Different Mulch Types: Pros and Cons

If you have a garden or landscaping installation that you want to properly take care of, mulching is probably tops on your list. Mulching has many benefits. Of course, mulch can add a certain aesthetic value to your garden or landscape; while sometimes beautiful and rich topsoil can do the job, other times having mulch, which can come in a variety of shades, textures, appearances, can add the extra bit of pizzazz to your garden.

The Many Benefits of Mulch for Your Garden or Landscape

Mulching also has other benefits besides look. It can help moderate temperature, so that your plants will better withstand high and low temperatures. Putting down this material will keep the soil moist; this will help the plants stay alive even in dry weather, as the moisture that’s held in to the mulch will help keep the plants hydrated. It will also help prevent the sun from drying up the surface of the soil by preventing the evaporation of said water.

In addition, mulch can be a deterrent of weeds, given that the mulch material is free of weeds and is applied correctly so that it will prevent the growth of new weeds and/or kill existing weeds.

In addition, mulch can help protect the surface of the soil itself from crusting or compacting. This keeps the flow of water running through your garden project. It will also protect the soil from the effects of water and wind erosion, as it will help keep it all in place.

Another feature depends on the type of mulch you use (more on this in a minute), so picking the right kind is certainly important, as some mulches (organic ones) will add nutrients to the soil to keep your garden healthy.

The Two Major Mulch Types

Of course, the key question here is the type of mulches you should use for your project. Of course, as you might expect there are many factors involved that help determine the kind of mulch you should use. For the rest of this article we will discuss the different kinds of mulch, their advantages and disadvantages, and other factors that may come into play when it comes time to select your mulch type.

There are two general mulch types: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches are made from things that were previously alive in some form, usually vegetable or plant matter. Thus, common varieties of organic mulch include wood chips (of various types of trees, such as cedar), grass clippings, bark, leaves,a nd others. One of the biggest benefits of this class of material that can be stated outright is that, given the material is made from (formerly) living matter, it will decay into the soil, thereby adding nutrients to it to help support your plants for the long haul.

Of course, there are also inorganic mulches. These are made from non-natural, or man-made, materials, and these include plastics, stones and pebbles, fabric, gravel, and others. These materials generally do not biodegrade, so you won’t get the beneficial effect described above. However, this kind of material has advantages over organic ones too, which I’ll explain in a minute.

More on Organic Mulch Types

As stated above, organic mulches add nutrients to the top soil, helping to support a thriving garden. They also look natural and beautiful, and they will enhance the look of any garden. There are some drawbacks to keep in mind. First, since this material does decay, you will have to replace it more often than not. Second, this dead matter can attract bugs and other pests. Third, some of these materials may have the propensity to blow or wash away, so keep that in mind when you’re filling in your beds.

At the bottom of the organic totem pole are grass, hay, and straw. These should be used with care, because if used in correctly they can cause more trouble, such as weeds, than good. Still, these are popular given that you will probably have these as ‘waste’ products of other parts of your landscape care. In all cases, the clippings should be dry before use to prevent forming a ‘mat’ that will prevent the drainage of water. Furthermore, out of this group, grass and straw are best, because sometimes hay can contain weeds. Overall, the mulch in this category will have to be replaced often given the speed with which they will decay. This speed of decay will provide a nice, quick burst of nutrients to the soil, however. Another thing to be careful about: don’t use clippings in your garden if they come from a lawn that had pesticides applied to it!

Another disadvantage of grass, hay, and straw is that it doesn’t look particularly pleasant. These materials are best reserved for vegetable gardens or other gardens whose primary function is, well, function and not beauty.

Depending on the garden, using plants as “mulch” to cover the surface of the flowerbed may work well. Popular mulches in this category include ivy and different kinds of grasses.

The next kinds of organic mulch come from trees. First in this category come leaves. These work really well, but you’ll want to make sure to slice and dice them with a shredder. Putting them down whole is not the answer, as you want to avoid putting down a thick layer of any kind of mulch that won’t drain properly and will in effect cut off the plants’ water supply. In addition, whole leaves may be picked up by the wind, causing a big mess. (Depending on the wind, this may still happen!) On the other hand, you don’t want to make the leaves too fine, otherwise they will just form a mat on the surface and defeat the purpose of the mulch. Thus, you’ll want to be careful with the size of the leaves.

Another tree product includes bark and pine needles. These work well at many different thicknesses simply because they are so porous. However, beware about the composition and content of your soil and plants; needles, for instance, can be acidic, and this may not work well in some environs. Pine bark is a popular variety of this material. You can get it in a variety of sizes and shapes, though this wood material may obviously attract certain kinds of pests. In general, though, pine needles and bark will look very nice for many gardens.

Finally, we come to the most popular variety of mulch of all: wood chips. These of course come from the wood of the trees themselves. There are many reasons to use these wood chips, including their insulation properties and their weed-preventing aspects. However, because they are made from wood, you will have to beware the invasion of termites who will see the mulch as quite the feast.

More on Inorganic Mulch Types

Let’s move on from the organic to the inorganic. This material doesn’t decay like organic matter does; while this may be a drawback in some instances, in others it may be a boon. Another advantage of this material is that it will not attract pests like organic matter can. In addition, it is relatively maintenance free if installed correctly. In general, this material is more ‘permanent’ than organic varieties, especially stones and pebbles which are difficult to remove.

One popular variety is plastic, especially black plastic (or polyethylene film). One advantage of this material is that you can use it to support and protect your garden better; in addition, you can plant seeds earlier with the protection and aid of this material. Plastic can also help keep in water, which is great as long as the area you’re mulching isn’t too wet. However, note that plastic doesn’t do well in the hot sun, as it will soften and deform in it. Thus, you’ll want to reserve it for the cooler parts of the year. Second, as stated above, this material won’t decay like organic varieties do, so you’ll lose the benefit of the nutrient deposits with this kind of material.

Another popular man-made mulch is woven cloth, plastic, and paper. These will be porous to allow water and air to reach your soil.

If you’re looking for a distinctive aesthetic, stones and pebbles also work well. These are not man-made, but they are not inorganic as they are not, for all intents and purposes, descended from organic life. Just like with the needles and other organic materials, you’ll want to be sure that your particular plants can deal with the alkaline conditions that some of these rocks can cause in the plants. In addition, the stone can sometimes absorb or reflect the sun’s rays, increasing the local temperature around the garden. As always, knowledge of what your plants need is the key! More information can be found in this article on landscaping rocks.

Don’t forget that you can combine some of these varieties together! For instance, black plastic can go well with wood chips or pine needles if the plastic is buried in the soil. This will give you the structural benefits of the plastic with the aesthetics and nutritional value of the wood mulch.

For more landscaping advice, check out this article about some useful front yard landscaping ideas. And for more articles about gardening, check out these articles on garden fencing

One thought on “Different Mulch Types: Pros and Cons

  1. Using a mulch can help you and your garden in many ways. Mulches reduce weed growth by making conditions unfavorable for germination of weed seeds and by providing a physical barrier for emerging weeds. A good mulch layer can save many hours of laborious weeding. A thick layer of organic mulch material is especially effective in reducing the number of annual weeds in the garden, since they have difficulty penetrating such a layer. Some perennial weeds may also be suppressed in this way if they are small, but often dandelions or other taprooted weeds will eventually find their way through the mulch. These are easy to spot, and since the soil stays moist beneath the mulch, they are easy to pull. Rhizomatous grasses will often make their way through organic mulches as well, but often the rhizomes will be on or near the soil surface and will be easy to lift out. Black plastic and thick layers of newspaper are often better mulches for controlling perennial weeds.

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