What’s the Best Mulch for My Landscape?

Garden bed mulched with decorative bark planted with ornamental grasses.
My Garden Life
November 8, 2018
Table of Contents

Mulch may be the most valuable tool in the gardener’s toolbox so it’s important to choose the best mulch for your landscape needs. Mulch is decorative, adding color and texture to the landscape. It controls weeds around garden plants and helps the soil retain moisture. In the summer, mulch cools the soil and in winter, warms it–in both cases, protecting your plants’ root systems. Mulch encourages the growth of organisms good for your soil, and, in most cases, adds healthy organic material to your beds.

How to Use Mulch

Applying mulch to your garden is easy if you stick to these simple tips:

1. Spread mulch no deeper than three inches (eight centimeters): Any thicker and the mulch could either keep water from reaching your plants or trap moisture in the soil, leading to root rot and disease.

2. Don’t let the mulch touch your plant stems or tree trunks: Mulch piled at the base of the plant can pool moisture there, causing rot, encouraging fungi, or providing a habitat for greenery munching pests.

3. Leave at least six inches (15 centimeters) between mulch and your house: Termites thrive in soil protected by mulch and spreading it up to your house is an invitation to those destructive pests to come on in.

Choosing the Best Mulch for your Landscape

Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of 17 of the most popular types of garden mulch to help you evaluate the best mulch for your situation:

1. Shredded Bark Mulch

Pros: Readily available; inexpensive; good for weed control and moisture retention.

Cons: Can cause nitrogen deficiency in soil; susceptible to fungus; if dyed, can include toxic chemicals.

Note: Mulches made from wood can be a perfect environment for mold, fungi and toadstools to grow. Most are harmless and can be easily removed by lifting with a shovel and disposing in a compost pile or the garbage.

Close up of Crucibulum laeve-Bird's Nest Fungus growing in shredded bark

2. Bark Nugget Mulch 

Pros: Lightweight so easy to transport and spread; more attractive than shredded bark.

Cons: Easily blows away; susceptible to fungus; poor moisture retention; can cause nitrogen deficiency in soil.

Bark nuggets mulching evergreen shrubs.

3. Cocoa Bean Hull Mulch

Pros: Attractive brown pebbled look; smells like chocolate; good water retention and weed suppression; improves soil texture without stripping nitrogen.

Cons: Expensive; toxic to dogs.

Close up of cocoa bean shells used for garden mulch.

4. Coconut Husk Mulch

Pros: Extremely lightweight so easy to transport; excellent moisture retention; discourages pests; attractive natural brown that does not fade.

Con: Too expensive to consider for large landscaping projects; provides no nutrients as it breaks down.

Choosing the best mulch - Close up of garden mulch made from coconut husk.

5. Finished Compost Mulch

Pros: Good weed suppression; encourages beneficial organisms including earthworms; excellent additive for soil health; repels diseases and pests; attractive appearance.

Cons: Can contain weeds if not properly finished; expensive for large areas.

Home compost bins can be the best mulch for gardeners looking to save money.

6. Crushed Seashell Mulch

Pros: Attractive coastal look, especially on paths and roads; slow to break down; adds some calcium to the soil.

Cons: Disturbs the soil’s pH making it inhospitable to acid-loving plants; poor weed control; can contain residual salts.

Close up of crushed seashell mulch.

7. Lawn Grass Clippings (Green) Mulch

Pros: Free and easy to spread (if you use your own grass clippings); provides nutrients as it decomposes; excellent to use on lawns (rather than garden beds) by leaving after mowing.

Cons: Contains weed seeds; herbicides and pesticides could be present if the clippings are removed from a treated lawn.

A wheelbarrow filled with grass clippings next to a lawn.

8. Gravel Mulch 

Pros: Low maintenance; attractive (especially on paths); modulates soil temperature well.

Cons: Poor weed and moisture control; heavy and difficult to spread; difficult to move if underlying soil needs to be worked.

Close up of river rock gravel used for garden mulch.

9. Hazelnut Shell Mulch

Pros: Attractive, long-lasting organic mulch.

