Any natural mulch is better than no mulch at all, but that being said, there are pros and cons to each option. In this video, I explain the benefits and drawbacks of common organic mulch options.
While gardening, I always use mulch, especially in my raised bed vegetable gardens. I’m often asked what my favorite mulch is, and the truth is I don’t stick to just one type. I have a few preferred options, all of them natural, organic materials. Rubber, plastic, stones and shells may be mulches, but they don’t break down to improve my garden soil over time, so none is a mulch of choice for me.
Applying mulch is a step that’s so important but too often skipped. A layer of natural mulch that’s about two or three inches deep will suppress weeds, prevent compaction and erosion, retain moisture and create a barrier between plants and pathogens in the soil, among other benefits.
I like using straw because you get a lot of coverage for your money, it’s easy to spread, and it’s really lightweight. When starting seeds, it’s super important to use lightweight mulch. You don’t want the weight of a heavy mulch on top of sprouting seeds that are trying to break through the ground.
Straw can be left in place at the end of the season. It will break down, improving the soil as it does by adding organic matter and nutrients. Or if you prefer, you can gather up the straw and add it to your compost pile.
Just be sure to never confuse straw for hay — there is an important difference. Hay bales contain seeds that you don’t want to introduce into your garden.
Pine Bark Mulch
Finely ground pine bark is often sold in bags and called either mulch or soil conditioner. No matter what you call it, I like that it is very fine and light. Like straw, it’s good for tender plants and emerging seedlings. Ground pine bark mulch is also easy to spread and quickly works to improve your soil as it breaks down.
If you are worried that pine bark might rob nitrogen from your soil, don’t be. As a mulch just sitting on the soil surface, that’s not an issue. It’s only when pine bark is mixed in with soil that the carbon in the bark temporarily ties up the nitrogen in the soil.
Arborist Wood Chip Mulch
From time to time, I use wood chip mulch — but not just any wood chips. I get arborist wood chips, which are the chips from tree services that take down branches and old trees. Unlike many bagged mulches, arborist wood chips are free of dyes and pallet wood.
Wood chip mulch is great around ornamental plantings, though I only occasionally use it in the vegetable garden. The issue with wood chip mulch is it is heavy. That weight will inhibit the germination of seeds that were directly sown in the garden. Plus, it’s not my favorite look in the garden, which might be a consideration for you as it is for me.
An upside of arborist wood chip mulch is the price is right — it’s free. For tree service companies, disposing of all those wood chips can be costly, so many will just give them away for free. This saves them costs on tipping fees and transportation, and you benefit too! You may be able to find a local company that advertises free mulch deliveries, or you can use getchipdrop.com to be put on a list used by several companies. Just be aware that the minimum delivery is quite large.
Wood chip mulch also has the benefit of improving the soil as it decomposes in place. Again, it will not rob the soil of nitrogen if simply laid on top of the soil.
Shredded Leaf Mulch
The mulch I use most often is shredded leaves. I especially like how easy they are to work with, and I love that leaves are plentiful — and free — every fall. I know that my leaves are free of pesticides, and they make an incredible soil amendment as they decompose.
To shred leaves, you can go over them with a mulching mower or put the leaves in a large pail and use a string trimmer. While the string trimmer method gets the job done, it can be rather cumbersome to manipulate the trimmer head and definitely leads to arm fatigue if shredding more than just a few bags.
More convenient than raking up mowed leaves or using the string trimmer method is to use a product specifically created for the task: a bladeless electric leaf mulcher. Just plug it in and drop in the leaves. The volume will be reduced 11 to 1.
What do you think is the best mulch for the vegetable garden? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Tomato expert Craig LeHoullier joins me in leading this course on how to grow healthier, productive tomato plants and how to overcome tomato-growing challenges. You can sign up to be notified when enrollment opens.
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we would get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us. None of the items included in this list have any bearing on any compensation being an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Exmark, Greenhouse Megastore, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Wild Alaskan Seafood Box and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.