Putting down mulch is a must-have for any nice looking yard. A fresh set of mulch is the ultimate game changer for curb appeal – the instant “pop” that sets your yard apart.
And it’s easy, right? You just grab a couple bags and throw them on.
But how many bags? How much mulch? How often do you mulch? When is the best time to mulch? Do you remove the old mulch? Do you have to prepare the ground for mulch? Do you water mulch?!
Don’t let it overwhelm you! Mulching can be super therapeutic and you really can’t beat the results.
So let’s get started!
Why we started this site
We started The Lawn Review out of frustration. We couldn’t find clarity around what type of products were actually good and reliable. All the fertilizers we tried didn’t work. We ended up with a dying lawn, wasted time, and wasted money.
So we started buying and reviewing lawn tools and figuring out which ones were the best. And now we’ve moved onto actually keeping that lawn looking nice all year around.
We’ve spent thousands of hours building this content for people just like you and me – normal people.
What is mulch?
Mulch is mostly made of bark or shredded wood. Some of the most common types of mulch are made from shredded Cyprus or other hardwoods. Other inexpensive brands are a blend of random woods, which can sometimes look like dyed shredded plywood.
Mulch goes on top of existing soil as a protective layer to help insulate the soil. Mulch has a ton of benefits, including:
- Inhibits weed growth
- Retains water better than soil alone
- It helps nourish soil as it decomposes
- It helps regulate temperature
- Mulch adds a level of durability to your soil, whether it be heavy rain, footsteps, or animals
How often to put down mulch
Mulch should be replaced no more than once per year.
If you live in an area with heavy rainfall or snow, you may have to replace mulch yearly. For others that don’t get as much exposure to elements, your mulch may last a lot longer – even 3-4 years in some places.
You will know if you need to replace your mulch if it has caked together into clumps or developed a white fungus. You may also notice that your mulch needs to be replaced if it has lost some color or faded.
I replace my mulch in my front yard every year. It is black and gets full sun for most of the day. It takes a beating and fades from black to charcoal-grayish colored. Needless to say, I like having a nice black mulch that contrasts against our lighter-colored brick and grass.
In my backyard, I replace the mulch every other year. It is a really large area that is mostly shaded and we use brown mulch. It holds its color really well, and we only replace it because it mostly gets washed away after two years.
Best time of year to put mulch down
Hands down, the best time to put mulch down is in the spring.
Spring is when everything starts to bloom again which means two things:
- Weeds are also going to bloom
- Your yard needs to look its best
Mulch will help solve both of these issues. It is also when mulch goes on sale at Lowe’s for a great price, 5 for $10.
How to prepare for putting mulch down
The easiest way to prepare to put down mulch is to keep one basic framework in mind – you want to put it down over dirt. Obviously, you still want it to wrap around bushes and plants, but essentially you want it to go down with nothing underneath but dirt.
So to prepare your garden bed for mulch, make sure to clear out any grass and weeds. I do this in two ways: I use a weed killer spray like RoundUp to get rid of the weeds and then use a nice tiller to get any grass or dead weeds up.
Lastly, I’ll do a quick rake and flatten the area. Nothing else is required.
I’ve heard stories about people putting down newspapers or tarps or other things and I don’t think it’s necessary.
- Remove grass and weeds (use weed killer if needed two weeks in advance)
- Till up the earth
- Rake the debris away
- Flatten it out with a rake
Best place to get mulch
If you have a truck or trailer, you can also go to a nursery or landscaping supply center and pick up bulk mulch, which tends to be a bit cheaper. I’ve done both and found that bags were an overall easier experience, whereas the bulk mulch seemed “fresher” and higher quality.
Some nurseries will even deliver the mulch to your home – but if you’re doing this you might as well just spend a little bit more money and have a landscaping company do the whole thing.
How much mulch to buy
There are a few scientific ways to measure the area of your yard that can give you a precise answer, but this is more of an art than a science. Some areas may require a bit more than the standard 2 inch depth, others may require less. Basically, it won’t be perfectly evenly distributed no matter how hard you try.
