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

A General Paving Cost Breakdown

Determining the paving cost you’ll have to pay for your new installation is difficult because it depends on many factors. The general factors that will vary from area to area include: where you live (some areas have higher standards of living and thus higher prices), the time of year you get the work done, the contractor you hire and his or her bid, and so on.

In general, the price you’ll get from a contractor’s estimate will be on a ‘per square foot’ or square unit area basis. Any additional work required, such as excavation and removal of debris, may require extra costs that are added on to the project estimate. Thus, what you’ll ultimately

However, a general estimate of paving costs can be made according to a number of factors. If you know the type of project, its size, its design, the materials used, and the labor required, you can at least get a ballpark range for your project. The more specific price you’ll pay will have to come from a contractor or from your own calculations if you are installing the project yourself.

Here is a general breakdown of the main factors that will affect the paving price you’ll pay.

What Kind of Project?

First, determine the type and extent of your projects. Most home paving is done to new driveways, though walkways and patios are also quite popular. Other paving projects may also be possible, including pool decks, garden paving, and retaining walls are not uncommon.

Though most projects are similar to each other, there may be enough differences between project types to warrant a discussion. For instance, given the same amount of square footage, a driveway paving cost may be different than that of a patio or walkway due to the specific requirements necessary for driveways (due to the need for the driveway to withstand vehicles) versus these pedestrian applications.

Which Paving Materials Will You Use?

Next, you need to determine what kind of material you’ll use. This will be one of the most significant factors in the price you’ll pay, matched only by the labor necessary to install the material. The most popular paving materials are loose stone, asphalt, concrete, concrete pavers (paving stones), brick pavers, and natural stone pavers. The general price you’ll pay for these materials is contained in that above list from cheapest to most expensive. Thus, you’ll pay the least for loose stone and the most for natural stone pavers (like flagstone pavers).

Incidentally, this is also the order of expense when it comes to installation costs. The further into that list you get, the more extensive, expensive, and intensive is the installation, either for you or a contractor. For instance, asphalt and concrete is simply poured and spread in an area as one slab. Interlocking pavers, however, must be installed individually by hand, making the installation process more expensive and time-consuming.

Another important factor related to materials is the base or sub-base you may have to install before laying the top layer. This can also be expensive or cheap depending on how robust the base needs to be. For instance, a paver project requires a base made of both crushed aggregate and a layer of sand. This can cost anywhere from $1 to $3 per square foot or more, depending on various factors such as depth, materials choice, location, durability, etc.

Design Decisions and Pricing

The design of your paving project will also have an impact on how much you’ll pay. The more elaborate, extensive, and complicated your decorative paving, the more you’ll have to pay in time and money. Thus, if you want to keep costs down, keep your projects simple and to the point. However, don’t settle for plain designs, as simple tweaks and tips can spruce up any hardscape design without breaking the bank.

Installation Cost

Obviously, if you install the driveway materials (or other project) yourself, you’ll pay less in financial terms. However, don’t forget that your time is technically ‘worth’ something, as are your efforts and your peace of mind at a job well done. In addition, you may not be able to actually do the DIY paving project due to its difficulty or expense; for instance, blacktop is usually best left to the pros. Most people, then, will want to hire a contractor; as an investment, it offers a high ROI.

The Verdict

The total cost you pay will thus be based on these factors. You’ll always want to get bids from multiple paving companies and contractors; don’t necessarily go for the lowest bid, but don’t settle for the highest, either. Find the bid that best balances value and quality.

For a closer breakdown of paving costs per square foot related to driveways (and indeed, by extension, all other projects), see this article on a driveway paving cost estimate. (You can also see a more detailed breakdown of pavers cost and asphalt driveway cost at these links.)

Ongoing Costs

One final note. Don’t forget that certain materials and projects will require more ongoing maintenance than others. For instance, your asphalt paving cost will be higher than the initial price over the term of its life, as you’ll have to pay for sealing and resurfacing to keep it looking nice.

In addition, if you have to replace your driveway, patio, walkway, etc. due to poor installation or poor materials, your overall cost will be higher than if you picked a more durable material. Cement, for instance, will crack, perhaps requiring you to repair or even replace the concrete well before its time. Thus, it’s usually better to pay more in the short term than to have to deal with more expense in the long term.

Pros and Cons: Pavers, Concrete, Asphalt, and Other Choices

If you are thinking about a new project for your home, garden, or landscape, you might be having trouble deciding among the various material choices at your disposal. Should you use concrete, asphalt, brick pavers, paving stones, natural pavers, or stone? The list of potential materials, and all the various permutations and variations that are possible, can be very confusing and overwhelming for the uninitiated.

To help you out, here is a brief paving guide that will help you weigh the pros and cons of each material type. There is no one “best” material, as the material you use will depend on a lot of factors. In some circumstances, stone would work best; in others, concrete; in others, pavers. What we can tell you, however, are the various features of each material so that you can make an educated decision.

