Types of Mulch - What You Need to Know

Mulch Types – What You Need to Know

Are you ready to mulch your garden, or other plants on your property, but just don’t know which type of mulch to use? It can be overwhelming trying to figure out which one. Do you use wood chips, or straw, or fall leaves, or…? Keep reading to learn about the most common types of mulch and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

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Mulching bare ground is a great way to keep weeds down, reduce how much watering you need to do, and build your soil. This is the second post in my 2-part series on mulch. If you feel like you need a quick intro, then check out part 1 of the series to learn what mulch is and find out how to use it on your garden or homestead.

Now back to the types of mulch. Not all types are created equal, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each.

While any number of materials that could be used for mulch, this post covers the 5 most common types of mulch.

5 Types of Mulch for Your Homestead

  • 1
    Wood Chip Mulch
  • 2
    Straw or Hay Mulch
  • 3
    Fall Leaves as Mulch
  • 4
    Chop-and-Drop Mulch
  • 5
    Rock Mulch

I’m also going to quickly cover why I’m not a fan of inorganic mulch like weed fabrics and black plastic.

One last type of mulch is a living mulch. This is when you grow plants as ground cover that fully cover the ground, providing a lot of benefits to your plants and soil. But living mulch is too big of a topic to cover in this post, and it really deserves its own.

Also, a friendly reminder—do not till or bury mulch of any type. Mulch goes on the surface of the soil. Burying mulch can result in problems such as decreased available nitrogen for your plants.

I know there’s a lot to keep track of here, but don’t worry about taking notes. Just grab your free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet that summarizes all this information and runs through the basics from Part 1.

(And if you already grabbed the cheat sheet from Part 1, then you don’t need to get it again.)

Wood Chip Mulch

Wood chips are a great type of mulch

I'm always on the look out for wood chip mulch. Despite the snow I could not resist getting a load of free wood chips dropped off. These wood chips were from a tree service company.

I always try to have extra wood chip piles on my homestead, just waiting for some new planting project. These piles are such a fixture of my homestead, (and shoveling them is such a fixture in my life,) that the first time I ever heard my son laugh as a baby was when I was shoveling wood chips. He seemed to think it was absolutely hilarious. Now when I’m out shoveling, he wants to grab a shovel and dig in!

Why do I like wood chips so much?

When I’m mulching, I’m trying to mimic nature. That often means mimicking a forest floor. Just picture all those twigs, leaves, and branches on the forest floor. They break down, building soil life and fungal networks that nurture a dizzying diversity of life in perpetuity.

A mulch made from wood chips and fall leaves is a great way to mimic this natural environment.

It results in better soil, as the wood chips feed soil life and break down. It increases water storage in the soil and decreases evaporation, cutting down watering needs dramatically. It’s also very effective at keeping weeds down.

But it’s a challenge to sow seeds into thick wood chips. So wood chips are not always the best option in the garden if you’re direct-seeding. But they are great around shrubs, trees and larger veggies.

My recommendation is to use wood chips around your larger plants like trees and shrubs. I do use them in the garden too, but it can make direct seeding a bit harder. Smaller, older wood chips are easier to use in the garden.

Summary

Recommended Uses:

  • Around trees, shrubs, and perennial vegetables.
  • In the garden, but be careful when direct sowing seeds.

Advantages of Wood Chip Mulch:

  • Fewer pest issues compared with other types of mulch.
  • Creates habitat for beneficial fungi that improve growth and resilience of plants.
  • Great at suppressing weeds.
  • Breaks down into soil with a high percentage of organic content.
  • Reduces evaporation and increases soil water-holding ability.

Disadvantage of Wood Chip Mulch:

  • Can be difficult to find in some areas.
  • It’s hard to direct-seed with a thick layer of wood chip mulch.

Straw or Hay Mulch

Straw or hay can be a great type of mulch

This picture is from a couple years ago when I was improving this planter. I used straw mulch and later added fall leaves on top of it. Today it has trees, shrubs and other plants growing in it.

I learned to garden in my parent’s garden, which was always covered in a thick layer of straw mulch. This method can work great, but it’s not my favorite way to garden. (I’ll tell you why in a minute.)

Using straw or hay mulch was made famous by Ruth Stout in her book Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent. The main secret of the Ruth Stout method is to apply a thick layer of straw or hay as mulch.

This is very similar to the mulching method popularized by Paul Gautschi’s Back to Eden Gardening, which uses wood chips instead of straw or hay. I think the key might be using a thick mulch, as opposed to a specific type of mulch.

While straw or hay mulch can work great, it does have some big disadvantages. I find it tends to be a great place for pests such as slugs and pill bugs (at least during the first year or so). I also find it is not as good as wood chips at retaining water.

Hay (and sometimes straw) can also have seeds mixed, in resulting in weeds. But this can be negated if you let the straw or hay sit and spoil.

