If you want a beautiful, lush landscape, it all starts with the soil in which your plants grow. Mulch is an important ingredient in the recipe for a healthy garden because it protects the soil to keep it in prime condition. Mulch protects soil from harsh climates, prevents weeds, retains soil’s moisture, and protects sensitive seedlings – in addition to its aesthetic appeal.

Thinking about what mulch might be right for your garden can be overwhelming, as the varieties seem almost endless, while the differences between them remain unknown to many. As a starting point, mulches will all fall into one of two categories: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches are composed of natural materials that are able to decompose over time. Because they decompose, their nutrients will enter the soil below making it more fertile, but the mulch will also need to be replaced as it decomposes. Inorganic mulches are those that will not decompose. These mulches are made from materials such as rock, stone, rubber, or landscape fabrics. While inorganic mulches do not provide the same fertilization benefits as organic mulches, they serve similar functions in weed prevention and plant protection. These mulches are generally used for their aesthetic appeal and for the ease of not having to replace them as frequently.

Organic Mulches

Organic, wood-based mulches tend to be some of the most popular. These can be wood chips, wood nuggets, or bark. Wood mulch is dried and sometimes dyed to suit the aesthetic needs of different customers. Opt for aged wood mulches (partially decomposed) if you want to improve the nutrient quality of your soil or fresh wood mulch that has not yet begun to decompose if you want to improve appearance, but do not need to improve your soil. Fresh mulch will eventually begin to decompose and enrich the soil, just on a longer timeline than aged mulch.

Straw is used frequently for its strength in protecting new seedlings, particularly in the early stages of growing a turfgrass lawn. It helps to deter pests that might feed on the grass and provide moisture for it to grow.

Cocoa chips, or the discarded hulls of cocoa plants, are used for their pleasant aroma and rich color. They are also very lightweight and able to be used on a variety of garden areas.

If you’re not as concerned with scent, composted animal manure is some of the most nutrient-dense mulch around, particularly when growing vegetables.

Believe it or not, you can also make your own mulch using what you might otherwise consider waste from your yard. Things such as grass trimmings or shredded leaves can be recycled to help mulch your garden and provide nutrients.

Inorganic Mulches

Landscape fabric is often used by professionals to kill weeds or warm the soil around crops. This fabric does not allow water to pass through, which kills weeds, but mandates the use of an irrigation system if using it to insulate crops. Landscape fabric should be replaced yearly so you can be sure that it remains impermeable to water. Porous landscape fabric that does allow water permeation can be used under stone or other inorganic mulches to separate it from the soil and slow weed growth.

Rock and gravel have become popular choices for homeowners looking to decrease water usage in their yard or add a unique decorative touch through the use of a variety of textures and materials in their landscape. They are especially good choices for paths and walkways, as they rarely need to be replaced. Stone can also be used on down-sloping areas or near drainage sites as it will not wash away. Be careful if you live in a hot area, as stone used surrounding trees or other plants can easily overheat and damage roots.

Rubber can be used for high traffic outdoor spaces, such as pathways or playgrounds, because it is incredibly durable. While rubber mulch has become popular as a way to recycle old tires, it is generally not recommended for garden use because it can contain trace amounts of toxins.

Now that you’re armed with information to approach mulching like a pro, a final tip to ensure success – don’t get too excited and over-mulch. Different types of mulches require different depths, and new mulchers tend to think those are minimum suggestions. Over-mulching can make it difficult for water to reach plants’ roots and create attractive environments for pests to build their homes. To ensure mulching success, you may want to contact a landscape professional so you know the job will be done right.