Mulching 101: How to Keep Plants Hydrated, Healthy, & Weed-Free

June 26, 2020

Mulch can transform a lackluster garden or flower bed into a lush and exquisite sight to behold. Adding organic mulch around plants can not only improve your curb appeal, but also keep your perennials and vegetables hydrated, healthy, and weed-free.

New to mulch gardening? Don’t worry. Mulching is an easy gardening project that you can take on alone or with the kids and family to improve the look of your garden or yard.

What Is Mulch?

Garden mulch is any material that is used to cover the soil permanently or temporarily as a natural fertilizer to improve your soil’s productivity. Mulches can serve a variety of beneficial purposes for your garden including keeping those pesky weeds away and avoiding run-off to prevent root rot.

What Is Mulch Used For?

Mulch can be used for soil surfaces around trees, garden paths, and other areas around plants to make them thrive. Mulch, in its various forms and blends, has numerous benefits for any garden or flower bed including:

  • Moisture retention
  • Weed suppression
  • Soil cooling in warmer weather
  • Soil fertility
  • Pest control
  • Soil erosion prevention
  • Improved curb appeal
  • Soil heat retention in cooler weather

What Is Mulch Made Out Of?

Mulch is made out of organic material (bark, pine straw, compost, hazelnut shells) or inorganic material (lava rock, white rock, recycled rubber). For the best results, we recommend using organic mulch in your garden to maintain its natural appeal and flawless aesthetic.

What Are The Best Types of Mulch?

Organic vs. inorganic? Picking between the two takes careful consideration. Organic mulches require replacement after the mulch has decomposed, but the soil’s fertility will be greatly improved due to its slowly-released nutrients. If you’re going for organic, however, opt for dry and woody mulch, which are slow to decompose meaning you won’t need to replace it as often.

Carefully vet your organic mulch sources for materials such as straw, manure, or compost. Sometimes, you can find weed seeds in the mix. Weed seeds can wreak havoc on your carefully tended foliage by crowding it and stealing its nutrients and water.

Inorganic mulches can be a great alternative to organic mulches, albeit, synthetic mulches won’t improve your soil’s fertility. Besides that, inorganic mulches are effective at holding in moisture and keeping weeds at bay. Also, they won’t decompose and need replacement as often.

You can even make a blend of synthetic and organic mulch. Use inorganic mulch such as landscape fabric or black plastic to retain moisture and keep weeds out. Add a top layer of an organic option to give your garden a better look than other than the drab plastic layer.


If you’re looking for mulch that you don’t have to replace often, you can’t go wrong with bark mulch. It’s useful around trees, perennial garden beds, paths, and shrubs, basically, anywhere that has permanently placed plants, or where you won’t be planting anything. Bark mulch can last up to seven years. Choose pine chips for plants that require an acidic environment such as azaleas.

Bark has plenty of attractive qualities for gardeners, but may not be suitable for windy regions, since bark mulch is lightweight and can be easily swept away by strong gusts of wind or heavy rain. You can choose between shredded bark mulch or chip bark mulch. Shredded mulch can retain moisture better, but needs more frequent replacement than chip bark mulches.

mulched pathway

Shredded Leaves

What’s more organic and cost-effective than using the leaves falling off the trees in your yard? Shredded leaves can be used as mulch to attract earthworms and improve soil aeration. While leaves aren’t as aesthetically appealing as other mulches, you can use this type of material in backyard areas that aren’t readily visible. (Leaves are also a great addition to a compost bin or pile for perfect soil building).

Here’s a tip: unshredded leaves can prevent water from reaching the roots of your shrubs. If you don’t or can’t shred your leaves, use a rake to move your leaves around and keep them from getting matted.

Straw and Hay

Straw and hay are excellent at retaining moisture, suppressing weeds, and attracting beneficial insects. Straw’s slow decomposition rate means you won’t have to replace it a single time throughout the growing season.

Straw and hay are perfect for your outdoor vegetable garden. Straw’s texture can keep microorganisms and muddy soil from splashing onto your pristine veggies. Plus, spiders and insects can move easily around the straw to keep your garden pest-free.

