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How to Mulch: The Definitive Guide

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It’s been a very productive couple of weekends to get the mulch down in the backyard. If you’re getting ready to lay mulch and are researching how to do it, then keep reading.

In this article, we’ll share all the research and how you can finally get your mulch project completed.

What is Mulch

Simply put, mulch is a layer of material put out on your soil or yard to help retain moisture, nutrients and regulate soil temperature. Mulching your yard also has many other benefits as shown below:

  • Improves soil nutrients – if you use organic mulch like leaves and wood chips, it does a great job of breaking down and adding nutrients back into your soil.
  • Retains moisture for plants, trees, and shrubs Mulch does a great job of retaining moisture for your plants and tree roots.
  • Regulates soil temperature – mulch helps protect flower and shrub roots in cold winters and hot summers.
  • Adds beauty to your landscape – mulch around your flower beds creates a nice looking barrier from your grass and other softcapes.
  • Reduces weeds – I won’t say it kills them completely, but it does cut them down tremendously.
  • Controls Erosion having bare soil can cause erosion and runoff if you have a sloped yard. Adding a layer of mulch can help keep the soil put.
  • Reduces the amount of grass you have to worry about mowing. We wanted to remove some of the lawn to add more flowers and shrubs. Eventually we hope to have a grass free backyard.

What Kinds of Mulch Are There?

Since mulch is considered anything that covers your garden or soil area. There are many different kinds of mulch to choose from and they’re broken down into organic and inorganic materials.

Types of Organic Mulch

This is the most popular type of mulch and consists of shredded or chopped organic materials.

Some of the materials like pine needles and leaves can be recycled as mulch after raking them up from your own yard. If you have a tree cut down or tree root ground up, you can use the leftover material as mulch as well.

Here are some of the more popular types:

  • Pine bark
  • Mixed wood chips
  • Shredded leaves also known as leaf mold
  • Melaleuca mulch
  • Pine needles
  • Cypress mulch
  • Cedar mulch
  • Utility mulch – from utility companies cutting limbs near power lines
  • Straw or hay
  • Sheet mulch – also known as laying cardboard down before the mulch
  • Seashells – used in coastal area, usually ground up smaller

If you live in a hot humid area, you want to make sure you’re using termite resistant mulch in your yard.

Types of Inorganic Mulch

If you plan on using inorganic mulch, keep in mind that unlike organic mulch, it will not break down and is not beneficial to your soil.

  • Pea gravel
  • Recycled concrete
  • River rocks
  • Sea glass
  • Recycled tire mulch
  • Black plastic
  • Weed fabric
  • Black Plastic

How Much Mulch Do You Need

How to calculate how much mulch you need is fairly easy. Use a tape measure to count the length and width of your mulched area to come up with a square foot measurement.

In our example, we needed 1200 square feet of mulch.

Next you’ll need to convert your square feet area to cubic yards since all mulch is measured by cubic yard or cubic feet.

Mulch is laid from 1-6 inches thick depending on it’s placement around plants and trees or by itself to kill grass and weeds. 2-3 inches is standard around flower beds.

Using the calculator below, 1200 square feet of 3 inch thick mulch equals 11 cubic yards or 297 cubic feet.

Bagged mulch is measured by cubic feet. If I use bagged mulch, which contains 2 cubic feet each, I would need roughly 148-149 bags of mulch.

Mulch Calculator

This calculator will easily convert your square foot area into cubic feet or cubic yards depending on if you choose bagged or bulk mulch.

Mulch Calculator

When should You Mulch?

Which month to start your mulching project depends largely on what you’re trying to do with your yard. If you’re mainly doing it for your gardens and plants, then May is a great month to mulch.

People also like to add mulch in the spring time because it just makes the backyard pop more and adds a layer of vibrant colors to your backyard.

If you’re laying mulch for walkways, pathways or just to change the layout of your yard, then you can lay the mulch anytime of the year.

We picked the end of July to do our big project this year and love how it turned out.

Where to Get Your Mulch

The main places you can get your mulch are:

  • Local feed and seed besides being local, these are usually fun places to go to see what all they carry for the local farmers and homesteaders.
  • Home improvement stores (Lowe’s, Home Depot, Ace, RuralKing) You can either get bags of it or possibly bulk mulch for larger yards to be delivered. The pricing isn’t always great.
  • Local Nursery or Landscape Supply Company – good when covering large areas with bulk pricing.
  • Free Mulch from local utility or waste company – free mulch from city utility or waste company. Discussed in detail below.

How to Lay Mulch in Your Yard

I’ll share the process we used to lay the mulch and how we got our mulch. This is our before and after. We had roughly 1,200 square feet that we had to cover.

  1. Mow First If the grass in the area is high, you’ll want to mow it down as low as your mower will go. This makes it easiest to deal with the next step


  2. Remove all the weeds. Pretty much our whole backyard is weeds, so we’d be doing that for a while. Instead, we chose the next step. Another option is to use weed killer, but you won’t be able to plant anything right away.
  3. Lay cardboard sheets around the area that you want to mulch. This is a great way to kill off the weeds and smother them. We did this one weekend because we had a lot of cardboard from an IKEA assembly. Remove any tape that’s on the cardboard off before laying it out because the tape won’t decompose. Be careful if using waxed cardboard as it takes longer to break down.
  4. Water down the cardboard to weigh it down so it stays in place while you start adding the mulch. We used our garden hose sprayer to douse all the cardboard. This also helps start the process of breaking down the cardboard into the soil.
  5. Add Your Mulch – bagged mulch is easiest to spread since each bag doesn’t weigh a lot. Bulk mulch is harder depending on how close to the area you can get it delivered. Some people use pitchforks or shovels and a wheelbarrow. We used 5 gallon buckets and a garden cart to spread it.

