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How to Apply Mulch

Using organic mulch in your yard or garden beds can conserve water, shield plant roots, improve the health of the soil, preserve soil temperature, and prevent weed growth. Inorganic or decorative mulch is less effective at preventing weed growth and shielding plant roots, but can add color and texture to your garden bed or property. First, decide which mulch you want to use on your property, then follow the proper procedures to apply the mulch so that works as intended.

Part One of Three:
Choosing the Right Mulch
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  1. 1
    Select an organic mulch to add nutrients to your lawn. Organic mulches include wood chips, straw, grass clippings, chopped leaves, and compost. When the mulch breaks down, it naturally adds nutrients to the underlying soil. Organic mulch will also help with water retention, weed prevention, and will protect plant roots. Organic mulches won't, however, protect from pests.[1]
    • You can purchase organic mulch online or at a gardening store.
    • Organic mulches will have to be replaced or augmented every year.
  2. 2
    Choose inorganic mulch for a decorative look. Inorganic mulches include gravel, stones, tumbled glass, and river rock. Inorganic mulch can prevent weed germination, help retain moisture, and regulate root temperature, but are often less effective than organic mulches. Unlike organic mulches, however, inorganic mulches come in a wide variety of colors and styles that you can use to decorate your outdoor space. Choose a stone or gravel that matches the aesthetic of your landscaping.[2]
    • For example, you can get an inorganic mulch that matches the color of your house.
    • If you are going to a sleek, modern style, you may want to get stones that are all the same size and shape.
    • Using stone or gravel in high temperatures could overheat and hurt your plants.[3]
  3. 3
    Purchase enough mulch to cover the area. You’ll want to cover your flower bed or lawn with 1 inch (2.5 cm) - 2 inches (5.1 cm) of mulch during the summer. To determine how much mulch you need to purchase for your space, you can use an online calculator like the one found at https://www.bhg.com/gardening/yard/mulch/mulch/.[4]
    • Mulch is typically sold by the so-called “yard” which covers 100 square feet (9.3 m2) of garden 3 inches (7.6 cm) deep.
    • If you are using mulch for weed control, apply the mulch so it’s 2 inches (5.1 cm) - 4 inches (10 cm) thick.
    • If you are mulching vegetable beds during the winter you should lay down a 4 inches (10 cm) - 6 inches (15 cm) layer.
    • Applying too much mulch will suffocate plant roots and kill a plant.
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Part Two of Three:
Deciding When to Mulch
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  1. 1
    Apply organic mulch in the early summer for the best results. You can still mulch throughout other parts of the year, but the end of spring and beginning of summer are often the best time to lay down mulch. During this time, the soil has warmed up and plants are typically out of dormancy.[5]
    • If you are laying down mulch to prevent weeds or improve the health of your lawn or flower bed, it’s best to do it sooner rather than wait for the optimal time.
  2. 2
    Apply winter mulch in the late fall. A common misconception is that winter mulch can prevent the soil from freezing in cold temperatures. This is untrue, but applying mulch can make the freezing process more gradual and reduce excessive freeze-thaw cycles, which is better for your plants. When laying down mulch for winter protection, lay down 2 inches (5.1 cm) - 4 inches (10 cm) of mulch to the area.[6]
    • You can use both organic and inorganic mulch for winter mulching.
  3. 3
    Add organic mulch to newly planted trees or shrubs. Organic mulch like compost or manure are the best types of mulch to use for newly planted shrubs, trees, and flowers because they add essential nutrients to the soil and protect the new plants from weeds. Inorganic mulches won’t have an effect on newly planted trees or shrubs.[7]
    • Wood-based organic mulch may compete for nitrogen with your new plants, so if you plan on using them, till nitrogen amendments into the soil beforehand.
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Part Three of Three:
Laying Down Mulch
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  1. 1
    Pull weeds out of the lawn. Use a garden spade to dig out any existing weeds in the area. Make sure to get deep enough to dig out the weeds roots or it may grow back. This step is important so that weeds don’t grow under the mulch.[8]
    • If you have time, you can use a chemical weed killer to remove weeds as an alternative.
    • A selective chemical weed killer will only harm broad leaf weeds or grasses. A nonselective chemical weed killer will harm any plant it comes into contact with.
    • Don any safety gear recommended by your weed killer and read the manufacturer’s directions regarding application.
  2. 2
    Create an edge for the mulch. Use a shovel or manual edger and carefully dig around the area that you want to mulch. This should create a smooth continuous line around the flower bed or tree that will help keep the mulch off the grass.[9]
    • Don’t toss the soil into your flowerbed or you may promote grass growth in your mulch.
    • You can also create an edge by lining up stone around the area that you want to mulch.
  3. 3
    Remove existing mulch or dress the top with a similar mulch. Use a shovel to dig away any existing mulch on the top surface of your lawn or flower bed. Transfer the old mulch into a wheelbarrow and discard it. You’ll know you’ve removed enough mulch when you see dark brown soil with roots in it.[10]
    • You can place the old mulch into a compost pile and let it break down.
    • If you are adding a similar mulch, you can simply top dress the existing mulch after smoothing it out with a rake.
  4. 4
    Shovel small piles of mulch onto your flower bed or lawn. First, pour the mulch into a wheelbarrow to make it easier to transport. Then, shovel small piles of mulch in the areas that you want to add it to. Once you have 3-4 small piles, move onto the next step.[11]
    • Just dumping all of the mulch in one area may leave you with too much mulch, which will suffocate your plants’ roots.
  5. 5
    Rake the mulch over the area in an even layer. Rake down the small piles that you shoveled into the area. If you’re mulching during the spring or summer, create a 1 inch (2.5 cm) - 2 inches (5.1 cm) layer over the entirety of the area. If you are using a larger, inorganic mulch, you can spread it out with your hands rather than a rake. As you need more, pour more mulch in the area with your shovel.[12]
    • If you are mulching during the winter or for weed prevention, you can create a layer that is 4 inches (10 cm) thick.
    • Leave an 1 inch (2.5 cm) of clearance between the trunk of any trees or plants and the mulch.
  6. 6
    Water organic mulch. Watering organic mulch with a garden hose or buckets of water will prevent it from blowing away and give it moisture. Be careful not to over water the mulch or it the water may pool on the top of it, which could be detrimental to your plants.[13]
  7. 7
    Replace organic mulch every year. Organic mulch will break down over time and lose most of its benefits over time. For this reason, you should remove the old mulch and add new mulch around the same time each year.[14]
    • Wood chips often last longer than other organic mulches but will turn gray over time.
  8. 8
    Replace inorganic mulch when it no longer looks fresh. Inorganic mulch lasts much longer than organic mulch and doesn’t need to be replaced often. If your gravel or stones look dirty, you could hose them down with water to clean them instead of replacing it.[15]
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Community Q&A