When you’ve harvested your veggies, it’s easy to remove the straw to move onto your next crop. Pine straw, made out of pine needles, can help improve soil drainage and reduce erosion. Pine needles can make great mulching material for flower beds, especially. Pine needles are lightweight and don’t mat down as they decompose. Pine needles, however, will lower the pH of your soil.


Recycling has never been so fulfilling. Throw your food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, and other organic materials into a special bin or buy some pre-made compost or composted manure, just make sure there aren’t any weed seeds in there. Compost can be used as a layer of mulch or used to side-dress plants to boost their growth.

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings can also work in a few instances mainly for weed suppression in remote areas that don’t need to look pretty. Grass clippings can decompose quickly and emit a foul odor when decomposing, producing a distinct slime all over.

Grass clippings are not conducive to growing plants since they can prevent water from reaching the roots below. Mulch from grass that’s been treated with weed cleaner can also make your plants very unhappy.

Mulching lawnmowers can create grass clippings you can use as fertilizer to provide nutrients to the soil below as it breaks down. You can also collect clippings to add to your compost bin or use it as mulch alone. Allow some time for your clippings to dry or else they can be too hot for your soil after being shredded.


After you’re done catching up on sports and the stocks, use your shredded newspaper as a mulch material. Just make sure your paper is made from organic dyes. Shredded newspaper has been used to keep plant roots moist during shipping for years.

Shredded newspaper is a great moisture retainer, weed suppressor, and soil temperature regulator. We recommend using between four to eight sheets of newspaper around your plants and moisten them so they don’t move out of place. If possible, add another layer of organic mulch on top.

Landscape Fabric and Plastic

If you’re focused on keeping your weeds out of your landscape, try out landscape fabrics for weed suppression around shrubs and trees. Try to avoid plastics, since your soil won’t be fertilized and water and nutrients might have a hard time getting through. This old-school approach and isn’t very good for soil, and leads to runoff, depletion and compaction.

Trees and shrubs won’t need much fertilization, so landscape fabric is a worthwhile choice. Keep in mind, plastic coverings can raise the heat and kill anything below, unless you poke some holes in the covering to let the water go through.

Stones and Gravel

Stones such as pebbles, rocks, or gravel are excellent mulch materials to help areas with temperature control and drainage. Keep them on hand for plants that need to be properly drained or plants that can handle a bit of heat. Stone can be difficult to move around, however, so it would have to be a permanent fixture in your garden.

Hazelnut Shells

Did you know that hazelnuts do more than add a delicious flavor to cookies and cakes? After harvest, hazelnut shells are sold as mulch for your garden, flower bed, walkway, or potted plant. Most hazelnut shell mulch is available in the country’s main source of hazelnuts, the Pacific Northwest, particularly Oregon’s Willamette Valley, during the fall harvest season.

Hazelnut shell mulch is a lightweight and renewable material that can add a natural caramel sheen to your garden, hold moisture, keep weeds away, and ward off pests. Hazelnut shells can fade into a gray hue due to weather and be blown away in windy conditions, so avoid using it for hills and slopes. To keep the color alive, layer this mulch type seasonally.

hazelnut shells


Rubber mulch is made from salvaged, cleaned, and shredded bits of rubber from tires small and large. Rubber is denser than wood mulch, but shock-absorbent making it a popular addition to playgrounds and parks. Rubber may be more expensive than other types of mulch.

Rubber mulch does a good job of keeping your soil cool from the unforgiving heat compared to traditional wood mulch. Rubber mulch can contain some chemicals that may negatively affect your plants. Rubber, however, blocks weed growth, lasts a long time, and keeps bugs away.

Rubber’s non-porous also surface allows all of the water to slide down to the soil below with no water waste.

What About Dyed Mulch?

Some mulch materials can be dyed black, red, green, or brown for visual appeal. Mulch dyes include vegetable-based dyes, which can reduce the leaching of toxins into your garden. Iron-oxide-based dyes are responsible for a vibrant red color derived from its rust content.

