Mulch Buying Guide

Learn about the types of mulch that protect against erosion and conserve water

Adding mulch to your landscape helps maintain a more even soil temperature, slows evaporation, and prevents weed growth. This guide will teach you about the different types of mulch and help you calculate how much mulch you need.

Tip: Always wear gloves and work gear when applying mulch.

  • How Much Mulch Do I Need?

Use our Mulch and Top Soil Calculator to determine how much mulch your project requires. Typically, mulch should be applied in a 3-inch-deep layer.

Keep the mulch away from direct contact with the stems of plants and trees to prevent rot and unwanted pests.

Don’t “volcano” the mulch around trees, or exceed the 3-inch depth as higher levels may prevent plants from finding water and nutrients.

  • Rubber Mulch vs. Wood Mulch

Both wood-based and rubber mulches act as ground cover and offer the benefits of insulating and retaining soil.

Wood mulch

  • Breaks down after 1-2 seasons and enhances soil by adding nutrients during decomposition; requires re-application
  • Colored mulch available in red, brown and black
  • Fertilizes sandy soil and helps hold water and nutrients
  • Can be purchased as wood chips and tree bark nuggets in pine, cedar, cypress and other hardwood mixes

Rubber and other non-wood mulch

  • More permanent than wood mulch but does not improve the soil structure
  • Great for playgrounds and walking trails; provides soil protection and bounce

Other materials can be used as mulch:

  • Pine needles increase soil acidity, making them ideal for use around acid-loving plants.
  • Pine straw and wheat straw help control soil erosion on slopes. Hay and straw mulch may harbor weed seeds.
  • Some decorative rock can be used as mulch, and provides excellent weed control. Do not use stone around acid-loving plants as it may add alkalinity to soil.

  • Application and Transport

A standard bag of mulch covers approximately 6 square feet. Spread the mulch around your plants evenly, but away from stems and roots.

Mulch can be used in open areas, gardens, flowerbeds, playgrounds and on slopes for erosion control.

Mulch Type Application Tips

Bark and Shredded Hardwood

  • Apply 2 to 4 inches of bark mulch around plants
  • Keep mulch an inch or two away from tree trunks

Pine Needles

  • Work well for acid-loving shrubs, trees and plants, such as azaleas, camellias and
  • Are attractive, especially for wooded lots, but may not be available in all areas of
    the U.S.

Decorative stone

  • Mark off the area you intend to fill, then line with edging material to form a border
  • Remove unwanted vegetation
  • Rake area to achieve a smooth, even surface
  • Spray the area with weed killer and lay in a layer of landscape fabric to discourage
    weed growth
  • Top with decorative stone


  • Chop leaves with lawnmower or shredder before spreading
  • Spread 3 to 4 inches of damp leaves or 6 inches of dry leaves
  • Add more layers as leaves decompose
  • Do not stack leaves tight against plant stems


  • Ideal for playgrounds and safe for use around plants
  • Deters insects and termites while preventing weeds
  • Mulch Alternatives

Plastic, landscape fabric, grass clippings, manure and newspaper can all be used as mulch alternatives.

  • Black polyethylene plastic: effective at preventing weed growth, though it tends to hold water in the soil. Some black plastic is sold with tiny holes to facilitate drainage. Exposed to sun, black plastic can degrade and lose its effectiveness, which is why some gardeners bury it in the soil. Black plastic acts as a good underlayment for organic or rock mulch.
  • Landscape fabric: specially treated to resist rotting. Unlike plastic, landscape fabric is porous and allows water, air and nutrients to pass through. Weeds sometimes poke through, but overall, fabric is effective at weed control. Better weed control can be achieved by adding more mulch on top of the fabric. Many gardeners add decorative wood or stone mulch on top of fabric to enhance its appearance. Landscape fabric works best for shrubs and non-spreading plants.
  • Grass clippings: excellent way to repurpose the leftovers after mowing the lawn. They can be replenished as frequently as you mow but will only be available throughout the summer months. You can add the clippings to your garden soil to help boost nutrients.
  • Manure: nutrient-filled natural by-product of cows, horses, goats and other farm animals. Be sure the manure is well-rotted before applying in gardens.
  • Newspaper: can be used under mulch. The newspaper shouldn’t touch the stem to allow room for the plant to grow. Do not use colored pages as the ink may harm the soil and plants.