According to the experts, you can’t go wrong with mulch. “No landscape looks finished without it,” said Joe Matera Jr. of Matera’s Nursery and Garden Center, Ridgefield.

But mulch has other important properties that can enhance your property and garden beds.

“Mulch is the first defense against weed growth, but it also retains moisture and helps improve the health of the soil,” said Rocky Bilyeu, maintenance and plant health care division manager at R&S Landscaping, Midland Park. Some mulch varieties also have insect- and pest-control properties that can be beneficial during extreme dry or wet conditions.


Mulch is a layer of material applied to an area of bare soil or soil surrounding plants or trees.

There are two basic types: organic, made from formerly living material such as wood chips, bark, straw, grass clippings or pine needles; and inorganic, which includes gravel, stones, plastics or landscape fabrics known as geotextiles. When we think of mulch, however, shredded organic material generally comes to mind.

“There are different qualities and grades of mulch,” said Bilyeu. “They basically do the same thing, but some are more popular than others.”

Shredded mulch is lightweight and good for root insulation, which helps to protect against fluctuating and extreme temperatures. It also breaks down slowly, adding organic matter to the soil.

Popular varieties include:

  • Cedar – shredded is ideal for use with smaller annuals and perennials; chipped is best for trees and large shrubs. “Cedar is a natural insect repellent, so it’s one of the more popular types of mulch,” Matera said.
  • Hemlock – Bilyeu said this is considered the top of the line. Its naturally dark hue stays colorfast longer.
  • Pine bark – a popular variety, this costs less than other types, and breaks down quickly.
  • Nuggets – wood chips and nuggets are not recommended for vegetable or flower beds, because they will get in the way when you turn the soil and replant each year.
  • Grass clippings – depending on which stage they’re at, they can be used as top mulch or worked into the soil for additional organic matter. Fresh-cut clippings (green) have loads of nitrogen and will break down easily if mixed into the soil. Brown clippings work well as a top layer of mulch. A word of caution: if you use any chemical treatment on your lawn, such as herbicides or fungicides, toss the clippings.
  • Leaves – an inexpensive way to mulch your garden with nutrient-rich material. Use your lawn mower (with a bagger) to collect leaves and cut them into the perfect size.
  • Pine needles – these allow water to pass through easily and break down slowly.
  • Straw/hay – used more for decorative purposes during the fall harvest season. But if you prefer that look, make sure the material you use is weed- and seed-free. Also, be aware that some retailers sell “bales” that are actually an artificial material that just looks like straw or hay.
  • Other types include hardwood (oak and/or mixed woods) and cypress. Colored or dyed mulches fade a little but hold up well enough, Matera noted. “People like the colored mulches and they’re safe for any surrounding plant life, because the dye used is pH balanced.”


Mulch can be applied any time during the year, but most homeowners add mulch in the spring and then top-dress in the fall. Before applying a layer of mulch, make sure the soil area is free of weeds.

Bilyeu advised not to over-mulch, but to maintain a 2-3-inch layer for best results.

“Some of them rot or degrade quicker than others, so you may have to refresh from time to time,” he said. “Usually, though, once a year for new mulch is sufficient.”

Matera said the best buy is purchasing mulch in bags. “The quality is better and it’s easier to handle than buying in loose bulk,” he explained. “Also, you don’t know what you’re getting when you buy in bulk. It could be shredded construction lumber or other materials, which you don’t want.”


Mulch definitely adds a lot to any landscape, but keep the following in mind:* Organic mulch retains moisture, which can keep soil cooler. In spring, remove excess mulch from perennials and bulbs for faster growth.* Mulch piled up against woody stems of shrubs and trees can cause them to rot and encourage small critters to nest there. * In damp weather, organic mulches can be inviting to slugs and other plant-munching creatures. Use them sparingly in vegetable gardens.


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