Best Types of Mulch

By Cati O'Keefe

Updated February 3, 2021

Mulched trees and bushes around a house

With all the choices out there, how do you pick the best mulch? It all comes down to requirements, budget, and taste. From mainstay favorite shredded hardwood to dramatic colored stone, these humble heroes of the home landscape not only look great, but they also reduce weeding and water loss, improve the quality of your soil, discourage bugs, and protect your plants from temperature fluctuations.

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1. Shredded Hardwood

Of the best mulches for landscaping, shredded hardwood is the most common type of mulch on the market. Easily spread and long lasting, this workhorse product is made from a variety of wood types and comes in natural or colored options. It is a great choice for slopes and if you want more alkaline soil. (If you have plants that require acidic soil, opt for Pine Needles).

Shredded hardwood compacts over time, which keeps water from percolating to your plants. If this happens, simply “fluff” it with a cultivator or your hands.

2. Wood Chips, Bark, and Nuggets

If you are looking for ease of application, choose nuggets. These long-lasting wood pieces are typically aged and dried and come in many sizes – from jumbo to mini – and many colors.

The larger pieces take the longest to break down so if you want a set-and-forget landscape, this is the best mulch to select. If you have water issues, note that wood nuggets can get displaced and float around your garden. Use softwood, such as pine, around large trees and bushes. Use hardwoods, like cedar, for your plant beds and smaller trees and shrubs.

3. Pine Needles/Pine Straw

Known for their light weight, packed rectangles of pine needles pop free from their twine wrapping and offer a natural, effortless look. Needles don’t break down as quickly as shredded mulch or other organic mulches and tend to stay put in heavy rains and on slopes.

Because they are acidic as they break down, pine needles are particularly useful for mulching around plants that thrive in this type of soil, such as daffodils, hydrangeas, and hollies.

Some people consider pine needles “messy” or difficult to apply, but with a little practice and a light touch you can quickly learn how to sweep them around beds and plants. If weeds pop through the needles, gently move the needles aside, pull out the offenders and smooth the needles back in place.

4. Cocoa Shells

Popular for its rich dark brown color and chocolate smell, this type of mulch must be applied with a light touch, no more than 1-inch Thick, because it tends to hold too much water and can become moldy. You may need to reapply it more often than other types of mulch because It tends to blow away easily when dry. The chocolate smell is appealing to humans but harmful to pets who may munch on it.

5. Stone

The best mulch for walkways, drought-prone areas, or to add a dramatic look to your yard, stone comes in a wide variety of colors, styles and price points. Consider budget-conscious crushed gravel for walkways and driveways.

Stone can help stabilize areas where water tends to wash away other mulch types. Using a landscape fabric underneath the product will help keep weeds to a minimum. Use a leaf blower to keep debris from staining the rocks and periodically wash a stone landscape with a hose to keep the rock colors from looking dingy. Find a rock delivery service near you.

6. Shredded Rubber

Well-known for providing a soft landing off the slide at playgrounds, shredded rubber has become popular for its recycled content and uniformly colored aesthetic. Rubber lasts so long it is practically a hardscaping product. The product can last for many years and stays put in rain and wind squalls better than most mulch options. It is heavy to move and doesn’t add organic nutrients to the soil so is best used in areas where the greenery is not the central focus like playgrounds, walkways, and other places where hardscaping would typically be specified.

7. Compost

Most people think of compost as something to be mixed into the soil as an additive, but its attractive dark color makes it a solid pick to top landscape beds as well. Whether you make your own compost from kitchen scraps and lawn clippings or buy it in bulk, compost is nutrient packed and helps hold water in the soil.

The downside to compost is that it does not prevent pesky weeds from sprouting, and may even foster them, so consider the amount of time you have to maintain your landscape beds if you choose this option.

