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Too Many Choices: Which Mulch or Weed Barrier Should I Choose?

Pros and cons of the most common types of mulch.

The towering mulch shelves at any home improvement store can be overwhelming. Walking down the aisle, you’ll see dyed hardwood mulch in a rainbow of colors, river rocks, rubber mulch, and pine straw.

So which one is right for your trees and shrubs?

At Leaf & Limb, we recommend using organic, coarsely shredded hardwood mulch or arborist wood chips. There are a number of benefits to using this type of material: it helps retain the right amount of moisture, reduces weeds, helps prevent erosion, and it regulates temperature. Organic mulch also adds much-needed nutrients to the soil below so that additional synthetic fertilizer – which can cause a multitude of other problems – is not needed.

However, different types of mulch have different pros and cons. Here are a few other options:

Organic Mulch

Leaves

Pros

Abundantly available, add nutrients to the soil and are part of the tree’s natural cycle.

Cons

Need to be properly shredded. If left whole, there is a chance they will just blow away, but if they are too finely shredded, they can impede water flow.

Pine Straw

Pros

Cheap and easy to install. It does not bury the root collar as easily. They form an interwoven mat, so they don’t wash away as easily as other materials.

Cons

Does not decompose quite as easily and does not add beneficial nutrients to the soil.

Arborist Wood Chips

Pros

Easy to find and usually free. Attractive and provides an interesting contrast when placed next to other mulches.

Cons

Can sometimes attract termites, so should not be used adjacent to untreated wood structures.

Organic Shredded Hardwood Mulch

Pros

Prevents weed growth, looks attractive, and does not wash away easily.

Cons

Non-organic types can include dyes, which add contaminants to the soil. Thinly shredded types can become hydrophobic if not regularly turned.

Inorganic Mulch or Weed Barriers

River Stone

Pros

Prevents weed growth, adds contrasting texture, and very difficult to wash away.

Cons

Can get very hot in the summer. Can add too much alkaline minerals to the soil, so not recommended near plants that prefer acidic soil such as Hydrangeas or blueberries.

Rubber Mulch

Pros

Does not decompose so it doesn’t need to be replaced. Does not attract bugs. Water permeates through it very easily.

Cons

Newer option for mulch, so it’s unclear if it adds contaminants to the soil. More flammable that other options.

Plastic

Pros

Kills weeds very fast.

Cons

Breaks down quickly. If not properly vented can suffocate plants and prevent water from reaching the root ball.

Ground Cloth

Pros

Controls weeds. Best used in conjunction with another type of organic mulch.

Cons

Can prevent roots from getting enough water and prevents organic material from reaching the soil beneath.

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