pine needles mulch
In the Garden

What kind of mulch is right for you?

Spring has arrived! That means flowers, sprouts, birds, and warmth! But also it means yard work! I recently read about changing your attitude from negative to positive by thinking instead of “have to,” think “get to.” So rather than “I have to mow the lawn and it’s hot and loud and messy” (of course if you hate it that much you might want to consider killing your lawn), say, “I get to mow the lawn and be outside in the sunshine, get vitamin D, and smell springtime.” Consider yourself lucky you have a yard where you can also play and relax, lucky it isn’t cold and snowing, and lucky you are strong enough to push a lawnmower. You will appreciate it more and feel more enjoyment. Once your yard is cleaned up from the winter, you want to keep it looking nice and keep your plants healthy. You need mulch in your garden! Using mulch will protect your plants, will reduce the number of weeds that sprout, help retain moisture around your plants, prevent soil erosion, and give your property a finished look.

What kind of mulch is right for you? That is going to depend on your property, what you have planted, and your personal preference. Here are some of your mulch options.

landscape using pine needle mulch
Pine needles are plentiful, natural, and look beautiful in the landscape.

Pine Needles
Though not the most popular, I’m starting with pine needles because they are our personal favorite. We have been using them in many of our landscaping clients’ yards for decades. Here are some benefits of pine needles as mulch:
• It is the most sustainable mulch. It is organic, but no trees are harmed to make it.
• They are really easy to spread in your garden.
• Pine needles harbor no diseases that can rot your siding.
• It doesn’t sprout weeds.
• There won’t be any termites in the mulch.
• It doesn’t “crust” and prevent water from getting to the plants.
• There are no chunks that need to be removed each year.
• It holds its color much longer than other mulches.
• You will need to use less of it each year.
• Pine needles are great for acid-loving plants, such as azaleas, magnolias, daffodils, holly, begonias, marigolds, and many summer fruits and vegetables.
The only downside we have found to using pine needles is in excessively windy areas, where it blows around more easily than other mulches. If you wet it immediately after spreading it, it is less likely to blow away, but we don’t recommend it for high-wind areas. A typical bale of pine needles covers 50 – 100 square feet, depending on whether the area has been mulched before. We have found that the best pine needles come from the tree farms in the Carolinas.

landscape using shredded hardwood mulch
Shredded hardwood mulch gives gardens a tidy, finished appearance.

Hardwood shredded mulch or bark
Just by looking around, I’m going to say that hardwood mulch is the most popular mulch used in home gardens. It will do all the things mulch is supposed to do, and it stays in place very well. It decomposes very slowly. You can get this mulch dyed black or red and possibly other colors, if you’re into that sort of thing. Shredded or bark mulch can be found just about anywhere you would look for it.

Vegetable garden using straw for mulch
Straw is great for protecting vegetable plants and keeping weeds at bay.

Many gardeners use straw as a mulch for their vegetable gardens. I used it last year for my tomatoes and peppers and it kept the garden very neat and reduced the number of weeds I typically get. (I’ve used grass clippings in the past, and the straw looked nicer and worked better.) It was cheap and easy to spread as well.

Commercial landscape using stone as mulch

Stones are ideal around commercial buildings.

River rocks and stones are often used in commercial landscaping. A benefit of using stone is that it is not flammable. Many smokers will put cigarettes out before entering a building, and one poorly tossed butt or gust of wind could send a cigarette into the mulch. With stone a business wouldn’t need to worry about that. Another big benefit is that stone does not break down, so it is a job that would only need to be done once, not yearly. However, stone is not ideal for mulching around plants because it doesn’t break down and add any nutrients to the soil. It also gets hot in the sun which can bake your plants’ roots. If using stone in the full sun, you would need to choose your plants wisely.

Crushed seashells are another option that would be similar to stones. The main difference is that shells will decompose (though very slowly) and add calcium to the soil. Shells would not be good for any of the acid-loving plants mentioned above. Calcium-loving plants include conifers, cruciferous vegetables, legumes, and fruit trees.

Compost, manure, leaves, grass clippings, etc.
These are great mulches for adding nutrients to your soil, but they decompose quickly and won’t give you that finished look.

Please don’t use this as a mulch. The thought gives me the heebie jeebies!

Experts recommend putting down 2-3” of mulch. Less than that will allow weeds to get through and more than that can smother the plants. Also, please avoid creating mulch mountains around trees. The mulch should NOT be mounded up to the tree trunk (or any plant’s stem). I know you’ve seen “professionals” do this, but it is not good for the tree. It can encourage disease and make the roots shallow (because they will rise trying to get the water that can barely make it through all the mulch), making the tree weak. A nice layer works just fine. In fact you could even leave a bit of space around the tree trunk or plant stem to allow water to get in more easily. Now get out there and enjoy spring! You get to work outside!

We want to hear from you. What do you typically use as mulch? Have you tried anything that didn’t work well?


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