As with wood chips, a thick layer of straw or hay will make it hard to direct seed you garden. As always, make sure to pull the mulch back and direct seed into the soil not the mulch.

The biggest issue with straw or hay as mulch is that you may find it is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides. I have used straw and hay with no problems in the past, but this is becoming a more common issue. Make sure you know where your straw or hay is from, and that the suppliers don’t use herbicides or pesticides.

Summary

Recommended Uses:

  • In the garden, but be careful when direct sowing seeds.

Advantages of Straw or Hay Mulch:

  • Great at suppressing weeds.
  • Breaks down into soil with high percentage of organic content.
  • Reduces evaporation and increases soil water-holding ability.

Disadvantage of Straw or Hay Mulch:

  • May contain toxic chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides.
  • May result in increased slugs, pill bugs and other pests (for the first year or so).
  • It can be hard to direct seed with thick layer of straw or hay mulch.

Leaf Mulch

Fall leaves are a fantastic type of mulch

Fall leaves is the way nature naturally mulches a forest. I took this picture in a forest near my homestead. As you can see the ground is completely covered by fall leaves.

I love fall leaves, and they are an amazing mulch for any of your plants. This last fall, I collected over 200 bags of leaves from people living in my area. I can never get enough.

I even wrote a whole blog post on how you can use fall leaves on your homestead.

There are 2 main ways to use fall leaves as mulch.

  1. As whole or shredded leaves in the fall.
  2. As leaf mould.

If you’re using whole or shredded leaves, (either is fine in my opinion,) then it’s best to put them over the garden or around your other plants in the fall.

This will give them time to start breaking down and help feed soil life, potentially giving your soil a jump-start before spring.

If you have trouble with the leaves matting down, try shredding them first. But I haven’t had this issue with all the fall leaves I use.

Leaf mould is essentially fall leaves that have been sitting in a large pile for 1 to 2 years. The result is a dark, crumbly mix that can be a great mulch. You can even seed into it directly, (assuming it’s around 2 years old).

Leaf mould is also a great soil amendment that can help build soil structure, feed soil life, increase water retention, and provide minerals (similar to rock dust).

Like straw, fall leaves also have the drawback of being a wonderful habitat for the pests we don’t want—slugs, pill bugs, etc. But with the right approach, you can get these pests under control and restore balance in your garden.

Around shrubs and trees, I recommend just using whole fall leaves. But on the garden, I think leaf mould is your best option. If you let the leaves sit for 1 year and then put them on your garden in the fall, they will continue to break down all through autumn, winter, and into spring—just in time for your plants to flourish!

Summary

Recommended Uses:

  • In the garden (leaf mould)
  • Around trees and shrubs (fresh fall leaves)
  •  On your lawn (you can break them down with a mulching lawn mower if you want.)

Advantages of fall leaves as Mulch:

  • Great at suppressing weeds (fresh fall leaves).
  • Breaks down into soil with high percent organic content (fall leaves and leaf mould).
  • Reduces evaporation and increases soil water holding ability (fall leaves and leaf mould).
  • Creates a rich environment for fungi and other soil life (fall leaves and leaf mould).
  • You can plant directly into leaf mould if it’s aged long enough (about 2 years).

Disadvantage of fall leaves as Mulch:

  • May result in increased slugs, pill bugs and other pests (for the first year or so).
  • It can be hard to direct seed if using fresh fall leaves.
  • May mat down into a thick layer.

Chop-and-Drop Mulch

Chop-and-drop material is a great type of mulch

Fresh logan berry chop-and-drop material. I cut up the big vines so they would be easy to handle. This type of mulch mimics what happens in nature when branches, twigs, etc. fall to the ground.

In terms of mimicking nature, this along with fall leaves is the best way of mulching your plants. Chop-and-drop is the process of cutting existing plants and dropping the cuttings on the ground as mulch.

For more information on chop-and-drop, check out the blog post all about this method.

This method can result in a nice mix of freshly cut green plant material, such as stems and leaves, and also woody material, such as branches and twigs. In other words, it’s very similar to what you would find in a natural setting.

In general, chop-and-drop will provide the same benefits as wood chips and fall leaves.

But this method can be time consuming if you want to mulch a large area to a depth of several inches. It’s better for mulching around plants that are already established as a way of maintaining an existing mulch layer and providing a boost to specific key plants like a fruit tree.

I use other methods to prepare areas for planting, with the goal of eventually relying on a mix of chop-and-drop and the natural drop of leaves in the fall and branches or twigs in the winter to maintain the mulch layer.

In your garden, you can use chop-and-drop as you are removing old, spent veggies. Just cut up the plant material into small pieces and it will form a nice mulch layer for your garden.

Summary

Recommended Uses:

  • In the garden in the fall—cut the spent plants into small pieces.
  • Around existing and established planting areas.