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Overall Costs

Mulch pricing runs the gamut depending on whether you opt to lug bags of mulch, pitchfork it from a bulk delivery, or pay for a professional installation. Keep in mind: one yard of mulch covers about 108 square feet at 3-inches deep. If you buy mulch in bags, expect to pay about $2 to $7 a bag, which covers 8 square feet per bag.

Type Typical Price Pros & Cons
Shredded Hardwood $45 Per Cubic Yard Advantages: Comes in a variety of colors, easy to spread, holds up on slopes
Disadvantages: Can compact, keeping water and nutrients away from plants
Wood Chips, Bark, and Nuggets $26-$93 Per Cubic Yard Advantages: Long lasting, easy to apply
Disadvantages: May float around landscaping when it rains
Pine Needles/Pine Straw $4 Per Bale, which covers 50 square feet Advantages: Lightweight, easy to spread, natural looking
Disadvantages: Some people consider it difficult to apply
Cocoa Shells $85 Per Cubic Yard Advantages: Rich look, smells like chocolate, lightweight
Disadvantages: Dangerous for pets, can blow around when dry
Stone (Gravel, Crushed) $40 to $110 Per Cubic Yard Advantages: Long lasting, can replace ground cover in drought-prone climates, doesn’t wash away
Disadvantages: More expensive than other mulch options, can look dirty, heavy to move
Shredded Rubber $20 Per Cubic Yard Advantages: Lasts for years, softens falls, recycled material
Disadvantages: Doesn’t add organic nutrients to the soil
Compost $13-$35 Per Cubic Foot Advantages: Can be free if you make your own compost, adds nutrients to soil, holds water in soil
Disadvantages: Doesn’t control weeds well
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What is the difference between inorganic and organic mulch?

Organic mulch includes natural materials like wood, grass clippings, straw, leaves, and compost. Inorganic mulch includes rocks, rubber, and plastics.

What is the best mulch for kid yards?

Rubber mulch is long lasting and breaks falls.

What is the best mulch for walkways and driveways?

Gravel, crushed stone, and other products are elegant and long-lasting for walkways and driveways. They can be maintained easily with a leaf blower to remove debris and a hose to rinse off dirt.

What is the best mulch for pet yards?

Large wood nuggets are best for pets because they don’t break down as quickly as other mulch options. Cocoa shells are not recommended because pets, enticed by their chocolatey smell, tend to eat them.

What is the best mulch for vegetable gardens?

You can use compost, straw, lawn clippings and newspaper. Shredded bark can remove nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes, so if you use it, check your soil levels and correct it with organic fertilizer if necessary. Do not use colored mulch around vegetable gardens because they may have recycled or salvaged wood, which could contain chemical additives.

Will one type of mulch “do it all”?

No. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each product and use the correct one based on your needs and budget.

Which materials are mulching no-nos?

Don’t use wood chips that have not been aged, sawdust, or wood shavings.

Which mulch lasts the longest?

Shredded rubber, stone, and large wood nuggets will go the distance in your landscape.

Should I worry about dyes in mulch?

Colored mulches may have recycled or salvaged materials in them. Unfortunately, this means they may have treated or manufactured lumber in them, which contain contaminants like chromium, copper, arsenic, lead or formaldehyde.

What is the best black mulch?

Black mulch is popular for a dramatic landscape. You can find black mulch at a moderate price but be aware that regardless of the brand you chose, the color will fade over time.

When should I get an expert involved in my mulch choice/project?

If you have water drainage issues on your property, you may want to get a professional landscaper to specify mulch for you.

When should I use a weed barrier or landscape fabric?

Use landscape fabrics and barriers with stone products to keep them from sinking into the ground. Don’t use them with mulch because it prevents the mulch from breaking down into the soil.

What is the ideal depth for mulch?

For fine mulch, one to two inches of mulch is ideal. If you are using a coarser material (such as pine nuggets), use a three to four inch layer. If you use too much mulch you could prevent water and nutrients from reaching plant roots.

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