Gardener Seeking Perfect Mulch

Experienced gardener seeks the right mulch for a long-term relationship. Loves mulches that are environmentally responsible, willing to stay put, and do their part in suppressing weeds, retaining moisture, and breaking down slowly. Must love plants and gardening and not break the bank. I’m not moving and neither are you, so must be locally available. Prefer bags for easier handling but truckloads, let’s talk! No rocks or rubberized ‘mulches’, please.

I’ll be the first to admit that after years, decades, of gardening, I’m still searching for the perfect mulch. Does it exist? Around here, mulch options include cypress, cedar, hardwood, and pine bark, along with cocoa bean hulls, mushroom compost, cheap wood chips and any leaves or compost you can get from your own garden.

I have a history of trying most of them, so you would think by now I would have settled down with one or two of them. But I haven’t. I still feel like I’m playing the field, trying to find the perfect one.

My history of mulch relationships is probably similar to many other gardeners.

For a long time, I used cypress mulch around the landscaping. I was not ever all that pleased with it, but it was readily available and often on sale. Then I found out that the cypress mulch wasn’t a forestry byproduct like I thought it was. It seems that they actually chop down cypress trees to make the mulch. Once I found that out, I broke up with cypress mulch.

Last summer, I tried a mulch called ‘hardwood fines’. It seemed ideal. The byproduct of Indiana’s own hardwood industry, it didn’t have to travel far to get to my garden. It didn’t cost a fortune. But it was a bum! It had a tendency of ‘sheeting’. ‘Sheeting’ is what happens when the finer particles get wet. They act like a glue, locking all the particles together in a big sheet. Those sheets can keep moisture from reaching some plants, and I can imagine that in the heat of summer, they heated the soil up pretty good, too.

It was a happy day when I got my first bag of cocoa bean hulls, many years ago. Such a rich color, such a chocolate-y aroma. Oh, the love. Even when it molded a bit, I forgave it. It was easy to stir it up a bit and get rid of the mold, which is harmless. Even when it blew around a bit and floated in the rain, I raked it back into the flower beds and forgave it. I used it mostly around my perennials and on container plantings. Even though it is expensive, I still love it. Unless I can find something else, I’ll go back to using it around perennials, even at the inflated price of $6 per bag.

But I can be cheap, too, and that’s why I use inexpensive wood chips, called ‘Playsoft’, for the paths throughout my vegetable garden, with good results. It’s easy to walk on, and did I mention it’s cheap?

Oh, I wish my garden produced enough leaves and compost to use to mulch everywhere, but it doesn’t. Maybe someday. What it does produce I usually put on the raised beds in the vegetable garden.

So this weekend, desperate to add mulch around the trees and shrubs in the front, I turned to “premium pine park mulch”. I think I like it. It isn’t those big chunks of pine park, it’s more finely chopped up, and the color is good, at least for now. We’ll see. Hopefully it will keep its color for awhile and stay put with the first heavy rain. If it does, I may be interested in a more long term relationship.

Really, I hope it works because I’m almost out of options, other than groundcovers, on what’s available around here.

We’ll see what mulches answer my ad. Feel free to speak for them in the comments…


  1. Carol, does your city have a leaf collection program where they collect leaves in the fall? Our city does to keep from clogging the gutters during rainy season. Then they sell it cheap as mulch and leaf mould. Years ago I had them drop free loads off in my garden during their leaf collection patrols. But they eventually caught on to the value of it to gardens.

  2. Cocoa bean hulls smell delightful, but...

    "In 2007, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) handled 26 cases of cocoa bean mulch ingestion—a third originating in California. “Dogs are attracted to the fertilizer’s sweet smell,” says Dr. Steven Hansen, ASPCA Veterinary Toxicologist and APCC Director, “but like chocolate, cocoa bean mulch can be too much for our canine companions.”

  3. I've gotten mulch from a tree trimming service and from a wood-recycling place. The former's not so pretty, but is good if you want a super-thick layer of the stuff. I seem to recall it was free, too.

    Here in Denver, pea gravel is used as a mulch, too, which struck me as odd at first, but makes sense with xeric plantings.

  4. My all time favorite is Pea Straw. It's made from the left over bits from field peas.
    When it is available I use it in wedges from the bale about 5cm (2in) thick (wedges are about 1ft by 1ft).

    My next favorite is good old plain straw. Used by it's self it gives a great colour contrast for the plants.

    You can also visit your local horse stable and get horse manure. The large lumpy form that it comes in allows water to penetrate through, and being rough it stops evaporation (kind of like a fallow paddock).

    Good luck with your relationship issues!

  5. I finally found the perfect garden mulch as opposed to landscape mulch. It is extra fine hardwood, available only in bulk from a local "peat moss" company. I suspect it is fine hardwood mulch that has composted for a while. It doesn't sheet and has already heated up. It only lasts a season but is perfect for working into the heavy clay (home) and sand (work).

