How to Choose the Best Mulch for Your Garden

Why choose mulch? Simply put, mulch helps conserve moisture in the soil, control weeds, prevent erosion, add organic material, and it looks better than plain dirt. To top it off, studies have shown that a well-mulched and maintained garden can increase production by up to 50%.

The type of mulch you need and how much to use can vary from place to place. Let’s take a look at some of the most common types of mulch available to help you choose the best mulch for your garden.

1. Leaf and Grass Mulch

Mulched leaves are a good choice and are one of the most readily available types of mulch around. You can collect them as you mow your lawn in the early fall and save them for use in the following spring.

Leaf mulch is great for blocking light to weeds and retaining a high amount of moisture in your garden. Spread it around and try to keep it at least 3 inches deep to discourage weeds, too large of piles can keep the plants you want from reaching the sunlight.

Using leaf mulch in the garden
Leaf mulch adds moisture and organic material to the garden bed

Best Uses for Leaf and Grass Mulch

  • Excellent when used in drier areas of the garden as it will eventually decompose, adding organic matter to the soil which helps retain moisture.
  • Leaf mulch is great in both vegetable and flower gardens. Use a leaf shredder to accelerate the decomposition process. Shredded leaves are also more likely to stay in place
  • Untreated grass is safer to use as mulch. Make sure it doesn’t clump too much and prevent water from reaching the soil. Best used when combined with leaves or straw.
  • Make sure the grass has not gone to seed before cutting and using it as a mulch. You can inadvertently be spreading grass seeds in the garden bed.

2. Cover Crops

Clover is a Living or "green" mulch
Crimson clover is a living mulch that can be grown in the vegetable garden

Cover Crops are often called “green manure” and are a living form of mulch. A cover crop is a crop that is planted in a garden between vegetable-producing seasons to return nutrients to the soil or during the season to fight erosion and discourage weeds.

Cover crops require less care than vegetables but do need to be watered and trimmed so they don’t completely take over the garden. (This can be done with your lawnmower). Some of the most common cover crops are Rye, Sorghum, and Clover.

Best Uses for Cover Crops

  • Grow clover or winter rye in the fall instead of leaving your vegetable gardens bare all winter long. Plow them under in the spring before planting early-season vegetables.
  • During the growing season, you can plant hairy vetch under melons, squash, or tomatoes. This will add nitrogen to the soil while keeping the weeds under control.
  • Crimson clover is an annual and can be interplanted in the vegetable garden to keep down weeds and attract beneficial insects. The roots will also help aerate the soil.
  • Grow cover crops in dormant beds. Remove and shred them at the end of the season, returning the shredded crop to the garden bed as mulch.

3. Bark and Wood Mulch

Wood mulch chips for use in the vegetable garden
Wood chips are great to use between rows in the veggie garden

Shredded bark and wood chips are probably the most common type of mulch used in residential areas and can be bought at your local home and garden store. Some communities provide will even free mulch from the trees that are trimmed in local parks.

It is easily acquired, looks great in flowerbeds or short garden paths, and is hard for weeds to fight through, but it can be difficult to dig through in a vegetable garden.

Best Uses for Bark and Wood mulch

  • Chunky Bark works best in areas where you don’t do a lot of digging. Use it under trees and shrubs where you don’t plan to add new flowers. It is also excellent for pathways.
  • Shredded organic bark and wood mulch work well in flower gardens. It will need to be replaced each year or two since it will decompose in the garden over time.
  • Wood chips work great in between vegetable garden rows. They also provide a little extra cushion for the feet as you tend the gardens.

4. Straw and Hay

Another good choice is straw or weed-free hay. It looks great and provides the same benefits as leaf or grass mulch. Straw or hay locks in moisture, controls soil temperature, fights against weeds, and as it decomposes it encourages earthworm activity – adding nitrogen to the soil.

Spread it lightly around the garden, you don’t want complete coverage, just enough so that you can see dirt peeking through. Remember to keep it 4 or 5 inches from the base of your vegetable stems or fruit tree trunks, or you’ll be asking for troubles with rodents and slugs.

Using straw mulch in the garden
Straw is the go-to mulch for most vegetable gardeners

Best Uses for Straw Mulch

  • A favorite in the vegetable garden, especially for cool-weather vegetables.
  • Add a layer of newspaper under the straw mulch for warmer weather vegetables or to provide extra protection against weeds.
  • A thick layer of straw can make a pretty path.
  • It can be used in flower beds under shredded bark mulch to add additional organic matter to the garden.

5. Plastic and Fabric

Mulching using sheets of black plastic (available at most home and garden centers), can do great things for a garden. The black plastic blocks weeds almost completely retain moisture in the soil and continue to transmit the sun’s warmth.

You’ll need to make sure each plant gets enough water from your sprinkler, as the plastic blocks rainwater from getting through. It is also made from materials that are not easily recyclable.

To use: Spread the fabric tightly over the area, weigh it down on the edges, and cut holes for your plants to come through. Don’t use permanently around shrubs and bushes – the plastic blocks water and fresh oxygen, causing the roots to grow close to the surface and jeopardize the long term health of the plant.

Best Uses for Fabric Mulch

  • Black plastic mulch is commonly used in residential landscaping, especially by builders. It is fine to use in foundation plantings, but not the best choice for flower gardens where occasional digging is required.
  • Use black plastic mulch to create pathways, topping it off with stone or chunky bark or wood mulch to create an attractive appearance.
  • Black plastic mulch while not a preferred choice for vegetable gardens, is a great way to raise the temperature of the soil. Heat-loving plants like tomatoes, squash, and melons can benefit from using fabric mulch. Just make sure they get enough water come summer or remove the plastic and replace it with a natural material later in the season.
  • If your vegetable garden is prone to weeds, you can also use the plastic sheets in between the rows.

Find the Best Mulch for your Garden

Each type of mulch has its advantages and disadvantages, but any or all can help your garden increase its production in the coming growing season. It’s just a matter of taking a look at your needs and choosing the best mulch for your garden or crop.

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