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How To Choose The Right Mulch For Your Next Landscaping Project
Learn about the pros and cons of different mulches to decide which type is right for landscaping!
Whether you’re just starting a garden or you are landscaping pro, you’ll know that proper mulching is the key to keeping your property looking nice. Not only is a freshly mulched lawn aesthetically pleasing, but it also has many benefits for your soil and plants. To name just a few of the benefits of mulching, mulch helps improve soil moisture, prevents plants from dying too quickly, reduces soil erosion, and helps maintain optimal soil temperatures by creating a barrier from the heat and cold.
But before you are ready to mulch, you need to know which type of mulch is best for your landscaping purposes. First, you will have to understand the difference between organic and inorganic mulch. Organic mulches are made from formerly living materials, including chopped leaves, straw, grass clippings, compost, wood chips, shredded bark, sawdust, pine needles and even paper. Inorganic mulches tend to do best in heavily trafficked areas, such as walkways, and are made from black plastic and geotextiles. Now, let’s break down the different mulches available in each category, and the pros and cons of using each one.
Manure is a denser mulch and a great choice to use when it’s time to plant new garden beds or show some intensively grown beds some extra love. Out of all the organic mulches, manure breaks down the fastest and as it decomposes, it improves the soil structure. Manure is rich with nutrients to make vegetable gardens more productive, and help flowers, shrubs and plants thrive.
However, use caution and discretion when adding this type of mulch to your garden beds. Manure that is too fresh can actually burn plant roots, and using manure from pigs, cats, and dogs can introduce disease-causing organisms into your garden. While manure will add large amounts of organic material into your soil quickly, it also will not prevent annoying weeds from popping up nearly as well as wood or straw mulches.
Wheat Straw Mulch is often the first choice for protecting freshly seeded lawns. It prevents birds and rodents from swooping in to eat the seeds. Wheat straw mulch also helps retain moisture in the soil, which seeds need in order to take root and thrive. In addition, this is also a good choice for mulching vegetable gardens, as wheat straw mulch can protect your garden from fungus and diseases that cause plant rot and acts as a natural pest deterrent. That said, be careful not to confuse wheat straw mulch with hay when you’re shopping. Although they look very similar, hay contains seeds that will inevitably sprout up in your garden as ugly weeds.
Pine Bark Nuggets are easy to apply, and work well under evergreen trees. It can also be used to promote growth of shrubbery or flower beds. Pine barn nuggets are used to insulate and moderate soil temperature by blocking the soil from direct sunlight. This prevents the soil from being crusty and compact, which makes it harder for plants to get the water they need to survive. Pine bark nuggets last for a long time, but release acid and aluminum into the soil when they do eventually decompose, which is great for acid loving plants, such as hydrangeas. The biggest downside for this type of mulch is that it doesn’t do well in areas with heavy rain or extreme weather conditions. In areas with water pooling or flooding the nuggets may float and spread, or even wash away entirely.
Pine Straw has many of the same benefits as pine bark nuggets, but features naturally interlocking needles that will make it more stable during heavy rain or inclement weather conditions. This mulch is a good choice to use in sloped areas, as it can help prevent soil erosion. Since pine straw is naturally shed by pine trees and harvested from the floor of pine forests, this mulch is a very renewable product and an environmentally conscious choice.
However, be aware that it will take some practice to lay the pine straw in your garden in a way that looks tidy. Also note that as the needles age, they will turn a silvery-gray color that some people find unattractive. Depending on where you purchase your bale of pine leaves, you will also have to look out for unwanted sticks, leaves, and occasionally trash that gets looped in with the pine needles.
Shredded hardwood is a byproduct of the lumber and paper industries and works best around trees, shrubs, and in perennial flower beds. It has many of the same properties as pine bark nuggets, but is less likely to wash away. It spreads easily, usually stays where you want it, and is long lasting. However, when hardwood breaks down it releases alkaline into the soil and raises its pH balance, which can cause harm to acid loving plants. Therefore, you may need to add fertilizer or sulfur in order to restore the proper Ph balance. You will also need to make sure the shredded hardwood doesn’t become too compact over time, which will prevent rain and nutrients from reaching the soil below.
