How to Pick the Best Mulch for Your Landscape (2024)

  • Gardening
  • Caring for Your Yard

Whether you’re preventing weeds or beautifying a garden bed, follow this guide to pick the right mulch for your garden.


Andrea Beck

How to Pick the Best Mulch for Your Landscape (1)

Andrea Beck

Andrea Beck served as garden editor at BHG and her work has appeared on Food & Wine, Martha Stewart, MyRecipes, and more.

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Updated on June 3, 2024

Reviewed by

David McKinney

How to Pick the Best Mulch for Your Landscape (2)

Reviewed byDavid McKinney

David McKinney is an experienced plantsman sharing his expertise in horticulture. His knowledge spans landscape management, growing plants indoors and in the greenhouse, ecological plant selection, and much more. With nearly 15 years in the industry, he is well versed in both herbaceous and woody plants with additional interest in entomology.

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Fact checked by

Marcus Reeves

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Fact checked byMarcus Reeves

Marcus Reeves is an experienced writer, publisher, and fact-checker. He began his writing career reporting for The Source magazine. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, The Washington Post, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. His book Somebody Scream: Rap Music's Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power was nominated for a Zora Neale Hurston Award. He is an adjunct instructor at New York University, where he teaches writing and communications. Marcus received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

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While mulching may seem like a simple part of gardening, there are a few must-knows about the different mulches you can use and the benefits of each. Though shredded bark might immediately come to mind, you should consider other types for the best mulch for your garden. Knowing when to add mulch to your planting beds and how much to use is essential for keeping all your plants healthy. Remember these tips as you plant your garden throughout the year, especially if you add new beds or landscaping.

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Best Mulch Benefits

There are some advantages to adding mulch to your garden. In the summer, the best mulch helps the soil hold moisture, so you don't have to water as often. Soil also tends to dry out faster and harden in the hot sun. Mulch will help protect the ground from baking in direct sunlight and keep your plants happy.

Mulch also prevents weeds. Adding it to your planting bed will block light from reaching the soil, keeping many weed seeds from sprouting. Adding a thick layer of mulch will ensure the weeds never see the light of day.

While an even layer of mulch is ideal, don't overdo it. The best depth for a mulch layer is 2-4 inches. Any deeper, and it can be difficult for oxygen to reach the soil, which can cause your plants to suffer.

Over time, some types of mulch made from organic materials (produced by or part of a living thing), break down and increase soil structure and fertility. This is especially true with compost used as a mulch because its nutrients will promote soil organisms and fuel plant growth. Perhaps the best mulch benefit is that a layer of mulch can help fight climate change because covered soil holds onto carbon instead of releasing this greenhouse gas into the air.

When to Add Mulch

Every spring, check on the mulched areas of your garden and add more if the layer is starting to get thin. If you're mulching a large space for the first time and not just touching up a few garden beds, you should schedule a delivery from a bulk supplier. It'll be less expensive than buying a ton of bagged mulch from your local garden center, and you won't have to haul all those bags in your vehicle to your yard either.

Check on your mulch again when late fall rolls around, and reapply if needed. In the winter, a good layer of mulch acts as insulation, helping to regulate the soil temperature. This reduces stress on plant roots and prevents frost heaving (where smaller plants are pushed out of the ground) as it repeatedly freezes and thaws. Make sure the ground has frozen a few times before adding mulch as a protective layer for the winter.

Best Mulch for Your Garden

Depending on your landscape design and what you're planting, these choices are the best mulch.

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Shredded Bark

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Shredded bark is one of the most common and least expensive types of mulch. It comes from a variety of sources, including cedar trees. Shredded bark is the best mulch for slopes, breaking down relatively slowly. As a bonus, some shredded bark mulches are byproducts of other industries and are considered environmentally friendly. Check the mulch packaging for more information.

Shredded bark can take up some nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes. Adding some organic fertilizer can help keep your plants healthy if you have poor soil.

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Straw mulch has a beautiful golden color that looks great in the garden. It's also a bit slower to break down than leaves or grass clippings. Some gardeners like smaller, shredded straw pieces, while others prefer larger ones. Straw is classically used in more utilitarian gardens, such as vegetable gardens and around strawberry plants. Straw does a great job of keeping mud off of your edibles.

Make sure the straw is free of weed seeds. Otherwise, it can cause more weeds than it prevents. (Oat straw is often particularly weedy.)

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Compost looks like soil, except it's darker, so it sets off plants nicely. This mulch material breaks down quickly but adds to your soil structure the most rapidly. Plus, it's the best mulch on a budget: you can create rich compost for free, even from grass clippings and leaves. Ensure your compost bin heats up enough to kill any weed seeds. Many municipalities give away compost as well. Before spreading it all over your garden, test compost on a small area to check for weed seeds.

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Pine or Cedar Bark Chips

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Often labeled as bark nuggets, these chipped pieces of bark are slower to break down than shredded bark, so this mulch doesn't stay in place as well as others. As a result, it's not the best mulch for slopes or other areas where heavy rain may wash it away; the chips tend to float and take off like boats. The nuggets are available in various sizes; the bigger the nugget, the longer it lasts.

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Stones and River Rock

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Rocks tend to be more expensive than organic mulches. But because they're inorganic materials, river rock, stones, and landscaping pebbles don't break down, so they don't need to be reapplied yearly. However, it also means they don't improve your soil over time.

Take caution when using stone as mulch because stones get hot in the sun. Stones are often used in cacti and rock gardens. Cover the soil first with sheer landscaping fabric if you use rocks and stones as mulch in an area where plants won't grow, such as under a deck. This will help prevent weeds from growing up through the rock.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which mulch lasts the longest?

    Stone is the longest-lasting mulch, followed by landscape fabric. Black plastic and rubber mulch last a long time, and help with both heat and water retention in the soil, though they're also more expensive than stone or landscape fabric.

  • Which mulch repels insects best?

    Cedar or cypress chip or barkmulchcontain natural chemicals that helpsrepel bugs. Plastic mulch covered in aluminum works well also since the bright shine of the aluminum temporarily blinds and confuses invasive pests.

  • Which mulch won't wash away with rain?

    The heavier the mulch, the less likely it is to be washed away by rain, so stones are the sturdiest mulch. If you want to use wood mulch, use heavier wood. It will hold itself down and after the first rain, will stay put. However, it needs to be replaced more frequently than stones.

  • What's the most expensive mulch?

    The most expensive mulch options arestone, recycled rubber, and crushed seashells. Bark and wood chips are generally the most affordable to buy,

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Better Homes & Gardens is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources—including peer-reviewed studies—to support the facts in our articles. Read about our editorial policies and standards to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.

  1. "Reflective Mulches." University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources.

How to Pick the Best Mulch for Your Landscape (2024)


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