Understanding Mulch

Shaina Oliphant
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Mulch is an important part of your landscape, but choosing the right mulch for your yard may feel like a daunting task with so many choices available. Let’s try to make sense of some of the confusion.

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Why Use Mulch?

When properly applied, mulch conserves moisture, smothers weeds, and prevents soil erosion. In areas with hot summers, it helps keep the soil cool and reduces stress on plants. Mulch also protects plants from winter cold and keeps soil from freezing and thawing, which can damage roots or even push small plants right out of the ground, an action known as “heaving.” In addition, it gives a neat and tidy appearance to your landscape and provides an attractive backdrop that shows off the beauty of the plants you’ve chosen to grow.

Types Of Mulch

There are many options when it comes to choosing the type of mulch to use in your landscape. These range from natural products like bark and wood chips, river rock, or crushed gravel to synthetic products such as shredded rubber.

  • Hardwood mulch. Hardwood mulch is one of the most popular landscape choices. Its shredded form mats down and smothers weeds while allowing water and air to pass through without floating away during heavy rains.
  • Pine mulch. Pine mulches come in two forms: shredded pine and pine bark chips or “nuggets.” Shredded pine is almost identical to shredded hardwood and has the same characteristics. Pine bark chips or nuggets are made from the bark of a pine tree and are uniform in size and color. They’re available in a variety of sizes, from “mini nuggets” to large chunks.
  • Soil conditioner. Some homeowners prefer to use soil conditioner, sometimes called “pine fines,” for mulch. Soil conditioner is finely ground pine bark and is particularly useful in perennial beds, vegetable gardens and other areas where soil improvement is needed.
  • Pine straw/pine needles. For coverage and longevity, pine straw is one of the most popular choices for landscape mulch, especially in the South. It mats down nicely and stays in place, it keeps weeds under control, and it is lightweight and easy to spread.
  • River rock/gravel. While not practical for large areas, river rock or gravel can be useful in areas where erosion is a particular problem or where a stylized look is desired.
  • Rubber/synthetic mulch. Shredded rubber and other synthetic mulches are gaining popularity. While some gardeners have concerns about using products that are not biodegradable, its advantages include being slow to break down and needing replacement less often.

How To Apply

Mulch should be applied 2 to 3 inches deep throughout your landscape beds, but be careful to avoid piling it up against the trunks of trees or directly over the tops of perennial plants and flowers. Deeper mulching may sound practical, but can actually inhibit plant growth and keep water from reaching the roots. Mulching too deep around trees can cause damage to the bark and invites pest and disease problems.

To help you estimate how much mulch you need, visit our Mulch and Top Soil Calculator.

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