Mulch being added to a new landscaping project

Mulch is a landscaping aid that is typically organic or inorganic, which impedes the growth of weeds and helps the soil retain moisture. Although most will think organic is better, don’t discount inorganic mulch just yet, there are some excellent reasons to use these.

There are many varieties of mulch available depending on your needs and budget. A properly mulched garden will require less watering, weeding, and pest control spraying. A key factor to consider when planning a mulch project is how much it will cost.

Types of Mulch

The price of a mulch project is largely dependent on the type used. The type of mulch you use for your landscaping project might depend on the region or area where you live. Mostly, the project’s purpose will often determine the type of mulch you need to use.

Organic mulch, including wood chips, grass, and leaves improves your garden’s porosity and will eventually compost. Although there are far too many organic mulches, we will discuss some of the most commonly used.

Inorganic mulch is made of artificial products, usually recycled rubber, plastic, and geotextiles. Some would argue gravel and rocks are inorganic mulch, but since those are not typically synthetic, we’ll leave that distinction to you.

Below, we will discuss some of the different types, the purposes for use, and the direct advantages and disadvantages of each kind of mulch.

Organic Mulch

Wood Chips

Nearly all local garden centers carry decorative bags of wood chips and they’re available in many varieties. Wood chips look intriguing in shrub gardens and along pathways. Avoid using wood chips in vegetable and flower gardens that need to get tilled because those will get in your way.

You can sometimes get these free from utility companies too, or you could rent or buy a chipper. Then you would only need to pay for labor to get the chips where you need them.

Grass Clippings/Leaves

Another free choice, you can use a bagger while mowing or shredding fall leaves. An excellent advantage is that you won’t need anything special beyond the bagger. Shredded leaves provide a mulch rich in nutrients for all types of gardens.

Compost

Compost should be used in a thin layer to keep your soil at work biologically with mulch (shredded leaves?) on top to keep it moist. We do not recommend using compost widely as a mulch, however, as it has too much going on.

Hemlock

A superior advantage to using hemlock is its natural tannin content makes it a superb organic pest and insect repellent. Its bark is a rich burgundy or carroty color that looks beautiful in contrast to a mostly green shrub garden.

Hemlock has gotten a bad name as a mulch, due mostly to people not understanding the difference between hemlock trees and hemlock bushes. Hemlock bushes are poisonous and dangerous to pets and children. Hemlock trees are not and make colorful mulch. Therefore, worries about using hemlock mulch around children and pets are unfounded.

Inorganic Mulch

Plastic

Black plastic is a common mulch seen in melon, strawberry, and cucumber gardens. It keeps the vines clean and safe from rot. The primary advantage of black plastic is it draws in the sun’s warmth during the day and keeps the soil underneath about three degrees warmer at night.

However, plastic sheets should be used sparingly as they do not allow the soil to breath and will eventually kill the beneficial worms and bugs in the soil.

Rubber

This mulch is usually made from old tires, and since it doesn’t absorb or otherwise interact with moisture of any kind, it is excellent as an insulator in gardens. Since it is inorganic and spongy, it is a logical choice to layer playgrounds, and to use as an edging around pathways.

However, rubber mulch catches fire quickly, so it should not be used around a fire pit.

Geotextiles or Landscape Fabric

These allow water and air to seep through while keeping weeds dormant. However, a drawback of using geotextiles or landscape fabric is the roots and vines often intertwine with the fabric and make it difficult to remove. Another inconvenience is these do degrade over time, so you may need another mulch to cover it.

Mulch Coverage Estimate

To estimate the cost of mulch, you will definitely need to know about how much you will need for your project. When you have a square or rectangular area that you will spread mulch on, it is easy to calculate. However, when you have a complicated area, it is best to break it down into smaller plots that are easier to measure.

Once you come up with the length and the width, you will need to decide how deep you will want the mulch.

It depends on your personal choice or experience, but 2”, 3”, or 4” are the standard depths used, and 3” is considered as ideal. Likewise, you will need to use the same unit of measure throughout. Since inch is the smallest and most familiar to Americans, let’s use that.

To come up with the volume of mulch needed, use the formula, volume = length × width × depth. The total volume will be cubic inches. Then, you will need to do a little conversion to get your volume into a familiar measurement.

You can also use a mulch calculator that simplifies these calculations.

If you are going to buy bags of mulch for small projects you will do yourself, the unit of measurement to use is cubic feet. However, as every big bag buyer knows, it is cheaper to buy bulk, so you will need to know how many yards you will require.

After taking measurements, you figure you have a length of 10 ft (120 in) and a width of 10 ft (120 in) you want covered with 3″ in of mulch, which is 43,200 in3. That’s about 42 ft3, or 21 bags of mulch, or 1.54 yards of mulch. Some landscapers will have you round up to the next higher yard number. If this gets too confusing, you can use our mulch calculator.

Mulch Price Per Yard Estimates

Once you’re armed with the mulch type and how much you need you can estimate the cost. These are assuming a fairly level area of coverage to be done by hand. Estimates go up for mulch that needs to get spread in several different areas:

Organic Mulch Prices

  • Wood Chips…$60/yard3
  • Forest Mulch…$84/yard3
  • Organic Compost…$90/yard3
  • Hemlock…$100/yard3

Inorganic Mulch Prices

  • Mulch…$10/12 per 2 ft3bag
  • Plastic Mulch…$25-30 per 15 x 3 ft roll
  • Landscape fabric…$20 per 50 x 3 ft roll

Most landscapers will give you an all-in price for delivery, labor, and taxes per yard. Labor would be challenging to estimate because labor usually gets determined by the area.

California typically has much higher labor costs than Alabama, for example. Even within a state, laborers pay per hour/job can vary widely. And then, the landscaper could charge by the hour or by the cubic foot or yard.

Although labor costs vary widely, it should not surprise you to pay $150-300 per yard for labor. Popular landscapers are busy. The busier the landscaper, the more they can charge.

A Ballpark Figure for Mulch

To find a ballpark figure for a landscaper to install a mulch bed, estimate the price of materials using the methods above and consider the labor rates in your area. The best method is to get a few estimates from reputable landscapers in your area.

Keep in mind the cheapest is not always the best bargain. Recommendations from satisfied customers usually signal a superior deal in the long run.