The Comparisons and Categories

We will begin with the least expensive material and continue through the more expensive options available. Each material will be evaluated according to the seven following metrics:

  • Strength
  • Durability
  • Design Options
  • Installation
  • Beauty
  • Maintenance
  • Price/Value

At the end of the article, we give our basic comparisons for each material across these dimensions. You can thus compare the relative merits of concrete vs pavers, stamped concrete vs pavers, and any other comparisons you may need to make. While our decisions are arbitrary, and may differ with those of other experts and contractors, we hope at least to give you a rough guide on this topic.

STONE:

A stone driveway.

This is loose stone that is spread in the area. They are used most often for driveways, though they can also serve as parking areas or as landscaping materials. There is a large variety of stones available, from small to large, and in a variety of colors.

Strength
Obviously, these stones won’t break or crack. Stone withstands vehicular traffic, weather, sun, water, and other effects well.

Durability
You won’t have to worry about replacing this material due to damage as long as it all stays in place. Stone is a great long-term option. However, it will get thrown around, so you’ll probably have to touch the project up once in a while.

Design Options
You are relatively limited when it comes to the design options at your disposal. Obviously, you can mix and match colors and types of stone, and you can make your projects any kind of shape, from rectangular to circular and anything in between. Otherwise, however, you’re relatively limited with your design possibilities.

Installation
Installing stone is very easy. Simply clear an area, fill it in with stone to the appropriate depth, and you’re done.

Beauty
In the right contexts, stone can look nice. However, it an also look boring. In addition, it can often get spread out throughout your lawn and home, making a big mess and a nuisance.

Maintenance
This is an area where stone suffers. You will probably have to deal with stone being scattered around your lawn and yard, making it a pain to clean up. You’ll also deal with weeds. Over time, the stone may have to be refilled as it inevitably wanders off. You may have to level it out if it ever gets distributed unevenly – this might happen if you drive on it, for instance. It’s also impossible to plow or shovel snow off it without disturbing the surface.

Price/Value
Stone is very cheap. Combined with how durable the material it is, stone is a good overall investment, though the property value of your home won’t be seriously changed.

ASPHALT:

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/91584996@N00/3710038320.

An asphalt driveway.

This ubiquitious, oil-based product is very popular for driveways, parking lots, and other outdoor projects that require vehicle traffic. Also known as ‘blacktop.’

Strength
Asphalt is very strong yet flexible, as it will stand up to both heat and cold. However, if it gets too hot, it could get soft – this could be especially problematic if you drive on it. However, asphalt will withstand stains, the sun, water, and general wear and tear.

Durability
Asphalt will last you for decades, as long as it installed and maintained properly. However, you will have to deal with cracks and fading, so you’ll probably have to do repairs along the way. Otherwise, expect to replace this after a decade or two of service.

Design Options
You’re very limited with your design options. While colored or stamped asphalt is possible, it will increase the cost of your project. Otherwise, you’re limited to the standard black driveway. You can create your own shape and dimensions, but otherwise you’re pretty locked in, unless you add a cobblestone or paver apron and border, or some other embellishment.

Installation
An asphalt driveway and other projects are usually out of the reach of most homeowner’s skills, so it’s not a great DIY project. You’ll have to hire a contractor to do it; unfortunately, asphalt contractors are notoriously unreliable, making getting the job done quickly a pain in some circumstances.

Beauty
Asphalt is very common and it doesn’t look as great as other options, especially when it cracks and fades.

Maintenance
You’ll have to seal it to maintain its strength and color. In severe circumstances, patching and resurfacing may be necessary as well. Snow can be easily removed from this surface.

Price/Value
Asphalt is relatively cheap, hence its popularity. In terms of value, it is a good buy, as the material will last you a long time, assuming it’s installed well.

CONCRETE:

An incredibly popular material due to its strength and low cost, concrete is most often used for walkways, driveways, and patios.

Strength
Concrete is incredibly strong. You won’t have to worry about force from above (cars, heavy objects, weather) damaging it. Force from below, however, can be a problem – freeze thaw cycles put pressure on the slab, often leading to cracks.

Durability
Concrete, if well-installed and maintained, can last you for decades, so you shouldn’t have to reinstall the material.

Design Options
You are rather limited with the standard concrete, as the grey color of the material can be boring. However, if you are willing to pay a little more, you can get stamped, colored, or stained concrete. This can multiply your design choices, allowing you to create concrete that will match and complement your home’s decor. You’ll have to pay for that privilege, however.

Installation
Homeowners who’ve worked with concrete before can install it themselves, especially if the project is small. Homeowners with little experience should look for a contractor; ditto for those skilled homeowners trying to tackle a large and/or complex job.

Beauty
Regular concrete is rather boring, though it is ubiquitous. Decorative concrete is far better, as long as it doesn’t crack or chip.

Maintenance
You may have to seal concrete once in awhile, especially if it’s showing signs of damage, but for the most part concrete is maintenance free – as long as everything goes right with the installation. Snow can be easily removed from this surface.

Price/Value
Concrete is quite cheap, especially given its strength and durability. Investment in concrete is an investment for the future, but don’t expect your home value to increase that much.

