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Mulching 101

Published on January 22nd 2021
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Mulching is the number one priority in the garden, especially during the hot summer months and dry spells. Mulching is one of the easiest things you can do and produces incredible results, and, if you make your own mulch it doesn't cost you an arm and a leg to help keep your garden flourishing. So now you might be asking - “What is this magic called mulch?”.
Mulch is a layer of organic or non-organic matter on the ground around your plants which keeps your soil cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Naturally, mulch occurs in all forests and comprises of a mixture of leaves and branches mixed up with fungal and insect life. Mulch can be seen as a protective food layer to the soil.
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When done well, mulching has the ability to improve the health of plants quite remarkably. One will notice more vigour in plants as well as more resistance to pests and diseases.
There are a variety of different materials that one can use as a mulch in the garden. Below is a list of organic and non-organic mulch types.

Organic materials for mulching

  • Pine needles. Visit your nearby pine tree! Pine needles are acidic so it's best to use pine needles with plants that prefer soils with a lower soil pH like Camellias, Azaleas and Hydrangeas.
  • Wood chips, sawdust, shredded bark. These materials are easily obtained from a sawmill or, if you're lucky enough to have your own wood chipper, you can use prunings, branches and other materials to shred to bits.
  • Peach pips or Macadamia nutshells. These materials are very hard and durable and will last for seasons to come. They also add an aesthetic element to flower beds and potplants.
  • Vine prunings. Although these are a bit more on the expensive side, vine clippings represent a good source of nutrients. Do ensure that the clippings are not pest or disease-infested before adding them to your garden.
  • Straw. Straw is slow to decompose and is readily available from an agricultural retailer.
  • Leaves. If you have a deciduous tree or three in the garden, rake up the leaves regularly and use it to mulch your beds.
  • Grass cuttings. Instead of bagging grass cuttings and sending it off to the nearest dumpsite, why not recycle and reuse? Grass cuttings can be used to mulch the lawn and garden beds.

Non-organic materials for mulching

  • Stones. Not only do stones add a bit of detail and texture to the garden, it also acts as a mulch, suppressing weeds and creating habitat for soil-dwelling critters.
  • Plastic mat in which holes or slits are made through which crops can grow. This mulch-method is often used in combination with drip irrigation.
  • Brick chips. Brick chips are long-lasting and will not deteriorate very quickly or rot over time.
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One might be tempted to think that mulching only has positive benefits to garden beds and plants, however, it would be wise to know that there are a number of things to be aware of that might not benefit your plants and garden beds when it comes to mulch.

Benefits of mulch

  • Mulch reduces evaporation which will lead to less watering of your garden.
  • Suppresses weed growth. Mulch prevents sunlight from penetrating to the soil surface, inhibiting weeds from germinating.
  • Prevents soil erosion. Mulch holds the valuable top layer of the soil and protects it from wind water and other elements. Applying mulch on slopes would especially be beneficial to prevent soil erosion.
  • Promotes life in the soil. As mulch degrades and decomposes, it feeds the soil as well as the critters, good bacteria and beneficial fungi that live in the soil.
  • Protects soil against extreme temperatures. Mulch acts as a blanket-covering, protecting the soil and plant roots from the sweltering heat and traps the moisture in the soil.
  • Improves the general condition of the soil. Organic mulch is a wonderful source of nutrients and minerals that feeds the soil over time. It also helps to trap moisture, creating conditions where soil biota can thrive and therefore also trap carbon in the soil.

The downside of mulch

  • The cost of some materials might be a drawback, especially to a large garden.
  • Mulch can provide shelter for soil-borne diseases and pests like cutworms.
  • Mulch can prevent seeds from self-seeding crops from germinating.
  • Nitrogen starvation can occur with a too thick layer of mulch - especially when it comes to sawdust and wood chips.
  • Over-mulching is not good for your garden.
  • Mulch can inhibit bulbs and perennials to emerge from the soil.
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