Last Modified: February 28, 2024

Garden Mulch

14 of the Best Garden Mulch Types

Garden mulch. Jpg

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist


Mulches reduce the need for weeding and watering, coming in many shapes and forms, other than just compost. While compost is a popular type of mulch, the cost of pre-bagged types can really begin to mount up. Considering the alternatives can be a more budget-friendly option, while offering unique benefits to suit your garden or project needs.

These days, mulches fall into two main categories: organic and inorganic. Organic mulches decompose overtime, nourishing your soils and plants, as opposed to inorganic types which may last longer but do not add any nutritional value to the soil.

In order to help you to determine which might be the best gardening mulch to fit for your needs, we have detailed fourteen great mulching options. So, hopefully, there should be something there for just about everyone and every garden - let's grow!

Before and after of leaf and compost mulch laid on a garden bed

Key Takeaways

  • Benefits: Garden mulch performs a raft of tasks, with different types suited to various needs.
  • Organic Vs Inorganic: compare the pros and cons with our handy table.
  • Types Of Mulch: Click here to jump to the fourteen best garden mulch types we cover.
  • Techniques: Applying the correct type, timing & thickness are key to best practice mulching.
Turning home compost to use on a vegetable garden. Jpg

What is Garden Mulch

Garden mulch can be literally any material used to cover the soil surface in order to provide benefits for your plants and soil. Mulching can create a healthier ecosystem for plant roots by conserving moisture, preventing weeds and improving the soil quality. There is a wide variety of mulches out there today, ranging from organic matter such as decorative bark and compost, right through to inorganic materials like gravel and landscape fabric.

What Are the Benefits?

Mulch is used for many purposes, including:

  • helping soils retain moisture
  • reducing water loss
  • suppressing weeds
  • improving soil organic matter and providing nutrients
  • regulating soil temperatures and protecting plant roots from extremes

Selecting the best mulch for your garden, and understanding how to apply it, is an art. When mastered, it can result in your ability to add another level of beauty and durability to your outdoor projects!

Decorative grass plantes with bark mulch chippings

Organic vs. Inorganic: Pros and Cons

As we mentioned earlier, there are two categories of mulch: organic and inorganic. We are about to take a deep dive into both types, pros and cons. But as a quick guide, we have put together a table showing some of the key considerations for each type.







Improves Soil Structure



Suppresses Weeds









Conserves Water



Long Lasting



Requires a Membrane



Available Free?






Organic Mulch

Organic mulch is any type of biodegradable material used to improve soil composition, conserve moisture and replenish essential nutrients. In general, applying a layer of 5-10cm (2-4") around your plants is advisable. Also, because they decompose, it will require top ups from time to time to perform at its best.

The examples of organic mulch as we cover are as follows:

  • Wood chip
  • Bark
  • Dyed wood (decorative wood chip)
  • Cardboard & paper
  • Straw and hay
  • Ground cover plants
  • Grass clippings
  • Leaf mold
  • Compost
  • Manure
Installing straw mulch. Jpg

Inorganic Mulch

On the other hand, inorganic mulches are made from non-biodegradable materials like stone, plastic and rubber. While these non-biodegradable mulches offer low upkeep and a certain decorative appeal, they don’t improve soil quality or provide nutrients.

The examples of inorganic mulch we cover are:

Now that we have distinguished between the two main categories of mulch, let's dig into the specifics, with our list of 14 common garden mulches.

Decorative stones around a red flowering plant. Jpg

Types Of Garden Mulch

With mulch defined as: "anything that covers the ground for the benefit of your garden", it may come as no surprise that there are a virtually endless number of possible mulches out there. We decided to bring a mix of the most popular kinds, which also include many that you can make yourself for free, so let's grow!


Wood mulch, made from timber wood chip, is generally an affordable and nutrient rich alternative that can greatly improve soil structure. It provides essential nutrients to plants, and controls annual weeds very effectively when applied in a thick layer of approximately 5-10cm (2-4").

Wood mulch can attract pests, especially termites if you are in an area with termite problems. In order to prevent stem rock or diseases, it is always best to leave space around the trunk of specimen shrubs or plant stems. This will also reduce the chance of bark-gnawing critters eating your prized plants. It will generally need replenishing every 2 to 3 years.