But that’s okay! We can get as close as possible with a few guesstimates + 1, as I call it. The measurements of mulch bags are in cubic feet, so you want to basically divide by the number of inches to get an estimate.
It’s confusing, so think of it like this: multiply the dimensions of your area in feet to get square footage. If you are buying 2 cubic ft bags, then divide that by 12 to get the number of bags. If you are using 3 cubic ft bags, then divide by 18.
I always add an additional on top of that calculation for a margin of error. Worst case scenario, you’ve got an extra bag to cover up spots if an animal digs or rain washes away some of the mulch.
Laying down bagged mulch: tips and tricks
Okay – we have cleared the area and flattened it to our liking. We’ve picked up some mulch and we are ready to spread it. Where do we start?
If you’re buying bagged mulch, I recommend putting on some gloves and hauling each bag around to the garden bed and setting it down in the general vicinity of where you want the mulch to go.
It will look odd to have a bunch of bags laying around, but it gives you a game plan for spacing the mulch bags out appropriately instead of going too heavy at the beginning and having to backtrack.
Once you have the mulch laid out, go by each bag with a box cutter and cut it right down the middle, long ways.
After it is cut, simply roll it over and smooth it out by hand. Once you’ve done this to all of your bags, take a light raking to the top and make sure it is all level. Fill in any gaps with the extra mulch bag I told you to buy!
If you are mulching around a tree, you can use the backside of the rake or a pitchfork to leave a little “bowl” shape near the base of the stump. This enables easier water retention for the tree and is a nice little design.
- Lay out the bags evenly in the general vicinity of where the mulch will go
- Slice open the bags and turn them over
- Smooth them by hand
- Give a gentle rake to the top to level out
- Fill in any gaps
Laying down bulk mulch: tips and tricks
Laying down bulk mulch is pretty similar to bagged mulch, but you have to do a bit more work. This past year was my first time using bulk mulch and it was quite the workout.
After picking up the mulch in my truck, I then brought it home and started loading up a wheelbarrow. I then took the wheelbarrow and dumped it out in spots I thought would be equidistant for spreading the mulch around.
It took probably 20 trips with the wheelbarrow, but I got it done. My wonderful wife was the spreader, going behind each wheelbarrow-dropped mulch mound and spreading it around by hand. At the end we had a ton of mulch left over (enough to fill a garbage can, which we kept) and then raked the mulch to be completely even throughout.
Here’s the high-level recipe:
- Unload the bulk mulch with a pitchfork or shovel into a wheelbarrow
- Wheel the mulch to specific spots in the garden and dump it there
- Make sure to evenly space out each mound that you dump
- Level it by hand
- Then level it with a rake
Common questions we get about mulch
Believe it or not, we get a lot of questions about mulch. We started compiling some of the most common and have answered them below:
Do you need to water mulch after putting it down?
Some people suggest watering mulch after putting it down can “settle it”, but I have found that it just speeds up the color deterioration with each watering. I leave mine alone.
How thick do you need to lay down mulch?
Mulch should be around 2 inches thick when laid down.
Do I need to remove old mulch?
You don’t HAVE to remove old mulch, but you’ll find that after about 10 years of laying mulch down in the same spot that you have created a big mound.
It’s a good idea to remove the mulch every 5 years or so to start fresh and level the ground out again.
How much does mulch cost?
It depends. If you get mulch in bulk, you can get it for about $1/cubic ft. If you get mulch in bags, you can get it for about the same price, but only when mulch is on sale at Lowe’s or Home Depot has a mulch sale. The rest of the year it is usually between $1.50 and $2.
Do you have to put something down under mulch?
Some folks will lay down a plastic sheet or tarp underneath the mulch to prevent weed growth further, but I’ve never had much success with these. They have been more trouble than they are worth.
What do you use to spread mulch?
I use my hand for the initial spread, then finish it off with a light rake at the end.
How much do landscapers charge to put down mulch?
It depends, but on top of the cost of the mulch it will generally be about $150-200. All in you’re looking at $300-500 depending on the size of the job.
How often should I put down mulch?
Put down mulch yearly if you live in an area with a lot of rain or direct sun, otherwise every other year will work well.