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  • Can I spread new mulch over old mulch?
    LK
    Answered by Lauren Kurtz
    • Yes, you can if it is the same kind of mulch. If it is not the same type of mulch, over time as the mulch gets moved around, you will expose the older layer of mulch, which may detract from the aesthetics of your garden. This is purely an aesthetic problem. It's fine from a functional perspective.
    Thanks! 2 0
  • I have a bank I would like to cover with mulch. Can I cut the existing grass, lay fabric down, and then apply the mulch? I really don't want to till the steep bank.
    LK
    Answered by Lauren Kurtz
    • Steep banks can be tricky to cover with mulch because sometimes the mulch will fall, blow, or get washed off of the bank. Landscape fabric can make this problem worse, so I don’t recommend using it. The fabric is better for under a path. Use a shredded wood mulch for this area because it will form more of a mat and blow away less easily than bark pieces. This type of mulch is sometimes referred to as gorilla hair.
    Thanks! 0 1
  • Is it correct to put mulch on top of the soil around a tree?
    Answered by wikiHow Staff Editor
    • Yes, this is correct, however the mulch shouldn't be piled up around the base of the tree. This is known as a "mulch volcano" and will suffocate the roots in your trees.
    Thanks! 5 0
  • How do I get rid of "rat tails?"
    Answered by wikiHow Staff Editor
    • You have to pull any weeds and use a weed remover before laying down the mulch.
    Thanks! 2 0
  • How can I reuse cedar mulch from my garden?
    Answered by wikiHow Staff Editor
    • Over time the nutrients in mulch will break down. It's best to remove and replace the mulch rather than to reuse it.
    Thanks! 2 1
  • Do all fallen leaves have to be cleared up before mulching?
    Answered by wikiHow Staff Editor
    • You should clear out the entire area before laying down mulch so that you don't attract bugs and remove any potential for weed growth.
    Thanks! 1 1
  • Should I lay the mulch during a certain month?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Yes. Lay it during the fall so the roots can be protected during the winter when the roots grow.
    Thanks! 34 8
  • Can I put down black fabric and 2 inches of cedar mulch over a dying lawn?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • It is better to dig up the old lawn. Go down 2 to 4 inches. Rake over it to smooth out the area. Once it is smooth, apply the fabric. You can double the layers if you like, then add the mulch 2 to 4 inches.
    Thanks! 26 16
  • How many bags should I get to mulch my flower bed?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • It depends on the area size of the garden. 4 feet by 5 feet uses 4-5 bags of mulch.
    Thanks! 30 22
  • Do I need to apply weed killer before applying mulch?
    Answered by wikiHow Contributor
    • Yes, to ensure no weeds form, it is best to apply week killer to the area one week before you apply mulch.
    Thanks! 22 16
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Things You’ll NeedEdit

  • Shovel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Garden hose
  • Manual edger (optional)

WarningsEdit

  • Cocoa hulls, a form of organic mulch, is toxic to dogs.[16]
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Expert Review By:

LK
Horticulturist

This version of How to Apply Mulch was reviewed by Lauren Kurtz on April 27, 2018.