Freshly chipped wood for mulching


Decorative bark mulch, is made from tree bark that is generated from the waste products of timber milling and furniture production. Regarded highly for its numerous benefits as a decorative mulch, it also offers excellent weed suppression, conservation of moisture and soil temperature regulation.

Some garden bark mulch can be quite expensive and may need to be replaced in situations where decay has developed into mold. This is necessary to reduce the chance of rot and disease in your garden.

Natural bark chippings of varying sizes

Dyed Wood

For those seeking an even more decorative option, dyed wood mulch or coloured bark, offer a slow-decomposing and visually unique alternative. Available in various colours such as black, red, green, it is usually made from recycled materials which has then been dyed.

Although, it may not be the best choice for use around vegetable garden beds or edible plants. Due to the potential unknown origins of the wood, and composition of the dyes, you would need to check carefully before using it near food crops. However, there may be alternatives out there which are safe, as not all dyes are necessarily toxic.

Dyed shredded bark in four different colours. Jpg

Cardboard & Paper

With the proliferation of recycled brown paper waste available these days being driven by the surge in online shopping, cardboard and paper is excessively easy and cheap option for mulching. It can be a very effective substitute for a weed fabric which is also sustainable, although obviously it will not be as durable.

Paper and cardboard will decompose quite quickly, especially when topped with a primary mulch. My experience is that they will last no longer than one year under a mulch, unless there is very little rainfall. They are not suitable to use in place of a membrane when looking for a permanent installation, such as under gravel or rubber mulch.

Lastly, while brown paper/cardboard is generally non-toxic, steer clear of glossy and vibrant cardboard newspaper inserts. These don't break down easily and might contain harmful dyes.

Laying brown packing paper over a garden bed. Jpg

Straw and Hay Mulch

Hay and straw are inexpensive options that provide great benefits, whilst also providing a useful barrier for keeping vegetables and fruit off of the soil surface, protecting them from disease and predators. It's always best practice to leave a gap between the mulch and the plant stems to discourage slugs and rodents from chewing the stalks.

It is also useful here to differentiate between straw and hay. Generally, straw is preferred to hay, because it has a lower likelihood of carrying weed seeds or being contaminated by pesticides. If your goal is to control weeds, choosing options like salt hay straw or wheat straw where available, will be your best bet. When sourcing from suppliers, be sure to look for legitimate reviews. This can help build trust in the quality of their supply.

Mulched hay next to a shovel and plant pot. Jpg

Ground cover plants

With ground cover plants, the goal is to create thick layers of plants, leading to a more natural, wild appearance that's perfect for prairie-inspired borders. Also known as living mulch, it can provide the following benefits for your garden:

  • Weed control
  • Nutrient fixation
  • Temperature regulation
  • Improved soil structure

It is obvious that these plants will generally require more maintenance than other types of mulch. Although designed to be self-sustaining, this may make it less suitable for ultra low-maintenance goals

1garden with low maintenance ground cover

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are an often forgotten, but easy-to-obtain, material for mulching your garden. They are very rich in nitrogen and can be in a number of different ways, including using directly on top of compost in garden beds, or as a composted mix, after decomposing in a compost bin along with other types of organic materials.

It is advisable to use freshly cut grass that has been taken before grass has gone to seed. This will minimise the likelihood of a fresh crop of grass in your freshly mulched area. Grass can sometimes get a little bit slimy as it breaks down, which is worth noting.

1glass clippings close up. Jpg

Leaf Mold

Leaf mold, otherwise known as leafmould, is a natural and insulating type of mulch that is created using shredded leaves of various trees. It is an excellent source of nutrients and will attract more earthworms to soil.

Leaf mould can be produced from a variety of leaves and conifer needles. For instance, leaves from oak, beech or hornbeam trees decompose easily and yield high-quality leaf mold. In contrast, thicker leaves from trees like sycamore, walnut, horse chestnut and sweet chestnut need to be shredded before being added to the leaf mold pile due to their slower decomposition rate. Tree shredding is a very common way to compost. Alternatively, these can be added to a compost heap post-shredding.

Evergreen leaves from holly, aucuba and cherry laurel decompose more quickly in a compost heap than in a leaf mold pile, hence are better added there. Conifer needles take longer to decompose, with a duration of two to three years. Thus, it's better to add conifer hedge clippings to the compost heap.

