Mulch is an attractive and useful way to enhance your lawn and garden. There may be more options for mulching than you realize, and it’s important to know which types work best in different areas.
If your main issue is aesthetics, the good news is that both organic and inorganic mulch come in a variety of colors and sizes. Typically people think of the classic brownish grey bark chips when discussing mulch. But there are plenty of dyed woods and other colorful materials that can liven up your landscape.
What’s important to keep in mind is that different mulching materials work better in certain situations. So the decision must be about both color and function. Let’s take a look at some images for this project, as well as a few considerations:
Ultimately, we’re going to discuss different mulch materials, based on their color. We will also explore the pros and cons of various materials when used in different settings. But the best place to start is by reviewing some basic information regarding the two types of mulch: organic and inorganic.
Organic mulch is any sort of mulch made from material that used to be alive. That is, it’s 100% plant-based, and therefore will decompose over time. Organic mulches offer the added benefit of nourishing your lawn and garden, in addition to bringing color and texture to the landscape.
Some examples of organic mulch include:
- Bark mulch
- Wood chips
- Straw or hay
- Grass clippings
- Misc. composting material
Organic mulch made from lumber byproducts will typically last 1 to 3 years before needing to be replenished, depending on the material. This means they serve both aesthetic and functional purposes in your yard. Some break down more quickly than others, which we will examine in more detail in a moment.
However, smaller plant-based substances such as straw and composting will break down much more quickly. While they’re still categorized as mulch, they’re generally less attractive and short-lived, as their primary purpose is to fortify your lawn and garden.
Organic mulches can slow down the heat transference from the sun to the soil, not only because they create a barrier but because they also retain moisture. This is an important consideration when it comes to smaller plants that need warm soil to thrive in early springtime.
These include mulch materials made from rocks, stones, plastics, and even rubber. There are even fabric mulches available, which serve a very specific purpose for gardening and landscaping, but will not be discussed in detail in this article.
The primary uses of inorganic mulches are either aesthetic, functional, or both- but rarely for the betterment of your plants. They can provide some benefits to your garden when used appropriately. For instance, the temporary use of stone mulch around a shrub can help keep the ground a bit warmer during winter.
Sometimes inorganic mulch is also used in low-lying areas in one’s landscape, to reduce water runoff. We will further explore the various uses of inorganic mulches as we discuss each material individually.
Organic Mulch: Colors and Materials
As stated before, mulch is made from a variety of substances, each one offering its own visual and functional dynamics. Here is a fairly simple breakdown of organic mulch types, and how to incorporate them into your yard and landscape.
Aged Wood Mulch
This is probably the most common type of mulch available. It includes aged bark and wood chips, from both softwood and hardwood trees. A few pointers about aged wood mulch:
- The fact that it’s aged means that it will break down more quickly than fresh wood byproducts. We will discuss the relevance of this issue in more detail in just a moment.
- Hardwood trees tend to break down a bit more slowly, and they make up the majority of available wood mulch.
- Softwood mulch is usually sourced from pine, which is a bit more acidic. This is noteworthy, as the acid will leach into your topsoil as the mulch breaks down, and that can be detrimental to flower beds.
The fun thing about aged wood mulch is that it comes in a variety of colors. The manufacturers use dyes that won’t harm your soil, grass, plants, or trees. That makes choosing ornamental wood mulch a safe and decorative option.
But here is a fun fact: the color of the mulch can actually affect the growth habits of the nearby plants! For instance, it makes good sense that black mulch does a better job of keeping the topsoil warm because it absorbs more heat and light. Another example is that red mulch actually improves both the production and flavor of some fruits and vegetables!
Colored mulch will begin to fade after about 2-3 years. Fortunately, this is about the same amount of time it takes to break down, so you would be planning to replace or replenish it at that point anyhow.
If you want a more natural appearance to your yard, you will obviously opt for mulches that aren’t dyed. Bark mulch tends to break down more slowly because it is denser, so it’s good for areas where you don’t want to replenish the mulch too frequently.
Aged wood mulch can be sourced from retailers like your home and garden shop, local landscapers, and sometimes even from lumber yards. Just be sure you don’t layer it too thickly. Mulch over 4 inches deep can result in moisture retention, which attracts both insects and microbial infections that lead to lawn disease.
On that note, when you lay mulch around trees and shrubs, be sure to make a 6-inch space around the base of the trunk. This will ensure that any potential moisture buildup doesn’t negatively affect the plants due to direct contact with microbial growth.
Fresh Wood Mulch
If you want to use organic mulch and you prefer a more natural aesthetic in your yard, then the pale browns and greys of fresh wood mulch is a good option. Again, the material can often be sourced from lumber yards or other companies that regularly handle trees.
What you need to keep in mind is that fresh mulch will break down much more slowly. This certainly means it will last longer before needing to be replaced, but it can also leach vital nitrogen from your soil as it begins to age and decompose.
Chipped and shredded mulches are good to use in low-lying areas that are prone to runoff. This is due to their finer texture, which makes the pieces more likely to mat together. Their use in a yard or garden is typically more functional than for visual enhancement.
