Widely available, shredded hardwood lasts from one to three years. It’s a good choice for creating a natural look in landscape beds and is especially eye-catching in woodland settings. It also works well on slopes and in flood-prone areas. Many gardeners use shredded hardwood for informal paths in a backyard.
Homegrown compost provides an inexpensive mulch that adds nutrition and organic matter to soil as it breaks down. It typically lasts up to one year and looks nice enough to dress even high-visibility front yard gardens. Some municipalities collect yard waste and compost it, offering the compost free or at a low cost to residents. Learn if this compost forms in a pile that’s turned (that means it heats up enough to kill weed seeds and disease organisms). If the material is simply piled and decomposes without turning, there’s a chance you’ll inherit weed seeds and diseases. Bagged compost from a store breaks down in a few months. Use this as a soil additive in new gardening beds.
Fresh Wood Chips
If your backyard has many trees and shrubs, consider investing in a chipper-shredder to create your own supply of wood chips. Fresh wood chips make long-lasting mulch — one to four years — when placed on top of soil. They won’t blow, don’t contain weed seeds and typically don’t float. Worked into soil, they rob nitrogen as they decompose, so keep them on top of planting beds. Wood chips create a classic look that blends with any landscape design. They also make a great material for informal paths.
In the South, pine straw is the mulch of choice because it’s readily available and low-cost — maybe even free. Fresh pine straw has an attractive burnt-orange hue that enhances any landscape, from formal front yard gardens to backyard vegetable areas. There’s no science to back this up, but common gardening wisdom says it helps reduce slug problems around perennials. Purchase pine straw by the bale, or rake it up from beneath trees. It lasts one to two years.
Lighter weight than traditional stone, lava rock dresses a front yard planting area or backyard bed with eye-catching color. The edges are sharp, so it’s best used in places that don’t require much gardening maintenance. Lava rock lasts forever, so it’s an investment that definitely pays. Make sure you use it where you intend to keep it, though, because it’s difficult to remove.
Long-lasting stone mulch creates a formal look in a planting bed and is commonly used in Southwestern-style gardening. Stones absorb heat during the day and release it to plants at night. This additional warmth allows gardeners to grow plants that are borderline hardy and also jump-starts perennial plantings sooner in spring. The heat absorption can be a problem, though, as it can cause faster water evaporation from soil. This occurs most frequently with dark-colored stones.