Pine needles and mixed conifer, on the other hand, are ideal for creating a separate leaf mold pile due to their acidic nature, making them perfect for mulching ericaceous plants like rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and blueberries.

Most shredded leaf mulch decomposes rapidly and will attract slugs and snails. This can make it less suitable for use when planting vegetables and fruit or young plants. It should also be noted that some leaves of trees such as oak can increase the

1wet leaf mold breaking down


Composted mulch is a nutrient-rich and sustainable option made from your garden waste. It is generally made from:

  • Fruit and vegetable waste
  • Leaves
  • Grass clippings
  • Aged livestock manure

In general, home-made compost mulch decomposes quickly and may not provide all of the benefits when used in isolation. That's why it's best practice to apply a thin layer (2.5-5cm) of compost on to the garden soil surface, followed by a secondary mulch such as leaf mold or wood chips.

1food waste and leaves in a home compost bin. Jpg


Manure is one of the best sources of nutrients for soil and homemade compost, although must be used carefully to avoid boosting soils with excessive levels of nitrogen. It is generally made from animal waste such as horses, cows or chicken manure combined with plant materials.

However, it must be well-rotted before use, as it usually contains high levels of nitrogen that will harm plants. When purchasing your products, it is also best to try and find heat-treated compost from trustworthy suppliers, so that you don't end up with a proliferation of weeds shortly after applying the stuff to your garden bed.

Next we look at some of the inorganic mulch options available to you.

1close up of horse manure compost

Stone & Gravel

Stone chippings and gravel mulch are decorative aggregates that provide a durable and aesthetically pleasing option, suited to those who are also looking for a natural but ultra low-maintenance type of ground cover. Plum slate chippings are a classic example.

When installed correctly, this is one of the hardest-wearing and most effective mulches against weeds, which can also retain moisture and stop soil erosion, all while looking absolutely stunning. In very hot climates, the darker hues can generate excessive radiant heat, which can be detrimental to certain plants.

1decorative shingle mulch around daffodils. Jpg

Rubber Chippings

Rubber mulch, made from recycled tires, offer a durable and colourful alternative to traditional mulches. Perhaps best suited to safety play surfaces due to the inherently springy nature, it is an expensive type of mulch, with the downside of leaching potentially harmful chemicals into your soil and water features.

Whilst we cannot recommend using rubber chippings as a mulch, it can work for certain types of gardens where aesthetics and ultra low maintenance is the most important factor. Commercial settings seem to be the most commonplace use for it.

1rubber chips in a flower bed. Jpg

Landscape Fabrics

Landscape fabrics are another synthetic type of mulch is often used in mulch beds for controlling weeds, as well as in the borders and flower beds of larger landscaping projects. They are an effective weed suppressant that allows for good drainage, although we can hardly recommend them for use in gardens that you would eat from.

They degrade over time, generally within a couple of years, and are therefore not suitable for long-term applications unless initially covered with a secondary type of mulch to protect it, and used like a membrane. Another downside is that the pieces of plastic that are very difficult to remove from the soil and may leave contaminants into the future.

1landscaping fabric close up. Jpg

Plastic Mulch

Plastic mulch is generally used in large-scale commercial production for several reasons, as it:

  • Helps in conserving soil moisture
  • Aids in the prevention of weed proliferation
  • Establishes a micro-environment which is typically three degrees warmer than a garden without mulch, a condition favorable to certain crops

However, long-term use of plastic mulch can be detrimental to shrubs and it's definitely not the most eco-friendly option. It's advisable to explore more environmentally sustainable alternatives where possible.

1laying plastic sheet mulch around baby tomato plants. Jpg

Mulching Techniques and Best Practices

It is always best to apply mulch according to the tried and tested methodologies of our ancestors. Timing is winter mulching is key; aim to first apply a thick layer in early spring when the soil is moist and weeds are minimal. Then re-apply in late summer to early autumn after turning existing mulch into the ground and clearing the area of any existing weeds.

Lay It On Thick!

If you are applying a compost first, add 2.5-5cm (1-2") of compost, followed by 5–7.5cm (2-3") of a secondary mulch, such as wood mulch or leaf mould. Avoid placing in a way that touches the stems of herbaceous plants, or the shallow roots of woody plants, in order to prevent stem softening and reduce the vulnerability of new plants, in particular, to disease.