Softwood mulch is typically made from pine. It’s a wonderfully attractive option, but it does break down a bit faster because it isn’t as dense as hardwood. You also want to be careful around flowerbeds, as softwood mulch tends to be more acidic.
Similarly, mulches made from straw, pine needles, or composting material are a great way to fortify your grass and garden bed. They break down very quickly, and are rarely used for ornamental purposes. If you spread composted material as a fortifying mulch, be sure it is somewhat moist so it doesn’t dry out your soil.
Read more about the benefits of natural mulching.
A Quick Recap:
- Aged wood mulch takes 1-3 years to break down, and provides wonderful benefits to your yard.
- You can find it in a variety of colors to enhance your yardscape and even promote healthier, more robust veggies!
- Un-dyed mulch offers a more natural color, and is sometimes cheaper and easier to come by.
- Unaged wood mulch will last much longer, but may steal nitrogen from your topsoil.
- Chipped and shredded wood mulch are ruggedly attractive and good for preventing water runoff.
- Other organic mulches are great for your lawn and garden, but don’t offer much in the way of aesthetics.
This category includes mulches made from rocks, stones, lava, chipped marble, and even recycled rubber. All but one of these options can provide a really attractive and functional ground cover around your trees and shrubs.
Rubber mulch is almost exclusively used to create a soft bed in playground areas, and is rather unattractive. It is, quite literally, very small bits of old tires! The rubber can release harmful chemicals into your soil, so it shouldn’t be used near plants or grass.
Inorganic mulches are really effective for weed control, but you need to keep in mind that this is because they prevent anything from growing where they’ve been laid. For early spring, they can help warm up the topsoil in your garden, but they shouldn’t be left in place for too long. Otherwise, you face the risk of starving, parching, and overheating the soil!
In addition to the smaller organic mulching materials, rock-based mulches also do a good job of decreasing runoff in low-lying parts of your lawn. All non-organic mulches do a great job of providing an attractive ground cover for portions of your yard where you don’t intend to propagate any grasses or other plant life.
One thing to keep in mind with inorganic mulches is that they will need to be washed out once in awhile. Typically this can be done with a hose attachment, unless you’ve laid a deep bed that needs to be dug out and thoroughly sprayed down. A good way to keep the rocks from sinking into the soil over time is to first place a layer of either sand or fabric mulch, to provide a sturdy base.
Color and Size Choices
When it comes to using inorganic mulch materials for ornamental purposes, you have a wonderful variety of options available. The main thing you want to consider is the size and texture of the ground cover you’re going for. This will depend on where the mulch is laid, the color and layout of the surrounding landscape, and whether the mulch is in an area that receives foot traffic.
This is a foot-friendly material that comes in a variety of fun colors. You can purchase it in a rainbow of shades, or in a more uniform blend of greys and browns. Pebble mulch is easy on the feet due to its finer texture, but it’s also more vulnerable to washout due to its small size and lighter weight.
Think of this as a miniature version of pebble mulch. It is even finer and smoother, and comes in an equally broad variety of colors. However, its small size makes it all the more susceptible to washout, so be careful where you place it. This one, as well as our next material, may do better in areas that include a border.
This mulch type is smaller and more jagged than pebbles and gravel, making it less foot-friendly and even more prone to spreading and loss from wind and water. However, it makes for a beautiful ground cover in garden areas, available in stark blacks and whites, or in a a colorful mixture. Just be sure not to lay it too closely to your plants, in order to avoid damaging adjacent topsoil.
Rock and Stone Mulches
Available at home and garden shops, as well as your local quarry, rock and stone mulches offer a broad range of characteristics. The purpose and placement will determine whether you want big or small; smooth or jagged; bright or earthy. Again, just be sure you don’t “suffocate” your plants by placing these heavier materials too close to stems and trunks.
Lava Rock Mulch
Lava rocks are rough and porous, offering a rugged accent wherever you place them. They are definitely not suited for areas of foot traffic, but they offer a handsome visual accent around mature trees, cacti, and robust hedges. Lava rocks tend to range from burnt orange to deep burgundy, and they’ll last several years with semi-regular washing.
A Quick Recap:
- Pebble mulch is beautiful and colorful, and it’s small enough to walk on comfortably.
- Pea gravel is even smaller than pebble mulch, so it does better in contained areas.
- Chipped marble is the smallest of all. While it is beautiful, its jagged edges make it less comfortable for foot traffic.
- Rock and stone mulches are attractive and easy to come by, but they sometimes need a sand or fabric base to keep from sinking into the soil over time.
- Lava rock mulch is rugged and warm in appearance, but shouldn’t placed in areas where walking is necessary.
Mulching is a great way to enhance both the beauty of your yard and the health of your plants, depending on the materials you use and where you place them. Be sure to consider the purpose, longevity, and aesthetic appearance of a particular mulch product before finalizing your decision. For help with your next project, check out our landscaping specials!