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Hardwood

Photo by John Taylor

Made of shredded bark from hardwood trees such as maples and oaks, this sturdy mulch compacts over time so it resists blowing or washing away. Because of its staying power, hardwood mulch is ideal for sloped beds and gardens in wet climates.

Earthgro Hardwood Mulch, also at The Home Depot in selected stores, $2.59 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Pine Bark Nuggets

Photo by John Taylor

These reddish-brown chunks of pine bark give your garden a neat, natural look. They break down more slowly than shredded materials, so they don't need to be replenished as often. Nuggets, which can be as large as 3 inches long, work best in flat beds, where they won't float away during a heavy rain.

Earthgro Pine Bark Nuggets, also at The Home Depot in selected stores, $2.99 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Pine Needles

Photo by John Taylor

Also known as pine straw, long-leaf pine needles work best around acid-loving trees, shrubs, and perennials, such as Japanese maples, witch hazel, and delphiniums. The reddish-brown strands look especially natural on wooded properties. To get the most coverage, gently fluff the straw during application.

Pine needles, from thepinestrawstore.com, $69.99 per box (200 sq. ft.).

Cedar Chips

Photo by Hamilton Hedrick

These large golden-brown pieces of cedar—up to 4 inches long—have a lot of ornamental appeal and take much longer to decompose than shredded material. The cedar chips' natural oil gives them a clean, fresh scent and deters common insect pests. Fresh cedar can rob nitrogen from soil, so be sure to use aged chips in your garden. Because cedar chips lose color fast, you may be tempted to layer them on, but as with most mulches, don't go above a 3-inch layer.

Atlantic Horticulture Cedar Chips, also at The Home Depot, $3.78 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Straw

Photo by John Taylor

Use wheat straw to keep vegetable gardens neat in the summer and to insulate them against the cold in the winter (when as much as a 6-inch-deep layer is a good idea). Because it contains much fewer weed seeds, straw is a better mulch than its close relative, hay. As it breaks down, straw reduces soil's nitrogen level, so be sure to apply a nitrogen-rich fertilizer. This mulch decomposes rapidly, but is easy to obtain—you can find it at farm supply stores.

Wheat straw, from Quail Country Farms, $2.25 per bale.

Cocoa Hulls

Photo by John Taylor

Finely textured and uniform in appearance, lightweight cocoa hulls—the shells of cocoa beans— release a chocolatey scent as they decompose. Their rich brown hue darkens with age, adding contrast to your plantings. In humid climates, a harmless mold may form on the hulls. To prevent it, layer the shells no more than 1- to 1 1/2-inches thick. Be sure to look for varieties without theobromine, which can be harmful to dogs and other animals.

Blommer Cocoa Shell Mulch, from National Cocoa Shell, $5.99 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Much in a Mulch

Photo by John Taylor

Help a beloved gardener go easy on the planet and discourage garden pests; put some tree under the tree. Eucalyptus mulch comes from a renewable resource—a fast-growing tree species found in the southeastern part of the country. The natural oils in eucalyptus mulch also emit a pleasant scent that keeps plant-chomping bugs at bay.

$3.98 per bag (2 cu.ft.); Aaction Eucalyptus Mulch, from Lowes.

Melaleuca

Photo by John Taylor

A layer of melaleuca mulch can help save the environment—and discourage termites. Melaleuca is an exotic tree species that has overtaken Florida wetlands, and to limit the problem, environmentalists have encouraged grinding the invasive trees into mulch. A study at the University of Florida shows that melaleuca resists termites better than other wood mulches. This mulch is mainly sold in Florida.

FloriMulch, from Forestry Resources, Inc.; $2.79 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Color-Enhanced Wood

Photo by John Taylor

In response to natural wood's characteristic fading, manufacturers have created color-enhanced mulch, from rusty reds to chocolate browns to black. The wood is treated with plant-safe, water-soluble colorants, resulting in richer hues that won't fade as fast. If colored mulch is made from recycled wood, make sure the wood has been screened for contaminants.

1. Scott's Nature Scapes Classic Black Mulch, also at The Home Depot in selected stores, $4.69 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

2. Seaside Chocolate Brown Mulch, from Seaside Mulch, $33.99 per cu. yd.

3. Seaside Red Mulch, from Seaside Mulch, $33.99 per cu. yd.

Wool

Photo by John Taylor

A flexible mat that's especially good for hanging baskets, biodegradable wool mulch, made from wool-manufacturing waste, keeps plants and soil properly hydrated. The fibers allow water to pass through, but absorb excess water to prevent root rot.

1. Ewe Mulch, from Appleseed Wool Corp., $180 per 5' x 150' roll.

2. Woolch, from Minnesota Lamb & Wool Producers, $79.95 per 5' x 80' roll.

Recycled Glass

Photo by John Taylor

Like stone aggregates, pieces of tumbled glass recycled from old bottles and jars, can be used for a natural-looking mulch with textural interest. Ranging in color from soft sea glass hues to rich jewel tones, this mulch can be used over landscape fabric, a synthetic fiber blanket, to thoroughly suppress weeds. Since glass can be a hassle to move, this mulch works best with established beds, such as foundation plantings. Also, be sure to apply it in areas where it won't be tossed around by lawn equipment.

Sea Mix, from Bedrock Industries, $3.59 per pound.

Plastics

Photo by John Taylor

Studies show that plastic mulch sheeting, which warms soil as it reflects sunlight, may promote growth in seedlings and increase the yield of fruit and vegetable crops. The sheeting comes in several colors that reflect different amounts of light to benefit specific plants. For example, the light reflected by red plastic is said to boost tomatoes and strawberries, while green plastic is formulated to stimulate melon and cucumber growth. Silver plastic has been shown to repel pesky bugs. Because plastic mulch traps water around plants, it works best in cool temperatures.

1. Red Mulch, $7.95 per 4' x 20' sheet.

2. Green Mulch, $6.95 per 4' x 20' sheet.

3. Silver Mulch, $6.95 per 4' x 20' sheet.

all from Territorial Seed Company

Recycled Rubber

Photo by John Taylor

Low-maintenance rubber mulch, made from recycled tires, comes in a variety of vivid and natural colors. Because it doesn't bio-degrade, it doesn't need to be replaced after its initial application. And because it's not porous, a 1 1/2-inch deep layer is sufficient. Rubber is heavier than wood, so it's less likely to blow or wash away—a plus in wind-swept areas or on slopes.

1. Rubberific Mulch, from Rubberific of Texas, $10.95 per 16 lb. bag.

2 & 3. Arnold Palmer Rubber Mulch, from The Home Depot, $10.99 per bag (2 cu. ft.).

Synthetic Straw

Photo by John Taylor

Line sun-drenched beds with synthetic straw, made from recycled polypropylene. This durable mulch is treated with UV inhibitors to retain its earthy bronze hue for years. Occasionally fluffing the strands gives the straw a fuller appearance and lengthens its lifespan.

Textraw, from Textraw, Inc., $39 per 35 lb. roll (70 sq. ft.).

Buckwheat Hulls

Photo by Hamilton Hedrick

The outer layer of buckwheat seeds, these lightweight hulls—which measure just 1 millimeter in diameter—make for a finely textured, dark brown mulch that works especially well around rose bushes. It's also recommended for use in smaller beds or container gardens, and should be applied in a layer no more than 1 ½ inches thick. To keep the tiny hulls from blowing away, sprinkle them lightly with water on a regular basis.

Buckwheat Hulls, from The Birkett Mills, $12.90 per bag (2 cu. ft.).