2grass and leaf mold before and after breaking down

Mulching To Prevent Frost Heaving

Applying mulch in your garden can significantly help to prevent frost heaving, a common issue in colder climates. Frost heaving occurs when the freeze-thaw cycle of soils causes plants or rocks to be pushed upwards out of the ground. This can be particularly damaging to perennials and newly planted trees.

Applying a layer of mulch will act as an insulator by moderating the soil temperature, thus reducing the frequency and severity of freeze-thaw cycles. This helps to keep your plants safer throughout the winter and protecting their root systems from damage.

Mulch Ado About Something

Finally, it's always best to select the type of material that best fits the purpose. Consider what you are trying to achieve, and the types of plants you are mulching, when planning your mulching project. Remember the potential downsides mentioned throughout.

Following the best practices outlined in this article should soon see your garden reach its full potential, with less weeds and better yields.

2sweet peas growing with mulched bark and leaf mold

Where To Buy Garden Mulch

With so many more options available, if you are looking to purchase some landscape mulch, you might not know where to start. The good news is that you can purchase mulch from garden centers, nurseries, hardware stores and also from bulk suppliers online.

Online retailers such as also offer a wide selection of mulches to suit your needs, including bulk bags of mulch. Just remember to seek the soil report and PAS 100 certification, to ensure that you will be able to identify any potential contaminants undesirable nutrient compositions before you take delivery.

Also, if you are doing a large-scale project, remember to use an online calculator when estimating your needs and calculate your costs most accurately.

2garden mulching horse manure. Jpg


Garden mulch is a secret weapon in the fight against weeds, hostile soils and weather conditions. With at least 14 different options available for you to choose from, many of which already exist in your garden, there is a mulch out there to suit every purpose. So, what are you waiting for, the time to take control of your outdoors has arrived!

2common frog sitting in a pile of rotting leaf mulch. Jpg

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the the best mulch for garden?

While the answer to what is the best mulch for your garden depends on the specific needs and conditions of your garden, wood chips or bark mulch are probably the best all-round solutions that can do it all, while looking naturally beautiful at the same time. We have covered the majority of common alternatives in this article, but ultimately, understanding your garden's needs and the benefits of different types of mulch is the key to making the best choice.

What is the best mulch for flower beds?

As mentioned above, the best most does depend on your specific clients needs, however shredded bark mulch is a versatile and work well for most types of flowers and plants. It's an environmentally friendly, sustainable product that decomposes slowly, adding a rich texture and a natural contrast to your flowers and planters.

However, if you're mulching acid-loving plants like azaleas or rhododendrons, the situation requires more consideration as they require an acidifying mulch. In these cases, pine straw is a suitable choice.

Is mulch the same as compost?

Mulch and compost are not the same; mulch is used on the surface for weed control, make soil retain moisture, and regulate soil temperature throughout, while compost is used below the surface to provide essential nutrients to the soil.

Is mulch the same as bark chippings?

Yes, mulch is the same as bark chippings, because a mulch is a layer of material applied to the surface of soil for conditioning and weed prevention. Learn how to use bark chippings here.

What do you use mulch for?

Mulch is used to help soils retain moisture, reduce watering, suppress weeds, improve soil organic matter, provide nutrients, deter pests, prevent weeds, warm up the soil in spring, and protect plant roots from extreme temperatures.

What are the disadvantages of mulching?

A common question is when to apply mulch-mulches should be used in accordance with the seasons. If they are not applied at the right time of year they can have detrimental effects on gardens.

Garden mulch can also cause harm by burying and suffocating plants, as well as providing a homes for pests. Furthermore, mulch can prevent some seeds from germinating if applied too early in the season.

What are the two main categories of mulch?

Organic and inorganic mulches are the two main categories of mulches.

What is the best mulch for garden uk?

While we can't comment on brands, the best mulch for gardens in the UK will be specific to your needs. However, adding a compost layer between the soil and some mulch will protect your plants roots and prevent frost damage during the winter cold snaps.

There is a world of outdoor aggregates out there for your outdoor project, just waiting to be discovered. Check out them out!

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.