Cons: Too expensive to be appropriate for large areas; hard to find in locales that do not grow nuts; no nutritional benefit for the soil.

Close up of ground hazelnut shells being used as garden mulch.

10. Palm Leaf Mulch

Pros: Inexpensive in tropical areas; good weed suppression.

Cons: Can be bulky and unattractive; collection and shredding is labor intensive.

Shredded palm leaves can make the best mulch for regions where it can be locally sourced.

11. Pecan Shell Mulch

Pros: Attractive, long-lasting organic mulch.

Cons: Too expensive to be appropriate for large areas; hard to find in locales that do not grow nuts; no nutritional benefit for the soil.

Close up of ground pecan shells used as a garden mulch.

12. Pine Needle Mulch

Pros: Increases the soil’s acidity (so good for acid-lovers like rhododendrons and azaleas); attractive; light and easy to spread.

Cons: Not commercially available so labor intensive to collect and haul; adds little to no nutrients to the soil.

Pine needles used as a mulch around an evergreen shrub.

13. Straw Mulch

Pros: Easy to move and spread; excellent insulation properties; attractive golden appearance.

Cons: Expensive and can be hard to find; blows away in high winds; flammable; contains weed seeds.

Close up of a pile of dried straw.

14. Sawdust & Wood Shavings Mulch

Pros: Inexpensive and lightweight; easy to find; repels slugs.

Cons: Depletes underlying soil of nitrogen; poor water penetration; can be toxic to plants, humans, and animals if made from painted or otherwise treated lumber.

Close up of a pile of sawdust and wood chips.

15. Shredded Leaf Mulch 

Pros: Inexpensive (many municipalities make their autumn leaf collection available to gardeners for free); good winter insulation; good weed suppression; provides excellent nutrition to underlying soil.

Cons: Collecting and shredding the leaves is labor-intensive (and the leaves must be shredded if they are to serve as mulch–unshredded leaves are prone to blowing or clumping and will not break down in a healthy way for the surrounding plants).

Best mulch-Close up of shredded leaves used for garden mulch.

16. Shredded Tire Rubber Mulch

Pros: Cheap; good weed suppressant.

Cons: Unattractive; leaches industrial pollutants into the soil; stinks when it gets hot.

Close up of hand holding a fist full of shredded tire mulch.

17. Volcanic Rock Mulch

Pros: Low maintenance once installed; good for modulating soil temperature; excellent weed suppression if spread over weed barrier (recommended).

Cons: Difficult to remove once installed (so best in established beds and features where the ground is rarely disturbed); heavy and hard to spread.

Close up of red lava rock mulch.

Using Landscape Fabric

Landscape fabric is a great way to reduce weeds while still allowing water to flow through. Simply cover the garden area with fabric and place your mulch on top of it.

Wheelbarrow dropping soil over landscaping fabric surrounding a tree.
There are many safe and attractive types of mulch to use to protect and nurture your garden plants. A well-chosen mulch will keep your favorite garden beds hydrated, well fed, weed-free, and beautiful all four seasons of the year. What do you think makes the best mulch? Let us know your favorite by commenting below.

4 Comments

  1. Arbust

    Pecan Mulch is very cheap where I live, it’s very light so easy to spread. It does decompose and help soil it just takes a very long time. The rose bed at the house I bought had years of pecan mulch top dressing at the bottom of this it had throughly decomposed into compost . It also acidifies the 8.5 ph soil here.

    Reply
    • My Garden Life

      Great tip Arbust, thanks for sharing! As you mention, the availability of pecan mulch seems to be regional, but for those who have access to it it’s definitely a good option.

      Reply
    • Jenny

      Hazelnut shells are easy to find where we live and more affordable than hay mulch which and is not completely seed free.

      Reply
      • My Garden Life

        Hi Jenny,
        It’s great that you have an affordable and attractive option like hazelnut shells available in your area. A good reminder for others not to overlook more unconventional mulch options that might be available at a local level, such as hazelnut shells, pecan shells, or even crushed seashells!

        Reply

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