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Mulching Your Garden: What to Use & How to Use it

Mulch is your secret weapon in the garden. I talk about the need for mulching your garden in just about every blog post; mulching is that important. This post cover the benefits of mulch, what to use for mulch in different areas of your garden, and the best tips for how to use mulch in your garden. 

Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it

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Benefits of Mulching your Garden

1. Mulching your garden helps regulate soil temperature

  • Hot soil is hard on plants. Mulch keeps the sun off the soil so the soil stays cooler. Thick mulch helps insulate it even more. 
  • Higher soil temperatures slow plant growth, and mulch moderates that temperature a bit. 
  • Mulch shades the soil from the sun’s direct rays causing less variation in temperature
  • During cooler temps, mulch also helps insulate the soil. 
Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it

2. Mulching your garden helps slow evaporation

A thick layer of mulch means that less moisture is lost through evaporation. You can then water less frequently which saves water, money, and time! 

Mulching slows evaporation

3. Mulching adds organic matter to your garden

When you add natural mulch in the form of bark, straw, or compost, they are incorporated into the soil and add nutrients and organic matter.  

Mulching adds organic matter

4. Mulching your garden helps prevent and control weeds

Mulching blocks the sunlight needed for weeds to germinate and often smothers existing weeds.

Mulching prevents weeds

ALL OF THIS TOGETHER MEANS THERE ARE MORE GOOD THINGS GOING ON IN THE SOIL. Increased moisture, less temperature fluctuations, and more organic matter all lead to more worm activity and more beneficial microorganisms in the soil. That means healthier soil and plants. 

Different Types of Mulch

Use compost as mulch
compost from Arizona Worm Farm

Use homemade, bagged, or bulk compost. Compost is high in nutrients and has a finer texture than other mulching options

A note about fresh animal manure; it must be aged before using it as mulch or compost in the garden. 

Where to get it: I make my own and I also love the compost from Arizona Worm Farm

Composted mulch
composted mulch
Composted mulch

Larger texture than regular compost. It is typically made from landscape waste and isn’t completely broken down yet.

Where to get it: Arizona Worm Farm has this available. They call it mulch or city mulch. I also like the bagged composted mulch from A&P Nursery.

pine needles as mulch
Pine needles

Pine needles are very light, airy, and easy to spread. One nice thing about pine needles is they don’t compact. Use a thick layer (3-4 inches) when using pine needles. 

Pine needles may lower the pH of soil when mixed in with the soil. That may not be a bad thing here in the low desert where our soil tends to be more alkaline. Pine needles become more pH neutral as they break down. 

straw as mulch
Straw (not hay)

(Don’t use hay as it often contains seeds). Straw is the stalk that is left over after a grain, like barley, has been harvested. It is dry and hollow and there is no nutrition left in it. Use pesticide-free straw. 

Where to get it: Shopper’s Supply and other farm supply stores.

shredded leaves
Leaves / Leaf mold / Shredded leaves

Gather and save all leaves when they fall. Bag leaves and allow them to begin to break down; this creates leaf mold. Use your lawnmower to run over leaves to shred them. Shredded or small leaves are better at allowing water to penetrate and don’t become matted as easily.

wood chips
Bark / Wood chips

The larger texture of bark and wood chips means they last longer in the garden. They may compete for some nitrogen as the wood chips break down in garden beds. 

Where to get it: Chipdrop; check with local arborist; Arizona Worm Farm.

Chopped up cover crops / Grass clippings

These options for mulch are full of nutrients. Chop up cover crops and let them dry in the sun for a day or two before adding to beds. Do not use grass clippings from Bermuda grass or grass treated with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.

cardboard as sheet mulch
Cardboard / Newspaper

Cardboard is often used as sheet mulch under beds and in pathways to help prevent weeds. Spread newspaper in beds, but top with something else like compost or soil to hold it in place. 

Where to get it: Finally, something to do with all of those Amazon boxes

Which mulch to use in your garden

Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it
Raised and in-ground garden beds:

Smaller-grade organic materials such as compost, composted mulch, shredded leaves, straw, and smaller wood chips are excellent mulch in raised garden beds.

Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it

Larger materials last longer in pathways and around raised beds. 

Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it

All materials are suitable for around trees, but take care to keep mulch away from the base of the tree. 

Tips for how to use mulch in your garden

  • Wait until plants have grown to several inches tall before applying mulch. 
  • Keep mulch about an inch away from the stems of plants. 
  • Add a little extra organic fertilizer below the mulch when using leaves or bark as they can take nitrogen from the soil as they break down. 
  • If you use Garden Grids for watering like I do, put them on top of the mulch. You may have to water a little longer to penetrate the mulch layer. 
  • Plan on applying mulch twice a year in the spring after planting (before the heat of summer), and again after fall planting.
  • Apply a 2-3 inch layer of most mulches. Less than 2 inches doesn’t give you all the benefits, but a larger layer can be difficult for water to penetrate.
Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it
Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it
Mulching Your Garden: What to Use and How to Use it


Thursday 19th of August 2021

Should mulch in garden beds be removed before preparing the beds before planting? Should I mix it into the soil? I use small pieces of bark from chip drop. Thank you!

Angela Judd

Thursday 19th of August 2021

I use wood chips as well. If you can, pull back (or remove) the wood chip mulch before adding more compost, etc. Then put the mulch back on top.


Sunday 25th of July 2021

For a truck load of mulch for$30, check out Tempe AZ recycled compost.


Friday 23rd of July 2021

Can mulching the entire yard area like you have done attract termites? We paid a lot to get rid of an infestation. I'd hate to have to go through that again.

Angela Judd

Friday 23rd of July 2021

Possibly. If you have had a problem in the past, I would check with the exterminator that helped you previously.


Tuesday 22nd of June 2021

If we shouldnt put mulch down until the plants are a few inches tall, then what do you suggest forkeeping soil moist if I am direct seeding during the summer?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 22nd of June 2021

You may want to go ahead and apply the mulch when you are seeding - maybe thin it out a bit around the seedling as it emerges.


Friday 11th of June 2021

It looks like you have a feed scoop in the wheelbarrow in the first photo - can you please share which one it is and where you got it? Thanks

Angela Judd

Friday 11th of June 2021

I got mine at an antique store years ago, but this is a similar one on Armazon.