Run-off can infuse more iron into the iron-oxide dye, which can be helpful for some plant varieties that need more iron. Carbon-based dyes have a black hue that isn’t too good for plants. Vegetable-oil based dyes with black coloring, however, can be relatively safe for soil with plants around.

Some dyed mulch can be made from wood treated with arsenic-based preservatives. Avoid using this dyed mulch for your garden plants or flowers to prevent leaching toxic chemicals into your garden. If you’re dead set on having a reddish hue, check out cocoa bean mulch which has a natural red and brown color.

How Do You Make Mulch?

Mulch can be purchased from your local gardening supply store for cheap, but if you prefer to roll up your sleeves and make your own mulch, it’s simple and, sometimes, free to do with materials in your yard.

We’re going to focus on organic mulch materials, which are the most common around your home. Start by collecting any leaves that fall from your trees and plants with a rake or keep the ones you cut off when pruning your shrubs and trees.

If you’re keen on shredding your leaves, you can spread out your leaves on a flat part of your lawn and shred them into small pieces with a lawnmower or using an electric leaf shredder or hedge trimmers to do it by hand. Shredding promotes leaf decomposition and allows the soil to get all the water and nutrients it needs.

There’s no point in waiting around to use your hand-collected mulch. After shredding your organic mulch, you can start using it in your garden. Store any leftover mulch in a ventilated barrel or container with airflow to avoid fermentation. You can also spread out your mulch on a flat surface and cover it with a tarp.

Leaves are plentiful in most gardens, but if available, feel free to add some wood or bark from your yard. Grab any branches and tree debris you can find. Wood chipper shredders can quickly turn your yard waste into nutrient-rich mulch. Add in any grass clippings, shredded newspaper, and you’re off to the races.

Wood chips from a tree must be aged about six months before they can be used more effectively. Soil microbes from new chips can take away nitrogen from the soil and lower your yield and plant’s looks. Fresh chips can also produce a slimy fungus.

When to Mulch

Most gardeners start mulching in the spring and fall. During spring, you can mulch plants right after planting them. In the fall, when the cold hits, you can mulch plants that aren’t resistant to the cold weather to protect them from a frost. Ultimately, the best time to mulch depends on your plant’s specific needs.

How To Mulch A Garden and Flower Bed

Mulching can be an art form if you’re meticulous and passionate. Start by choosing the right mulch for your garden, yard, or flower bed. Estimate how much mulch you’ll need for your project to avoid buying too much or not enough mulch. When beginning to mulch your garden, the mulch layer should begin a few inches away from the root crown of the plant.

We recommend adding a mulch layer no more than two to three inches deep at a time or four to six inches to completely keep out weeds. Wait until the mulch completely decomposes before adding more. If you have old mulch around the plant, rake it to check its depth and improve airflow.

Wood chips aren’t the best to use for vegetable gardens or flower beds since you’ll be digging them up every year. Digging with wood chips around your garden or flower bed can be very hard. Black plastic film can regulate heat and humidity and allow vining crops such as strawberries, cucumbers, and melons to thrive without rotting.

In flower beds, sandy soils can benefit from mulch’s moisture-retaining properties. Clay soils can benefit from the aeration caused by the earthworm’s travels throughout.

Mulching with organic material means you will likely have to keep adding more mulch in the growing season to retain the mulch’s effectiveness. Different mulch material breaks down at different rates.

Avoid piling mulch at the base of trees or plants. Known as a mulch volcano, this mound of mulch can force tree roots to grow into the mulch reducing their resistance to drought. Insects love these hills since they can hide and reach the trunk easier. Mulch volcanoes starve the roots of oxygen and increase soil microbes. Needless to say, don’t over mulch.

Mulching can be a meditative experience that allows you to connect with your living plants, flowers, and trees. Let your landscape inspire your gardening and life. Mulching can transform your garden into something that you’re proud of. Not to mention, your plants will love it.