28 votes - 93%
Co-authors: 22
Updated:
Views: 799,499

Reader Success Stories

  • Teri Acosta

    May 27, 2017

    "I am about to purchase mulch for my garden, and this helped me decide how much I will need. It gave me new information about how to apply the mulch and what should be done at the end of the growing season."..." more
    Rated this article:
  • AW

    Anita White

    Aug 28, 2016

    "I got some bark from a farmer and have just moved into a new place. I am getting the garden sorted at the moment, and will be using the bark to go on top of my newly dug garden. This is to stop/slow down the weeds, but hopefully it will look better."..." more
  • AW

    Acacia W.

    Sep 16, 2017

    "I'm researching ways to use cedar chip mulch in my front yard to fix issues with grass not growing due to acidic soil. This article helped explain why, how and nuances that I hadn't known previously."..." more
    Rated this article:
  • KA

    Kelley Adams

    Jun 25, 2017

    "I wanted to use mulch to help the appearance of the area around the rose bushes. I have cut down the overgrowth of various weeds, so I need to keep this area clear."..." more
  • GK

    George Kiiru

    Oct 23, 2016

    "The important aspect learned is that a plant stem should come into contact with mulching material. There should be at most 6" inches of a free space between them."..." more
  • EL

    Eleanor Lewis

    Jul 15, 2017

    "Very good. As always, mulch: never have enough of it. Even lobster shells and bones are buried, and the next year they are decomposed and can never be found."..." more
  • EG

    Essie Gonzalez

    Apr 20, 2017

    "I was grateful for the step-by-step tips, including caring and handling the mulch. I also learned how to protect my garden during the winter season! Thanks."..." more
  • TW

    Teresa Williams

    Apr 7, 2017

    "My husband and I read this article, and it was our guide for weeding and mulching our yard! It also gave some great tips on where to get mulch for free!"..." more
    Rated this article:
  • Becky Gintonio

    Jul 9, 2017

    "New to mulch. I didn't realize there was rubber mulch, only knew of wood. This helped me decide what type I wanted to use and how to properly apply."..." more
  • GV

    Geert Victor

    Apr 11, 2017

    "New to gardening and this step by step explanation and extra information was exactly what I needed and to be confident to start!"..." more
    Rated this article:
  • NP

    Norman Payne

    Jul 31, 2017

    "This is going to be fall project for me, and will be my first time using mulch, so this information was a big help. Thank you."..." more
  • TO

    Tom O.

    Sep 29, 2017

    "This article has helped me to find out the definition of mulching, plus its advantages and disadvantages."
  • MH

    Mark Honeycutt

    Sep 26, 2016

    "It was very helpful very informative, and answered all my questions. Very great site, thank you."
  • DM

    Denis Moreau

    May 26, 2017

    "The information was clear and complete. It answered all of my questions and concerns."
    Rated this article:
  • SL

    Seth Leonard

    Oct 10, 2016

    "I am using this for timebanking, and it is very helpful for our team. Thank you!"
  • B

    Bob

    Oct 8, 2017

    "I had and agriculture project and needed the steps, so I came to this site."
    Rated this article:
  • EG

    Elfreda Gross

    Sep 4, 2016

    "I was just making sure that I was doing it right."
  • US

    Ulises Salas

    Apr 1, 2017

    "It answered every question I needed answered."
    Rated this article:
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    S. Soard

    Jul 2, 2017

    "Informative! Now I know exactly what I need!"
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  • JD

    Jesse Daniels

    Jul 18, 2017

    "Very helpful, I know how to do the job now."
    Rated this article:
  • A

    Anonymous

    Jun 3, 2017

    "New to using mulch. This was useful."
    Rated this article:
  • MM

    Mike Mignardi

    Jun 19, 2017

    "Good info on process to place mulch."
    Rated this article:
  • David J Henry

    May 22, 2017

    "Knew most of them. Good review."
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    Alec Snip

    Oct 30, 2017

    "This article was helpful to me."
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