  6. Hard question. I suppose oak leaf mulch is my favourite for pathes because we have an oak tree and it breaks down more slowly than other leaf mulch. Other than that, I have had success with leaf mulch, and bark chips. The bark chips don't work well as a mulch all on there on because they are so large they have to applied to thickly but they work well as a mulch overtop compost or something else.

    I always thought coco hulls were a bit sickly sweet but very pretty.

    We have a cedar recycling program here which provides free mulch for cedar trimmings but I've yet to check it out.

    Good luck. I'll keep watching to see if you find perfection.

  7. Our city does the same thing with leaves. The fabulous mulch is sold as a fund raiser for our local botanic garden (Olbrich in Madison). And they're having a fall sale this week so I am very happy.

    The city also makes compost — not very fine, more chunky but so cheap as to be almost free. And we do have fee wood chip mulch in a few locations around the city.

    I know I am lucky to have all this and rather than making you jealous, I guess I mention it to suggest that gardeners unite and push their local municipalities to do this kind of thing.

  8. My parents have a 40 foot cedar tree in their front yard, fairly close to their house, and my Mom was lamenting this morning about all the "shedding" it had done -- until I reminded her of what great mulch it would be. :) The pine bark looks exceptionally nice when it's down.

  9. My true love is leaf mold. I chop up leaves every fall and put them in a wire bin, where they turn into beautiful crumbly stuff that my woodland plants love. On the paths, however, I use shredded hardwood mulch. It's partially decomposed & smells pretty strong the first few days. It rarely lasts through the summer on the most used paths, so needs frequent replenishing. Sometimes I feel as if I will never be finished mulching because by the time I get it all done, it needs to be replaced where I started. So, like you, I need to find a more lasting relationship with the mulch for the paths.

  10. I like the small pine bark mulch too Carol but my favorite is cotton burr compost because of the additional benefit it provides. Not only does it do its duty as a mulch but is beneficial to the plants and soil as well because all the nutrients go into the burr to produce cotton and as it decomposes it puts them right back where they belong.

    Back to Nature is the brand of cottonburr compost we sell at the garden center but don't know if you can find it locally.

  11. We can get free mulch from the county government. I don't like not knowing what's in it (besides the occasional plastic bag or candy wrapper it appears to be shredded wood) and I don't like having to load it myself from their big mulch mountain, but you can't beat the price.

    I've used pine bark in the past, but it's harder to find around here now. Because it decays so much more slowly than the shredded wood, I didn't have to replenish as often.

  12. Carol, you know I use a bunch of chopped up leaves. I have an idea, my friend Wanda had a deal with her neighbors for their bagged leaves. She would then run over the leaves unbagged of course, and use them in her beds.

    I also use the nice pine bark mulch where I want weed supression.

    Cute post, mi amiga.~~Dee

  13. Ah yes. The quest to find the perfect mulch. I too have struggled with this and haven't settled for the perfect one just yet. :-)
    Where I live I can only get pine straw (i.e. pine needles), cedar mulch, and pine bark mulch. I started with the pine bark mulch since that's what I was used to using back in Austin but it would float away whenever we had a typical Louisiana downpour. I knew not to try cedar mulch so I decided to go with what everyone else uses around here - pine straw. It's a pain to deal with because it usually contains little pine tree limbs as well. It also doesn't surpress the weeds as well as I'd like. And pulling weeds up through the needles manages to yank the needles up too. Ah, for the days of cocoa mulch! I may try to see if I can find cotton burr compost. Does anyone know if they have organice c.b. compost available?

  14. I started using cedar mulch in the front gardens a few months ago and thus far, I'm happy with it. It's the best mulch I've found for suppressing weeds. I think it would work great on your veggie beds. I'm not sure about using it around perennials, though: I lost a couple of daylilies to crown rot and I'm wondering if the mulch was just too thick and heavy for them.

  15. I found my perfect mulch, composted separated solids from a dairy's a relatively new industry. It's weed free, they turn it several times and monitor the heat to make sure it gets hot enough to kill any pathogens. Locally it can be bought by the yard or in bags. You may want to check around and see if there are any dairy farms in your area that are working to make it available to your local gardeners. My plants have never been happier! Our local horticulture club went so crazy over it they forced the biggest nursery in town to start carrying it in bulk.

  16. I use pine needles on the azaleas, blueberries, and the dogwood. I get wood chips from a local tree trimmer for paths, around the veggie beds, and under the swing set. And I use my partially composted leaves for the perennial beds. It's not perfect but it seems to work well enough.

  17. Lots of good ideas here... our city doesn't have a program to provide free mulch, though perhaps I should see what local tree trimmers do?

