Mulch for the Landscape

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There are many possibilities when it comes to the types of mulch that can be used in the landscape. Mulches provide several benefits in the landscape including weed control, conserving soil moisture, reducing soil erosion, and adding aesthetic value to the landscape.

Mulches fall into two categories:  organic and inorganic materials. Organic mulches would be materials that decompose or break down overtime. A benefit of organic mulches is that as they break down or decompose, they add organic matter to the soil which contributes to the soil’s overall improvement. On the other hand, the disadvantage to organic mulches is that they have to be reapplied every so often. Organic mulches can include:  pine needles, pine bark, compost, and lawn clippings.

Inorganic mulches are those that do not break down or decompose. The advantage is inorganic mulches do not have to be reapplied as often as organic mulches. Yet, the disadvantage is that inorganic mulches will not add any beneficial organic matter to the soil, plus when going back into the landscape to add a plant it is more difficult to move inorganic mulch compared to organic. Inorganic mulches would include gravel, crushed rock, and lava rock. Some try to use black plastic for a mulch which would discourage weeds, but it is not recommended because it prevents oxygen and water from reaching the plant roots.

When selecting a type of mulch you want to consider the aesthetic value, resistance to compaction, resistance to wind blowing, and resistance to washing away in heavy rains. When it comes to aesthetic value, pine needles, bark nuggets, compost, and crushed rock provide the best look in the landscape. Lawn clippings, wood shavings, and sawdust do not provide as nice of a look in the landscape.

Most of the mulches available in general do a good job of staying put during wind and heavy rains. Pine needles do tend to move some with strong winds. Bark nuggets are known to float away when there is enough water or run-off in an area to move the nuggets. Leaves used as a mulch have the tendency to move with strong winds. Overall, the mulches available for the landscape are all able to stay put in most weather situations but may move about some when we have unusually strong winds or heavy rains.

Most of the mulches resist compaction, meaning that they do not stick together and form a layer that prevents water from getting to the soil and plant roots. Lawn clippings and leaves are the two mulches that will compact easily over time and could provide a barrier, not allowing water and oxygen to get to the plant roots as well.

If lawn clipping or leaves are being used as a mulch, they should be composted before being applied in the landscape. When purchasing organic mulches, be sure to buy from a reliable source to help insure that the mulch is weed free so you do not bring additional weeds into the landscape.

Do not let the task of selecting from the many types of mulches prevent you from using mulch in the landscape. Mulches will not only benefit the plants, but will be one of the best and quickest ways to improve the landscape’s appearance. Along with considering the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of mulch, be sure use your personal preference when selecting a mulch type so that you will enjoy admiring your nicely mulched landscape.

For your gardening, landscape, and lawn questions contact the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The plant clinic is a free service open to any Wayne County resident that has home gardening questions. One can reach the Wayne County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Plant Clinic by phone at 919-731-1433, e-mail at, or stopping by Room 100 of the Wayne County Extension Office (208 West Chestnut Street, Goldsboro). People contacting the plant clinic with questions are encouraged to bring samples and/or pictures that could help in reaching a solution. Extension Master Gardeners are trained volunteers with the Wayne County N.C. Cooperative Extension Service.

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Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County. Horticulture program information can be found at // Forward any questions you would like answered from this week’s column to