Advantages of Chop-and-Drop Mulch:

  • Easy if you’re not trying to prepare a large area for planting.
  • Simple way to maintain existing plantings.
  • Allows you to make use of prunings and cuttings on-site without composting or shredding.
  • Reduces evaporation and increases soil water-holding ability.
  • Will likely support beneficial fungi.

Disadvantage of Chop-and-Drop Mulch:

  • Time-consuming if done over a large area.
  • Not effective for preparing a large area for planting.
  • Requires the cutting or pruning of existing vegetation. (That’s great if you have plants that need to be cut back, but it’s a deal killer if you don’t.)

Rock Mulch

Rock mulch can be used as a type of mulch

I don't tend to use rocks as mulch very often. But I do use rock piles to create habitat for wildlife and to create warm micro-climates around tender plants.

Rocks are the only inorganic mulch that I would recommend you use, but even then, only in specific situations. While they will slowly add minerals to your soil as they weather precipitation and fungal activity, they don’t actively build the soil.

But rocks are the only mulch listed here that can capture heat from the sun and release it at night. This can result in warm micro-climates, which can help you grow tomatoes, peppers and other heat-loving plants in cooler regions.

Rocks also help reduce evaporation. (Think about how moist the soil tends to be under a big rock.)

My favorite way to use rocks as “mulch” is to find larger rocks (volleyball size or bigger) and place them around plants that could benefit from the increased temperatures. I might still use other mulch like wood chips around the rocks.

I would not recommend using small rocks, since those are a pain to remove if you ever want to change what you’re growing.

While rocks will suppress weeds initially, they’re not effective at doing so in the long run.

Summary

Recommended Uses:

  • Around plants that can benefit from a warmer micro-climate.

Advantages of Rocks as Mulch:

  • Do not need to be replaced.
  • Reduce evaporation of water from the soil.
  • Create moist habitat for soil life to shelter during droughts.

Disadvantage of Rocks as Mulch:

  • Do not provide long-term weed suppression.
  • Do not improve the soil.
  • Hard to direct-seed or plant into.
  • Small rocks are hard to remove once in place.

What About Black Plastic and Other Inorganic Mulch?

Black plastic and weed fabrics are poor mulch types

I'm not a fan of weed fabric or black plastic. I removed it from my homestead when I bought it. Here you can see what I found under it: rodent tunnels and compacted clay. If you use this type of mulch please only use it for short periods of time and not as a permanent mulch.

While I know some farmers and landscapers find black plastic, weed fabric, etc. to be useful, I can’t recommend them. These materials don’t improve the soil, and they become a waste product once they start to degrade.

They are very effective at suppressing weeds in the short run, and at reducing evaporation of water from the soil.

But if they are left in place, weeds will just grow on top of them unless the surface is kept clean of any organic material or soil.

I have also found that critters such as mice and voles love to tunnel under them. In addition, if you have clay soils, my experience is that weed fabric compacts the clay.

One benefit they do provide is that they can quickly warm the soil, providing a boost to seed germination in the spring. This, combined with weed suppression, are the main reasons for using black plastic.

All in all, I’ve found the short-term benefits of these materials not to be worth the costs.

Which Types of Mulch Should You Use?

So which method is best for you to use? Take a moment and think about your project. Is it for a garden?

Then I would recommend fall leaves or leaf mould, with wood chips a close second. (If you missed the window of opportunity for getting fall leaves, and you don’t have leaf mould, not to worry. Consider starting out with wood chips and transitioning as you are able to secure autumn leaves.)

Are you trying to prepare a new area for planting? My suggestion would be wood chips or fresh fall leaves.

But the other types of mulches all have their place and role. I have used all of them except black plastic and weed fabric on my homestead.

Look through the advantages and disadvantages for each, and think about which best fits your project. But also consider what you have access to. If straw is easy to come, by but wood chips are hard to find, then I would just use the straw.

Just be sure to let the straw sit and “spoil” before using it so you won’t have trouble from seeds. You may also want to check with your sources on their fertilizer and pesticide use.

If you don’t know where to get mulch, then I would check out part 1 of this series, which has a list of resources at the end to help you get started.

With each type of mulch having its own advantages and disadvantages, there’s a lot to remember. But don’t worry about taking notes. Just grab your free, easy-to-print cheat-sheet that summarizes all this information, provides an intro to mulching, and offers a list of useful resources.

(And if you already grabbed the cheat sheet from Part 1, then you don’t need to get it again.)

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Daron

Daron is the homesteader and blogger behind Wild Homesteading. With years of experience in gardening, permaculture, homesteading, and environmental restoration Daron's goal is to share his knowledge with all of you so you can work with nature to build your homestead and grow your own food. In addition, to running this site Daron is a restoration ecologist managing the restoration program for a local non-profit and a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to a perfect little boy.

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