mulch, any material, usually organic, that is spread on the ground to protect the soil and the roots of plants from the effects of soil crusting, erosion, or freezing; it is also used to retard the growth of weeds. A mulch may be made of materials such as straw, sawdust, grass clippings, peat moss, leaves, or paper. For large areas under cultivation a tilled layer of soil serves the purpose of a mulch.

In agriculture and gardening, mulch is a protective cover placed over the soil, primarily to modify the effects of the local climate. A wide variety of natural and synthetic materials are used.


Mulch is used for various purposes:

Mulching is an important part of any no-dig gardening regime, such as practiced within permaculture systems.


A variety of materials are used as mulch:

  • Organic residues (cow manure): grass clippings, leaves, hay, straw, shredded bark, whole bark nuggets, sawdust, shells, wood chips, shredded newspaper, cardboard, wool, etc. Many of these materials also act as a direct composting system, such as the mulched clippings of a mulching lawn mower. There are many differing opinions on what to use.
  • Compost: This relies on fully composted material. The weed seed must have been eliminated, otherwise the mulch will actually produce weed cover.
  • Rubber mulch: made from recycled tire rubber.
  • Plastic mulch: crops grow through slits or holes in thin plastic sheeting. This method is predominant in large-scale vegetable growing, with millions of acres cultivated under plastic mulch worldwide each year (disposal of plastic mulch is cited as an environmental problem).
  • Organic sheet mulch: Various products developed as a biodegradable alternative to plastic mulch.
  • Rock and gravel can also be used as a mulch. In northern climates the heat retained by rocks will extend the growing season.

The way a particular organic mulch decomposes, and reacts to wetting by rain and dew, determines in great degree its effectiveness. Organic mulches can rot rapidly rather than slowly break down, require nitrogen to decompose, can mat into a barrier that blocks water and air, can wick water from the soil to the surface due to its porosity, all conditions that can be detrimental to crops and ornamental plants.

Living mulch may be considered a type of mulch. It involves sowing a fast-growing cover crop to grow under the main crop.

Grass mulching is a large part of keeping a healthy lawn. It causes proteins from old grass to soak into new grass and make it appear healthier the next time the grass is mowed. It can be done using a lawn mower by setting it to the mulching setting (usually by lifting a latch or removing a guard) before mowing. Mulching should only be done about every three weeks, depending on how poor the grass is.


Mulch is usually applied towards the beginning of the growing season, and may be reapplied as necessary. It serves initially to warm the soil by helping it retain heat. This allows early seeding and transplanting of certain crops, and encourages faster growth. As the season progresses, the mulch stabilizes temperature and moisture, and prevents sunlight from germinating weed seed.

Plastic mulch used in large-scale commercial production is laid down with a tractor-drawn or standalone layer of plastic mulch. This is usually part of a sophisticated mechanical process, where raised beds are formed, plastic is rolled out on top, and seedlings are transplanted through it. Drip irrigation is often required, with drip tape laid under the plastic, as plastic mulch is impermeable to water.

In home gardens and smaller farming operations, organic mulch is usually spread by hand around emerged plants. For materials like straw and hay, a shredder may be used to chop up the material. Organic mulches are usually piled quite high, six inches or more, and settle over the season.

In some areas of the United States, such as central Pennsylvania and northern California, mulch is often referred to as "tanbark", even by manufacturers and distributors. In these areas, the word "mulch" is used specifically to refer to very fine tanbark or peat moss.

Mulch made with wood can contain or feed termites, so care must be taken about not placing mulch too close to houses or building that can be damaged by those insects. Some mulch manufacturers recommend putting mulch several inches away from buildings.

Sour mulch

Mulch should normally smell like freshly cut wood, but sometimes develops a toxicity that causes it to smell like vinegar, ammonia, sulfur or silage. This happens if the material is not rotated often enough and it forms pockets where no air is circulating. When this occurs, the decomposition process become anaerobic and produces these toxic materials in small quantities. Once exposed to the air, the process quickly reverts to an aerobic decomposition, but these toxic materials will be present for a period of time. If the mulch is placed around plants before the toxicity has had a chance to dissipate, then the plants could very likely be severely damaged or killed depending on their hardiness. Plants that are predominantly low to the ground or freshly planted are the most susceptible.

If sour mulch is applied and there is plant kill, the best thing to do is to water the mulch heavily. Water dissipates the chemicals faster and refreshes the plants. Removing the offending mulch will have little effect, because by the time plant kill is noticed, most of the toxicity is already disappeared. While testing after plant kill will not likely turn up anything since the toxicity will have dissipated, a simple pH check may reveal a highly acid content, in the range of 1.8 to 3.6 instead of the normal range of 6.0 to 7.2. Finally, placing a bit of the offending mulch around another plant to check for plant kill will verify if the toxicity has departed. If the new plant is also killed, then sour mulch is probably not the problem.

Straw mulch

Mulch made from straw is generally lighter and easier to use than bark mulches, with the added advantages of being biodegradable and neutral in pH. Straw mulch tends to additionally have higher moisture retention and weed controlling properties than other mulches.

Living mulch

Living mulches are plants sown to grow close to the ground, under the main crop, to slow the development of weeds and provide other benefits of mulch. They are usually fast-growing plants that continue growing with the main crops. By contrast, cover crops are incorporated into the soil or killed with herbicides. However, living mulches too may need to be mechanically or chemically killed eventually to prevent competition with the main crop (Brandsaeter et al. 1998, Tharp and Kells, 2001).


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