Wood Chip Mulch is great for achieving your desired aesthetic, as it comes in many different colors and works well under trees and on slopes. If you choose a Cedar Wood Chip Mulch, you will also have the added benefit of repelling insects. All wood chip mulches are slow to decompose and will last a long time, but they can leach nitrogen from the soil. Therefore, you may need to add fertilizer once or twice per season if you choose this mulch. Also, make sure you never let any wood mulches come into contact with your house, as this mulch is an ideal home for termites.
If you are using colored wood chip mulch, make sure the manufacturer is using raw lumber rather than recycled wood. Recycled woods can obtain objectionable additives that are bad for the environment, including traces of arsenic. That said, the dyes used for colored mulches are considered to be safe.
Cocoa Mulch Chips are popular because of their rich color and pleasant scent. They are typically lightweight, easy to handle, and appropriate for all planting areas. However, don’t apply more than one inch of cocoa mulch at a time or water excessively, because cocoa chips already decompose quickly. Since they’re one of the pricier mulch options, you want to make sure it lasts so you don’t have to spend more money on extra mulch. However, if you have pets or live in an area with lots of wildlife, avoid cocoa mulch at all costs. Cocoa mulch chips contain theobromine and caffeine, which are poisonous to dogs and other animals when consumed, and can even cause death.
Landscape rock comes in a variety of colors, sizes, and textures so you have lots of freedom to design and achieve the perfect aesthetic. Using stone mulches, such as pebbles, gravel, or rocks, are a good choice for decorative use and controlling unwanted weeds. Landscape rock doesn’t decompose and is good at staying in place, although smaller sized rocks may sink into the soil and occasionally require touch ups or reapplication. On the other hand, larger sized rock mulches can make it difficult to add plants later and can be hard to remove if you decide you don’t like it. If you live in a sunny or hot climate, landscape rock will keep the soil warmer and can increase evaporation, which could be problematic if it prevents your plants from getting enough water.
Shredded Rubber Mulch is typically made from recycled tires and is known for its shock absorption abilities. It is most commonly used as ground cover for playgrounds because it is considered to be a safe surface for kids to land on if they fall while playing, and won’t cause splinters if touched. Shredded rubber mulch doesn’t break down and is essentially permanent, and its color will remain the same for many years.
On the flip side, shredded rubber mulch is extremely heavy and hard to move if the need arises to do so. It is also known to have an unpleasant odor when first installed that can persist for a while, although the smell should fade with time. While this mulch shouldn’t harm the environment, it’s worth noting that it also won’t add any beneficial organic materials or nutrients to the soil.
Landscape Plastic is typically made of polyethylene film, which is impermeable. This means that water and other nutrients cannot pass through. While this quality makes it ideal as a short-term weed killer, plastic is not suitable for long-term use and can harm your crop or plants if you’re not careful. If you need to use it to warm the soil around fruit and vegetable plants or eliminate weeds, you’ll have to take extra steps to install an irrigation system under the plastic or water your plants by hand daily to make sure they get enough water access.
Landscape Fabric is a better choice than landscape plastic for long-term use, as it suppresses weeds but still allows air and water to pass through it. However, it will also cost more than landscape plastic would and still is fairly high maintenance to use. Many people choose to cover their landscape fabric with a layer of organic mulch for aesthetic reasons, and to create a double-barrier designed to prevent weed growth. As the organic mulch on top breaks down, the landscape fabric will keep the desired organic material from reaching the soil below. It will also create a layer of “dirt” on top of the landscape fabric, which will occasionally have to be removed. Weeds can develop in this dirt layer, and can be extremely difficult to remove if they manage to take root through the landscape fabric and into the soil below.