CONCRETE PAVERS:

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/84354764@N00/451855836/

Interlocking concrete pavers.

Made from concrete, these pavers interlock through a system of sand-filled joints, ensuring that the entire structure stays together.

Strength
Concrete pavers are incredibly strong, both individually and collectively. In fact, some pavers are two to four times stronger than concrete. Thus, they will withstand all rigors of the environment.

Durability
Due to their strength and flexibility, and the interlocking nature of pavers, this material will last you for decades. You will likely not have to worry about installing a new patio, driveway, walkway, etc. unless you want to make a change.

Design Options
Your design options are limitless. There are a ton of paver shapes, paver sizes, types, and colors available. You can lay them in a variety of paver patterns. In addition, you can pair your project with other accessories, like steps, stoops, barbecue pits, retaining walls, and more – all made from this material.

Installation
Pavers installation can be difficult, but since there’s no concrete involved, it can be within the skill range of some DIYers. However, most will want to have their projects installed by professional paver contractors.

Beauty
Pavers, when well-designed and installed, look beautiful. They go well with all home styles and themes, and they retain their beauty for many years.

Maintenance
Pavers are near maintenance free. You may have to seal them occasionally with concrete paver sealer, and perhaps reset pavers that have settled, but for the most part they are a hands-free material. You can easily remove snow from them.

Price/Value
Concrete pavers can be expensive, mostly because they have to be laid by hand. However, they add much value to your home, so you can consider the high initial price as an investment in your home and in your future.

BRICK PAVERS:

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/random-mike/292018480/.

Brick pavers.

A similar material to concrete pavers, these resemble the bricks you see around your house, but they are also different in many important ways.

Strength
This material is similar to concrete pavers – the only major difference is in the material they are made from. Brick pavers are made from clay, not concrete. In terms of the battle between concrete vs brick pavers, they are relatively equal in terms of strength, with perhaps a slight edge to concrete.

Durability
Brick pavers will stand up to all kinds of abuse, and your projects will last many years. You won’t have to worry about reinstalling a new material for a long time.

Design Options
Though options used to be very limited, manufacturers are coming out with new brick designs all the time. While you will largely be limited to the standard ‘brick size,’ you will be able to try different colors and textures. You can thus lay them in a variety of patterns and project designs, just like concrete pavers.

Installation
Like concrete pavers, most homeowners will want to have a contractor come in and install them, though it can be a potential DIY project.

Beauty
Brick pavers look quite nice, though perhaps not as ‘modern’ and ‘elegant’ as concrete pavers. However, with teh right home decor, brick pavers can and do look fantastic.

Maintenance
Brick pavers are very low maintenance – just some sealing and resetting of pavers on occasion. It’s very easy to remove snow from this surface.

Price/Value
These brick pavers are a bit more expensive than the concrete variety, but you can expect a good bump in your home value when you add them to your yard.

NATURAL STONE PAVERS:

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_g_travels/2704941271/

Very old stone pavers.

These pavers are literally carved from the earth. There are many different types of materials that fall into this category, from flagstone to granite and cobblestone to travertine and everything in between. Thus, we’ll have to generalize a lot here.

Strength

While it depends on the particular material, stone pavers are very strong – indeed, they are made from stone carved from the earth itself. If you are looking at flagstone vs pavers, its pretty much a toss up when it comes to compared strength. They may fade in the sun, but they stand up to all kinds of abuse.

Durability
A stone paver project will last for decades. You won’t have to worry about installing a new project ever again if you use this material, barring some unforeseen circumstance.

Design Options
Given the huge variety of stone types, colors, shapes, and sizes, you have near unlimited options when it comes to designing your project.

Installation
Given the weight and difficulty in handling this material, most homeowners will want to leave installation to the pros.

Beauty
Stone pavers are incredibly beautiful – arguably the most beautiful material out there. You are pretty much bringing the beauty of Mother Earth to your yard when you install this material.

Maintenance
Stone pavers are stone. They require almost non-existent maintenance. Snow removal is easy.

Price/Value
The major downfall of flagstone pavers and other natural stone is price. Depending on the stone you pick, you could pay double, triple, or more than any other material. However, you’re adding a ton of value to your home as well, so you can consider it an investment in the future.

THE VERDICT

Strength

Concrete Pavers = Stone Pavers > Brick Pavers > Concrete > Asphalt = Stone

Durability

Concrete Pavers = Stone Pavers > Brick Pavers > Concrete > Asphalt > Stone

Design Options

Concrete Pavers > Stone Pavers > Brick Pavers > Concrete > Stone > Asphalt

Installation

Stone > Concrete > Concrete Pavers = Brick Pavers > Stone Pavers > Asphalt

Beauty

Stone Pavers > Concrete Pavers > Brick Pavers > Concrete > Stone > Asphalt

Maintenance

Stone Pavers = Concrete Pavers = Brick Pavers > Concrete = Asphalt > Stone

Price/Value

Stone > Asphalt > Concrete > Concrete Pavers > Brick Pavers > Stone Pavers