How to Mulch

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Most gardeners know that mulching their flower gardens or vegetable patches is essential. But choosing the right mulch for your garden and knowing how to apply that material can be a bit more complicated. Luckily, there are several different mulching options available that we will detail below, so you can select the one that’s perfect for your plants’ needs.

Why Mulching is Important

There are many different reasons for mulching, all of which can improve the look and health of a garden. First, mulching locks moisture into the soil, which helps to ward off drought. Mulching also helps keep the soil temperature consistent, which can keep plants warmer during cold months and cooler during hot months. Some mulches also add nutrients to the soil, conditioning it, and making it a better base for plant growth and overall health. These materials may even help flowers produce bigger blooms and may lead to larger vegetable yields.

In addition to helping the soil, mulching also works to keep weeds at bay. Most weeds can’t grow through a layer of wood chips, shredded leaves, or straw, so your plants have more room to flourish without competing for nutrients.

Finally, mulching usually makes gardens, particularly flower gardens, look neat and tidy. It can help to delineate garden boundaries and gives a sense of continuity when used throughout several different gardens in the yard.(1)

Mulching Tips

It’s best only to begin mulching after you’ve entirely weeded a garden. Any weeds that already have a head start may grow through the mulching material, but once the weeds are pulled, new ones should be stopped by a good layer of wood chips, straw, or another material.

The mulch layer will need to be thick enough to discourage weed growth. This means a layer between two and six inches in depth is necessary. Generally, two to three inches of mulching material works just fine. However, in areas that get a lot of sunlight or tend to be particularly problematic when it comes to weeds, four to six inches of mulching material may be required.

It’s possible to over mulch as well. Mulching material that gets piled around the roots of trees or shrubs can cause root rot. These piles are also a perfect place for animals such as mice to nest. Also, a layer that’s over four inches in depth can retain too much moisture, causing problems in plants’ roots and stems.

Mulching in the early spring can also make it more difficult for the soil underneath to warm up. This can cause slow growth in plants, particularly bulbs such as lilies. To encourage growth, you can gently pull the mulching material away from the roots of plants and then push it back once they’ve started to grow.

Mulching Options

Wood Chips

Wood chips are one of the most popular mulching options. These chips are usually dried, so they decompose slowly and won’t drain the soil of nutrients. Sometimes wood chips are dyed a particular color, so landscapers can choose a chip color that suits their gardening needs.

Wood chips give gardens a very natural look, and they can be used almost anywhere. They’re also particularly useful in sloped areas since they tend to stay put, even when it rains. Wood chips work well in perennial gardens or around shrubs and trees, but they can become a hassle if used in annual or vegetable gardens because they don’t decompose. Hardwood is the best choice for flower gardens, while pine chips work better around trees and shrubs.

Chips that aren’t dried can also be used for mulching. However, because these chips break down faster, they often leach nutrients from the soil instead of enhancing its qualities. Because of this, wood chips that aren’t dried should only be used on top of a layer of another organic, nutritious mulching material, such as grass clippings or shredded leaves.

Cocoa Chips

Cocoa chips are similar to wood chips in that they’re small, hard pieces of organic material. In this case, the chips are made from cocoa bean hulls. The rich brown color of this mulching material is quite aesthetically pleasing, and the cocoa hulls smell like chocolate, so they’re an attractive option for many reasons. However, cocoa chips decompose much more quickly than regular wood chips, so they’ll need to be replaced more frequently. In addition, cocoa chips are a terrible idea for anyone with pets or yards that see a fair amount of wildlife, as the chocolate in the chips can be toxic to animals.

Grass Clippings

Instead of bagging and tossing your grass clippings after mowing the lawn, consider using them as a nutritious mulching material. As the grass clippings break down, they release nitrogen into the soil, which creates more robust root systems in plants.

When using grass clippings, spread only a thin layer across the soil. The clippings can later be turned into the soil, so they’re an excellent choice for annual flower beds or vegetable gardens.(2)

Shredded Leaves

Much like grass clippings, shredded leaves are an excellent choice for a natural, organic mulching option. It’s easy to shred leaves at home by collecting them with a lawnmower and then spreading the resulting mixture. After spreading the leaves, wet them with a hose or sprinkler so that they stay in place. You can also add wood chips on top to ensure the leaves don’t move.

Leaves decompose more quickly than wood chips and introduce nutrients into the soil. However, they last about a year, which is longer than grass clippings.


Straw is also a great choice when it comes to mulching, especially in annual and vegetable gardens. This material breaks down slowly, releasing essential nutrients into the soil and creating a healthier growing environment for plants. It also has excellent insulation properties.

If you select straw as a mulching material, be sure that you’re using either true straw or hay free of weeds and seeds. Hay may still contain seeds otherwise, and this can, instead of stopping weeds, cause them to grow in your garden. If you’re not sure if your hay or straw is weed-free, you can spread shredded newspaper under it to discourage weed growth.

Some gardeners recommend a thick layer of straw in gardens. However, straw that piles up can cause root rot and invites pests such as slugs, so use caution. At the end of the season, any straw that hasn’t fully decomposed can be turned into the soil.


Compost works well when mulching because it contains many essential nutrients that plants need to thrive. Compost also breaks down gradually, so it will last between a few months and a full year. The dark color in compost also looks excellent in a variety of gardens.

Compost doesn’t retain moisture as well as many other mulches, however, and may become dry, which can harm plants instead of helping them. To prevent this, either spread a thin layer or another mulching material, such as wood chips, over the compost, or only use compost right around the plants’ roots.

You can make your own compost at home, but it’s also available to purchase. In addition, some towns and cities may collect grass and yard clippings and compost them, and this compost is often available to homeowners.

Shredded Newspaper and Cardboard

Uncolored, natural newspaper and cardboard, when shredded, can create a very beneficial mulching mix. This paper mixture makes gardening simpler by stopping the growth of weeds and locking in moisture. Paper mulches aren’t the prettiest option, however, and the lightweight material may blow away in the breeze. To prevent this, lay down a layer of shredded paper or cardboard and then cover that layer with another mulching material, such as wood chips, straw, or shredded leaves.

Plastic or Fabric Liners

Some gardeners opt for plastic or fabric liners, which stop the growth of weeds entirely. These liners can also help to retain heat in the colder months. However, these materials are not organic and don’t add any nutrients to the soil. In addition, they are often impermeable, meaning water can’t get through them. This makes an irrigation system necessary. Plastic liners should never be used around shrubs or trees, either, as they can cause serious problems with these plants’ roots.

Bottom Line

The right mulching choice depends on the type of gardening you’re doing and how you want your yard to look. Often, two or three mulches can be used together to create the perfect environment for plants. In addition, these mulches can be used to add a bit of flair and neatness to a yard, while also preventing weeds and keeping plants safe.

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About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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