Mulch: What It Does, How to Use It (2024)

Mulch is the garden product that will give flower beds, trees, shrubs, and even some high-traffic areas a nice finished look. It also serves several practical purposes and can do a lot more than simply beautify your landscape. It suppresses weeds, moderates temperatures, and retains moisture in the soil.

It can even be used along with newspaper or plastic to smother unwanted grass and create new garden beds. With organic mulches, additional benefits are realized when they decompose. They improve soil structure by loosening clay and compacted soils. This improves drainage, which helps to release and retain nutrients in the soil which improves the overall health of your plants.

Mulch will function in different ways depending on which part of the yard you're using it in. Its use in a backyard vegetable garden will differ from how it might be used in a flower bed in the front yard. Here we'll learn what types of mulch are available and how they work best in different areas of the yard.

Types of Mulch

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There are organic and inorganic mulches. Below are some examples to consider while choosing mulch for your yard and garden:

  • Wood chips: Using chipped wood enriches the soil, however, it is a much slower process to break down. Choose a natural wood like cypress or cedar if you are looking for the best environmentally friendly option.
  • Wood bark: This type of mulch can get very messy during heavy winds and rain, so there is a clean-up aspect to it when used in the garden. Like wood chips, bark also decomposes at a slower rate.
  • Rubber: If you opt for rubber mulch, which is made from recycled rubber, it will not benefit your plants as it does not break down. The look of rubber is not natural, which can cause an artificial aesthetic to your garden.
  • Shredded leaves: Whole leaves can cover plants and deplete them of needed nutrients and sunlight. Shredded leaves can decompose more quickly, and are an easy and natural mulch to make yourself with your lawn mower or a leaf shredder. This type of mulch is good for vegetable gardens.
  • Pine Needles: Using pine needles is a great mulch option when you need to winterize plants as they are light enough to not completely cover the plant.
  • Straw: Using straw as mulch is very beneficial as it is easy to use and maintain, good for your soil, and inexpensive. Straw mulch also helps to keep plants cooler and is good for protecting certain flower varieties from cold weather.
  • Hay: Hay is a helpful alternative to other mulches as hay aids in weed removal. It also breaks down quicker than other mulch alternatives.
  • Stone: Also known as volcanic rock, stone is a popular choice for locations that receive a lot of sunlight, as the stone helps to reduce the risk of overheating plants and soil.
  • Gravel: Using gravel as much will help to retain moisture in the soil. It can also provide shade for soil and keep root systems in place.
  • Black plastic: You will often see black plastic during the growing season for certain crops and plants. However, this is the least eco-friendly option, as black plastic releases microplastics into the environment and can contain heavy metals and pollutants. Plastic prevents necessary air and water from reaching plants at the root and is not a good option for the everyday garden.

Where you plan to use the mulch will help you determine the best type to choose. If you need your landscape to be low-maintenance to cut down on time spent weeding, or you need to enrich clay or nutrient-deficient soil, a mulch's ability to release nutrients as it decomposes takes on added importance. In this instance, organic mulch is the correct type to choose.

When considering mulch for a garden or yard, the best option will be an organic material, such as compost, wood chips, leaves, and straw. If you're looking to stop weeds, bark mulch and hay are the best options as they suppress weeds by blocking sunlight without affecting the surrounding plants.

Fun Fact

Although sometimes used interchangeably, "straw" and "hay" aren't the same, even though they are both dried agricultural products .Hay is grown as a feed crop for livestock while straw is a byproduct of a grain crop such as wheat.

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Before Getting Started

Learn about the different types of mulch that are available and the best use for each type. Develop a clear idea of how you want the mulch to work in your specific garden areas.

In the North, bark is popular for highly visible areas. Bark is generally available as a shredded mulch or in small or large chunks. It is also sold in several different colors. It adds a finished look to landscaping without detracting from the aesthetic experience. In the South, pine straw is popular, partly because it's widely available. Although we all enjoy an orderly, weed-free vegetable garden, mulch serves a different purpose when it comes to edible plants.

When determining the cost to mulch a yard and garden, take into consideration the size of the area, type of mulch, and labor costs. However, on average, it can cost anywhere from $200 to $300 to mulch an area. This base number might be helpful when considering other factors before beginning the project.

What Are Organic vs. Inorganic Mulches?

When the word "organic" is used to describe a type of mulch, this indicates the material decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil over time. "Inorganic" mulches such as plastic and stone are a permanent addition to the landscape that will not break down over time. Bark and straw are both organic, but the straw decomposes faster, adding nutrients to the soil quickly. You may not want that in a shrub bed (because it means replacing the mulch more often), but it may be perfect for a vegetable bed you plan to till under after the growing season.

You can buy bark mulches by the bag at garden centers, home improvement stores, and even some grocery store chains. Straw bales are sometimes available at garden centers and stores that cater to farmers such as local feed and farm supply outlets.


