It took me far too long to embrace the wonders of mulch. Now I am a true believer.
Both homes I owned prior to this and the home I grew up in were heavily wooded, shady and somewhat dampish, well established gardens. So mulch provided a nice deterrent to the few weeds that attempted my space, but it wasn’t critical for moisture balance. My current home is in the full sun so without mulch the weeds go nuts and everything else is dried to a crisp.
I’ve experimented with dyed mulch, shredded mulch, cypress and cedar and the wonderful smelling cocoa hull mulch. If Menards carried it, then we’d buy a bag to see how it worked. I experimented with pebble and rock mulch (didn’t like it). I’ve used landscape fabric and newspapers but only in limited beds. I haven’t tried rubber mulch due to price and well… I’m not sure I like the environmental impact. I also haven’t used grass clippings, oak leaves, pine needles, straw or (yuck) human hair – all of which I’ve seen discussed in gardening journals.
My goals when looking for great mulch – besides having the flower beds look neat and pretty – was to amend the heavy clay soil, deter bugs and rodents, maintain moisture in the soil, reduce reseeding of aggressive naturalizers and keep the weeds at bay. Mulch is also great for heat trapping in the spring and fall, creating pathways and erosion control.
Types of Mulch
Bark mulch comes from hardwood trees after they go to a sawmill. Hardwood or wood chip mulch can be bark and wood or just the wood. Colored mulch is a product often made from chopped up pallets that are then dyed and may contain bits of debris and metal.
Wood chips are a high carbon-to-nitrogen material, so they’re great as a mulch. They cover and insulate plants’ roots well, which helps protect against fluctuating and extreme temperatures. They hold moisture fairly well, which will help keep the ground around your plants moist between watering. And they break down slowly, adding organic matter to the soil.
My favorite?! Cedar mulch is a useful weed inhibitor and an attractive top dress for gardens. The oil from the cedar tree produces an aroma that repels bugs, so the mulch is comparatively pest-free. Shredded cedar mulch decomposes quickly, putting plenty of nutrients back into the soil, and it helps to retain soil moisture.
When the price was right I used to use cypress mulch. It has a fresh, distinctive aroma and is an excellent weed barrier. It retains its color and does not break down quickly, so you don’t need to replace it as often as most other types of mulch. Cypress mulch is fairly heavy, making it a good option for sloped gardens like mine.
I stopped using it when I learned that cypress trees take about 100 years to mature. Many cypress forests in America’s swamps and wetlands are being cut down for mulch. Over-harvesting without reforestation has had a drastic impact on wetland habitats, forcing many animals species to relocate. Because of the rapid deforestation, cypress mulch is now made from immature cypress trees in the form of bark chips. These bark chips do not contain the rot- and pest-resistant characteristics of mulch made from mature trees.
I also don’t use Cocoa hull mulch anymore. Cocoa mulch is a woody mulch, made from the shell of the cocoa bean. It is light weight (easy to carry bags) and smells fabulous. Chocolate is toxic to dogs and cats, because of its content of theobromine and caffeine. Cocoa hull mulch contains both compounds. However, the content in the mulch depends on how it was treated so there’s a lot of variability in the possible dangers of cocoa mulch. It’s expensive compared to other woody mulches and possibly toxic so I don’t use it.
I don’t use chemically treated mulch anymore. I’ve heard stories about not being able to control the anti-pest chemicals in your run-off and possible fire hazard issues. It just doesn’t seem worth the extra money when organic is cheaper.
As I mentioned I’ve experimented with options quite a bit.
You’ll get your best bargain if you buy in bulk and have a truck deliver the mulch to your home. I use JR’s Mulch because they have good prices and great customer service. Also they have a really cool “mulch calculator” on their site to help decide how much to buy.
In a pinch I’ll buy bagged mulch if it is on sale or if I’m experimenting with something new again.
Some quick FAQ’s on how much to buy
- Mulch should be 2-3 inches deep. This means one cubic yard covers about 100 square feet. To figure how much to buy; determine the square footage of the area you wish to mulch. Divide that number by 100 and this will be how many cubic yards you need (e.g. L x W divided by 100)
- A standard size pick-up truck bed holds 2 cubic yards. A small pick-up bed holds one.
- You will need 13.5 two cubic foot bags to make one cubic yard.
In general courser mulch does well in large areas and around large trees and on hillsides. A medium to fine mulch works well around shrubs and flowers. Wood mulches make good paths and playground material as well as dog runs.
To keep mulch looking fresh you need to mulch once every year since they tend to break down quicker enriching the soil below. Colored mulches may fade. To keep them looking good you may need to top-dress them once every year.