Mulch is key to avoiding a multitude of garden problems. It’s an excellent weed barrier, unparalleled in moisture retention, effective at soil temperature moderation, and a disease barrier (blocking the potential transfer of bacteria in the soil from splashing onto leaves while watering).

Think outside the box, though, and typical mulch materials can play a much larger role in the garden. Whether its volcanic rock, slate chips, pebbles, or limestone screenings, wood chips, compost, or pine straw, there’s a multitude of uses for mulch.

Build a Dry Stream

Dry stream beds are gorgeous landscape features where water is scarce. Landscape contractors can create the illusion of water movement with artfully arranged pebbles and rocks with strategically placed natural stone boulders mixed throughout. The key to a successful dry stream design is paying attention to placement. Start by sitting the largest stones first in key areas to lead the eye through the stream bed. Fill in with fist-sized materials, and finish off smaller pockets with pebbles.

Create a Pet Run

More and more pet owners are seeking landscaping that their pets can enjoy as opposed to destroy. Pay attention to pets’ natural paths around the yard. Do they constantly circle the perimeter? Use smooth pebbles, such as Mexican pebbles, to create a “run” around the perimeter of the yard along the fence. It’ll add interest to the garden and prevent pets from tearing up the whole yard.

Install Low Impact Pathways

Pavers are a (mostly) permanent solution for pathways, but they aren’t the softest addition to the landscape. For a less formal feel, use slate chips. They add interest, texture, and give a polished look to the garden. Weed barrier laid down under these chips is important to prevent grass from growing up through them. Slate chips, like pebbles, are also excellent for container and rock gardens.

Control Erosion

Plants are excellent for erosion control, but sometimes they’re not an option. You don’t want to use small, lightweight mulch as erosion control because it will still wash away in a heavy rain. River rocks don’t break down, are relatively large, and never need replacing. Use around swimming pools, fire pits, and on slopes.

Add Color & Depth

Thank goodness dyed mulch isn’t the only way to add color to the landscape. Landscape glass mulch is a unique type of mulch made from pieces of glass that have been tumbled so the naturally sharp edges have been smoothed. Often recycled, it comes in a full rainbow of colors. It’s a bold accent when used in fountains and water features.

Create a Buffer

Use pebbles around pools (where splashing water can create a mess of mulch) or around fire pits and fireplaces. (Pebbles won’t catch fire, unlike other common types of mulch.)

Build the Soil

Mulch is mostly used to put a finishing touch on a garden, but it can also build the soil, depending on what type of mulch you’re using. Compost is actually an excellent mulch, especially for wooded areas and temperate suburban lots. It’s usually dark in color so it stands out far less than spray dyed wood chip mulch (which isn’t great anyway), and it does double-duty, enriching the soil while tying the landscape together.

Mulch is always welcome for its common landscape functions, but it can be so much more.