    I've never seen cotton burr compost, but I'm going to call around to see if someone has it and give it a try.

    No one in my neighborhood has leaves, all the tree are 10 - 12 years old, or less, except for an ood tree here or there.

    I don't think there are any dairy or horse farms nearby, but that's worth considering, too.

    Thanks, all, for the great ideas and input. It's nice to know I'm not the only one still looking for the "perfect mulch"!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  18. Here are "My Experiences With Mulch", Carol:

    We had a chipper and lots of trees & shrubs to prune in IL. That mixed shred was used for various woodland beds and paths where its messy character didn't detract from the garden, but for the front beds and borders I used shredded pine for some paths, larger pine bark in areas with grasses and cocoa mulch in shade for the dark color. I liked cocoa mulch as a soil amendment more than as a soil topping. If I could still get cocoa mulch easily I'd buy it.

    Down here I buy lots of Carolyn's favorite Back to Nature Cotton Bur compost to mix in but it would dry out and blow away if used as top mulch. A place north of Austin makes shredded hardwood mulch and shredded cedar mulch (not Cedrus of course but Juniperus AKA Cedar). The hardwood is easier to find and the color is nicer, but I think the shredded cedar works better.
    Like you, I stopped using Cypress when its origins were revealed.
    Decomposed granite isn't exactly a mulch, but when a few inches are used to cover beds, certain plants thrive because their roots are shaded but their crowns won't rot as it would with wood mulch.

    Sometimes I weed a bed really well, top it with a mixture of cotton bur compost, decomposed granite and hardwood mulch and stir it around then soak the bed and that works pretty good in a normal year.

    Winter is too windy here for light mulches - it's hard to keep anything on the beds in a place where concrete statues and large pots are picked up and thrown by gusts. So the leaf mulch would only work as a soil amendment, not a topping.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  19. I scrounge mulch where I can get it. Everyone's covered my standard buys, so I'll throw out my two most unusual mulches--although I don't think they meet your needs.

    For paths, or weed suppression in places I plan on turning into beds some day, I use Austin's free recycled Christmas tree mulch. It's quite "hot" so you can't put it directly on plants.

    For xeric plantings, where other people might use decomposed granite (which I also like), I've been converted to Austin's free recycled glass mulch.

  20. Hi Carol, I had forgotten about the christmas tree mulch until MSS mentioned it. We get that when we can, even had our photo on the front of the newspaper here one year getting some, you'll love this, shoveled into garbage bags by prisoners from the nearby jail! Yes, complete with sheriff toting shotgun at the ready. That was a one year only thing, I think we were the only ones who came and got some. I buy the finely chopped pine bark sold here as soil conditioner in bags at the big box. I want it to break down quickly. For paths we use gravel and plants love to grow in that too.
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  21. As always, a fun and informative post, Carol! Last year I got a couple bags of cocoa bean hulls and really liked them; this year I didn't see them anywhere, which is a pity because I wanted to expand the area where I use them. Oh well. I desperately need to mulch too, but with so large a property, I use a lot of whatever I can get my hands on. About to start leaf-napping bags of leaves from curbside pickup, because we don't produce enough and ours all blow to Labrador anyway.

  22. The other thing I use sometimes which you probably can't get easily or cheaply is seaweed, Carol. Eelgrass is especially awesome, but around here I just haul some rockweed/fucus home from the shore and add it to plantings, especially around trees and shrubs because it does mat down and cut back on the annoying grass and weeds that want to take up habitation in such spots.

  23. More wonderful composting info. It gives me hope that I'll find the right combos for my garden.

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  24. In Australia thick layers of pea straw were the ants pants, but it's hard on the hands and very brittle when dry and the birds tend to scratch it off the beds.
    It's also prone to nasty powdery mould. We now, apart from using anything we can lay our sticky fingerson on, prefer lucern hay which, though expensive, breaks down beautifully and fertilizes the garden while shielding it from drying out. Unfortunately we are in our fifth year of drought and feed is very difficult to come by, let alone use on the garden when the animals are hungry. Do try it if you can get by it.

  25. I don't like the rubber mulch!
    We just tried it for under our children's playhouse and I think it's nasty.

    Always been tempted by the cocoa mulch. Glad to read your "review" about it.

  26. I like the pine bark mulch - it's pretty and it smells good and our grocery store carries it. We mow our leaves to shred them and then dump on various gardens, but one year's leaves only covers about half the gardens. Luckily, the trees are growing fast!

  27. Carol,
    I have a close friend whose beloved young, healthy dog died from seizures as a result of eating cocoa mulch. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, and the smell is very enticing to them (and would probably make me constantly want to to eat chocolate after walking in the garden!). Pine mulch is more acidifying than Cedar, and Pecan Tree Mulch is supposed to be the most acidifying, but hard to find.


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