Straw stalks are hollow, making them a good insulator. Take advantage of this to keep your soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter. Because seed heads have been removed from straw, you won't have the seeds of unwanted plants sprouting up in your garden (unlike with hay).

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • 1 Steel garden rake
  • 1 Pair of work gloves
  • 1 Back brace
  • 1 Shovel
  • 1 Wheelbarrow or wagon
  • 1 Pair of scissors


  • 13 Bags of pine bark (for tree, shrub, and flower beds)
  • 5 Straw bales (for vegetable beds)


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How to Mulch Tree, Shrub, or Flower Beds

To mulch ornamental beds (trees, shrubs, or flowers), select a mulch that you find visually appealing and also fills practical needs like weed suppression. For many, the answer is bark, which is what we'll use here. There are different types which generally include hardwood, pine, bark, and cedar. Our sample project uses pine which is fairly cost effective.

Before you add new mulch, it is a good idea to clear out any old mulch. Layering fresh mulch on top of mulch that is already laid down and possibly wet can contribute to root rot, deprive the plant of nutrients, and even cause the death of your plants and shrubs. Clear away as much mulch as you can before laying down fresh mulch, especially if you are switching the type of mulch. However, there is also the option of turning over the mulch before adding a new layer, if it is still in good condition.

When is the Best Time to Mulch?

When mulching is done with aesthetics foremost in mind, spring is a popular season to mulch, whether to mulch a bed for the first time or to replenish an existing layer. When an existing layer of mulch has decomposed to the point that it's hard to know where the soil leaves off and the mulch begins, it's time to bring in a fresh load.

  1. Prepare the Bed

    Tidy up plants before applying mulch. This means pruning dead, damaged, and diseased branches from trees and shrubs; similarly, sub-par plant material on perennials and annuals can often be "pinched" off. Rake the soil evenly and remove any rocks.

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  2. Transport Mulch

    Large bags of mulch can be heavy, especially when wet. You'll find it much easier on your arms, back, and legs, if you move the bags of mulch to the area you intend to put it using a wagon or wheelbarrow. It also helps to wear a back support for lifting.

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  3. Apply Mulch Onto the Bed

    There are a couple of ways to get the mulch into the flower bed or around your trees and shrubs. One way is to open the bags and dump them into your wagon or wheelbarrow, then spread several shovelfuls in strategic spots around the area to be treated. If you have good upper body strength you can open each bag and dump mounds of mulch in several places.


    Keep mulch a few inches away from plants. This facilitates airflow, which helps prevent diseases. Pests are also more likely to attack a tree, etc. that has mulch jammed right up against its base. This is often called "volcano" mulching. If you've created a volcano around your tree, be sure to leave a 6-inch crater around the base of the trunk.

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  4. Apply Remaining Mulch and Even It Out

    Repeat as many times as it takes to use all of the bags. When all of the mulch is in the bed, you can spread it evenly with a rake or with your gloved hands.

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  5. Double-Check Depth

    Plan for enough product to give you a mulch layer about 3 inches deep. If you can see bare soil poking through you need to add more. Weeds will invade beds with too shallow a mulch layer, spoiling your hard work.


    In spring, remove mulch that's been covering perennial roots during winter so you don't smother them. Once they've put on new growth, you can carefully reapply mulch.

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How to Mulch Vegetable Beds

For the vegetable garden, you want to use mulches that suppress weeds and organic mulches that loosen the soil and make it more friable. Black plastic mulch is a good option for keeping weeds down but will need to be removed at the end of the growing season. Alternatively, the straw will break down over time and can be tilled under in the fall. Straw also is a cost-effective choice for the vegetable bed.

Here we're mulching the bed in spring before planting. Later, transplants can easily be installed in the bed.

  1. Prepare the Bed

    With a steel garden rake, even out the soil surface, removing rocks.

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  2. Transport Mulch

    Straw bales are large, heavy, and unwieldy to maneuver. If you plan to use straw as mulch, try to find a partner to help you move the bales to the garden. A wagon or wheelbarrow is a handy piece of equipment for moving the bales. Straw is also messy and the stiff stalks can give a good poke. It's a good idea to wear gloves and eye protection to avoid the dust when breaking down the bales.

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  3. Spread Mulch

    Once the baling string or wire is cut and removed, the straw will usually relax and self-divide into "flakes." These are tightly packed sections of the bale that are much easier to handle and spread. Hold a flake of straw in one hand and use the other the pull handfuls of stalks free to broadcast throughout the bed. The deeper you layer the straw, the better this mulch will work to suppress unwanted weeds.

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  4. Part Straw to Install Transplants

    Straw is easy to move so when you are ready to plant, simply pull it back out of the way of your planting spot. You can replace it once your transplant is in the ground but be sure to avoid piling straw mulch too close to the base of the plant.

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Mulch: What It Does, How to Use It (2024)
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