That was only five steps, but it felt like it took way longer. It’s a simple process, not necessarily an easy one.

UPDATE, we did this project in 2019, and used utility mulch since friends had some extra and it was free to us. It was smaller wood chips which decomposed quickly in our Florida weather.

This time we got large pine bark mulch which will break down much slower and our plants love the extra acidity. We also added aluminum landscape edging to keep all the mulch confined and it looks much better.

We showcase how we installed the metal landscape edging in this separate article.

How Much Does Mulch Cost

You can get mulch for a decent price. There are two ways to buy mulch.

Either in a bag or in bulk. The bagged mulch usually comes in either 2 or 3 cu ft and bulk is measured by cubic yards.

The bagged mulch ranges from $3 up to $6 and more a bag for the higher end mulch.

For the bulk cubic yard, you’re looking at between $30-50/cubic yard depending on the style and type. The higher end is more for rubber or specialty mulch.

Most places will also charge a delivery fee but some will waive the fee, depending how much you buy and how close you live to their location.

So you’re probably wondering if it’s cheaper to buy mulch in a bag or in bulk. It’s definitely more expensive for bagged mulch.

One cubic yard equals 27 cubic feet. One cubic yard of bulk mulch is roughly $30. A bag of mulch is 2 cubic feet, so you’ll need 13-14 bags to equal one cubic yard. $3 per bag equals $39-$42.

Though bagged mulch is more expensive, they are easier to deal with for smaller areas. They are easier to spread as well, so there’s nothing wrong with paying a little more for convenience.

How to Get Free Mulch

There are also free ways you can get mulch. The biggest way is to contact your local utility company or waste company and see if they have free wood chip program. Our county does, which is good.

Our local dump collects yard debris from homeowners then chips everything down into mulch. If you have a local dump, you can see if they offer free mulch. You will have to load and unload this type of mulch, so the delivered free mulch is better.

This type of mulch is considered utility mulch and is more for pathways, groundcover, or driveways. They say that because it very well can be seeded with weed seeds and it also has a lot of leaves in it as well.

This is a great way to mulch large areas of your yard and you’re on a tight budget.

What Are Some Mulch Alternatives?

Ok, not everyone will like the look of traditional mulch. And that’s ok. Most of the best alternatives are also the more inorganic ones that I shared earlier.

  • Old newspapers make great mulch and an easy way to get rid of grass and weeds.
  • Any shredded rubber can be a fantastic mulch alternative and will last a while
  • Crushed or recycled concrete we got a lot of this from our local concrete company. They come in “fines”, which are less than an inch in diameter and another size called “57” which is smalls and larger concrete pieces up to 2 inches.
  • Pea gravel looks really good and great for pathways.
  • Grass clippings if your lawn mower has a mulching feature, then you can use that and either leave it where you mow or catch it in your bag to put it in the area of your garden where you want it to go.
  • Seashells -we were at Treasure Island, FL for vacation recently and noticed that they use this everywhere. It really makes the area feel beachy and helps keep down the dust.
  • Pumice Rock similar to seashells, but probably more prominent in desert areas.
  • Sea glass can be decorative like seashells. It just might take longer to get enough for your area.
  • Landscaping glass these are usually sold as more decorative and colorful accents for your yard.

Conclusion

I hope this article helped you learn more about mulch and its benefits to your backyard as well as how to lay it in your own backyard. If you liked this article, please Pin it!

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Jena Slocum Co-Founder

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13 Comments

    1. Hi Debbie, thanks for the question. We used the cardboard to kill any remaining grass and weeds before we put new mulch down in our backyard. It was a more organic way of killing weeds and grass rather than weedkiller. The cardboard completely disintegrated within 2-3 months in our Florida weather. Once the cardboard was gone, we then started planting flowers. Some people use weed barrier fabric under mulch and simply tear a hole in the fabric where you want to plant your flowers. I hope this answered your question and good luck with your backyard projects!

    2. I planted first then wet the cardboard ( that made it easier to rip ) Took a little time but did make it easier to work around my plants.

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment. You should definitely be careful about putting mulch next to your foundation, especially if it is a wood frame house. Per a UF research study, Melaleuca mulch was more resistant to termites than cypress, eucalyptus, pine bark or pine straw. We used pine bark, but we also don’t have any mulch up against our house at the moment. Good luck with your mulching project.

  1. Is it best to use cardboard before the mulch in Michigan weather.does it kill the weeds longer ??

    1. Hi, thanks for the question. In my opinion, the cardboard helps reduce the weeds, no matter where you live. Here in Florida, we’re dealing with weeds year round and the cardboard certainly helped kill a lot when we mulched our flower beds. I’m not going to say it will them all, but it got a lot of them. Good luck with your mulching project.

  2. Thanks for this guide! I was really interested in the mulch alternatives. I had no idea that recycled concrete was an option. Since starting my backyard remodel, I rented a dumpster
    and it’s been really convenient. They let me know that concrete was recyclable and that they would unload my dumpster and return it on the same day if I filled the dumpster before my project was complete. Now. I know I can use it for my project!

  3. Hello, love the cardboard idea!
    I’m not sure we get enough rain for the cardboard to disintegrate quick enough.
    Would weed/landscape fabric do the same trick?
    We’re hoping to avoid digging up all that grass!

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment and sorry for the late response. Yes, you could use landscape fabric, you’ll just have to cut it whenever you need to add plants in the area. The cardboard will disintegrate pretty quickly depending on how thick it is. If you don’t get rain, watering it once a week would help the process along.

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