubber Mulch

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Leaves are a great addition to any landscape, though they work particularly well in vegetable gardens when combined with compost. Before spreading (2 inches thick, no more than 3), make sure to shred the leaves as best you can as whole leaves can lead to matting, which can then block moisture from the soil.

You can also leave your leaves outside for a year to rot, creating leaf mold, a nutrient-rich compost that will not only help keep your soil moisturized, but block weed growth.

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Grass Clippings are high in nitrogen and break down quickly. Though you can apply them fresh, it’s best to let them dry out before applying. This will prevent the less than desirable smell as they decompose. Make sure when spreading to keep a thin layer, 2 inches or less. Anything more can lead to a slimy pulp that can burn plants when the weather heats up.

If you are using your own grass clippings or a neighbor’s, be sure that the grass hasn’t been chemically treated.

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Compost is a great choice for those who want a nutrient packed, natural look to their garden beds. Once fully broken down, compost appears similar to darker soils that contrast well with bright plants, vegetables, and flowers. Compost is also great for improving soil texture and encouraging helpful pests like earthworms to thrive in your garden. Plus, composting is something you can do on your own, no charge!

Just remember to mix it with the soil rather than laying it on top.

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Pine Needles are great for yards and gardens that sit on a slant. Not only do they tend to stay in place, but they’re slow to break down and keep their color. However, they are also high in acidity, which can cause problems for some plants as they decompose. Try using pine needles with acid-loving plants like azaleas, rhododendrons, and blueberries.

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Straw is a great pop of color in any yard or garden and is relatively cheap. However, it’s slow to break down and can drain nitrogen from the soil. For the best results, mix straw with grass clippings, compost, or manure. And, like other organic mulches, straw should be left outside for a year to decompose before applying. This will help eliminate weed seeds that are frequently found in straw mixes.

If you’re willing to spend a little more money, you can find a more nutrient-dense, straw equivalent with alfalfa/Lucerne hay or pea straw. These straws are great for rose beds and vegetable gardens. Spread them about 4 inches thick, as they will settle to 2 inches after a while.

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Shredded Bark is the most common and least expensive type of garden mulch. While this type of mulch comes from a variety of sources, Cedar mulch and Cypress mulch are considered the best. This is because Cedar and Cypress oil are natural insect repellants. However, keep in mind that shredded bark can leach nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes.

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Pine Bark Nuggets are easy to apply and come in a variety of sizes. Similar to shredded bark and wood chips, pine bark nuggets are slow to break down – and even slower as you go up in size. Unlike their wooden brethren, however, pine bark nuggets have a penchant for moving. So they are best placed in an area that is unlikely to get a lot of flowing water – rain or otherwise.

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Wood Chips are great in that they can be obtained freely from a multitude of places, like local tree trimmers or landscapers. They also come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, making them easy to match to your home. Though they can be acidic and leach nitrogen from soils, wood chips are also great at retaining water. This is advantageous for those in both wet and dry climates, as wood chips will soak up extra moisture and then slowly release it when it’s dry.

Just be careful to check what types of trees were used and if they were treated when sourcing locally. Some trees, like Walnut trees, contain a natural chemical that can inhibit plant growth.

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Cocoa Hull is commonly referred to as one of the most beautiful mulches due to its rich color and texture. It also carries a chocolate fragrance that most people can appreciate. However, while it’s beautiful to look at and decomposes slowly, cocoa hull mulch is prone to mold in more humid climates and is poisonous to cats and dogs. It’s also one of the most expensive mulches.

And like pine bark nuggets, cocoa hull mulch is apt to blow away in heavy winds.

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Gravel or River rock is a great no-fuss garden bed mulch. It lasts forever, is great at inhibiting weed growth, and maintains its shape and color for years. On the other hand, because it doesn’t break down, it adds no nutrients to the soil. And it’s difficult to plant around if you decide to change up your lawn or garden bed.

However, if you are looking to stabilize erosion and areas vulnerable to washout, river rock or gravel is a great choice.

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Rubber Mulch is recycled from old tires and boasts a lifespan of 10 years. Similar to wood chips, it works well with keeping weeds under control. However, because of its inorganic nature, it won’t add nutrients to the soil as it starts to break down. There is also the concern of the tire rubbing leaching heavy metals and other chemicals into the soil overtime.

If you choose rubber mulch, be sure to keep it in shaded areas, as the rubber will heat much more quickly than organic mulch and can catch fire if the temperature is high enough.

III. Preparing Your Yard

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Before you start mulching, it’s best to make sure your garden beds are cleared of any unwanted plants and pests.

So weed everything!

You can either pull weeds completely or cut them down if you’re planning to place heavy mulch over them. Once every weed has been taken care of, be sure to rake over the soil until it’s smooth and even. This will make spreading the mulch easier.

This also the best time to use a fertilizer and put down a landscaping fabric or plastic if you have one.

Landscaping fabric and plastics are an easy way to keep soil in place while suffocating weeds. They can also help keep plants warm in the winter months.

However, landscaping fabric can make it difficult for water to reach the soil and doesn’t break down over time. So if you are looking for a more beneficial weed deterrent without losing the nutrients from an organic mulch, try a biodegradable cover like old newspapers or cardboard.

IV. Spreading Mulch

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When spreading mulch there are a few key things to remember, the first being that different mulches require different levels of thickness. And the second being that trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants usually need some space to breathe – so don’t pile the mulch up!

The general rule is to keep mulch to about 2-3 inches thick, anything more than that can smother plants and lead to pests and bugs overrunning your garden.

If you are working with a finer grain, like compost or shredded bark, try to keep it to 1-2 inches. For coarser materials like straw, pine needles, and bark nuggets, you can work up to 4 inches. The larger pieces have more space between them, which means you need more coverage to prevent weed growth and maintain water conservation. It’s also important to remember that piling up the mulch too high can lead to plants taking root in the mulch rather than the soil; which in turn leaves these plants exposed to cold and drought.

To spread mulch evenly, try using a wheelbarrow and dumping out a little a time into small piles across your garden beds. You can then go back through with a rake, garden trowel, or your own hands to spread it around.

V. Maintaining Mulch

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Depending on the mulch you buy, your maintenance level can vary. For example, organic mulches like leaves, grass clippings, and compost, tend to require renewing every year. But if you are a using a hardier mulch like wood chips, you may only need to re-mulch every 2-3 years.

When re-mulching, it’s important to remember to clear out the old mulch that hasn’t fully decomposed. If you just pile new mulch on top, it may smother any growing plants.

Re-mulching is also a great time for tearing up and replacing landscaping fabric or plastic.

In the End

Using a mulch that meets a multitude of needs, be it nutrient enrichment, weed control, or simply aesthetics, is going to save you a lot of time.

And if you’re in the Northeast Ohio area, let us help you out!

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