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In central North Carolina, Jim Keen, lead designer with New Garden Landscaping and Nursery, says colored mulch isn’t increasing in popularity. He’s not the biggest fan of it either: It tends to bleed off and leach into other plants.

“We talked to our clients about (colored mulch) because that’s not going to break down and it actually may leech things into the (earth),” Keen says. “And as plant lovers, we do everything we can to keep those babies all right.”

Keen says the company has been getting more requests for natural-looking mulch to balance aesthetic and function. “It’s our job as designers to look at the area we’re designing and then speak with the client about the preferred material to use,” he says. New Garden runs about five or six installation crews and is a maintenance and design/build company.

Bare necessity.

Keen says mulch in his area has been particularly beneficial. His region saw long and excessive rainfall, and mulch in the landscaping beds helped to keep things in place. “There’s definitely a need for (mulch) with the plant for moisture as well as retention and soil control,” he says. “It tends not to wash out quite as bad as some of the other covers.”

The natural mulch doesn’t lend itself to washout as much, Keen says. It will eventually break down and turn into soil anyway.

Underneath the mulch, some contractors will lay a fabric down. Keen says he prefers to go without this because the natural mulch is meant to return to the soil. He says it still allows some room for weeds to germinate.

“That’s going to give a false sense of security because the weed seed can still germinate on top of (the lining), he says.

As a designer, Keen prefers to use mini nuggets of mulch on his clients’ properties. He says they create a more defined and detailed look. “It creates a very manicured look. I think it really pops in a landscape with the nice greenery.”

The mulch is not only aesthetically practical, it’s also a relatively easy install. “It’s easy to haul and easy to distribute,” he says. “We use typically bag material. It’s usually the shredded hardwood mulch and it’s easy for our crews to handle.”

Alternative options.

At Ahlgren Landscaping in Plainville, Connecticut, owner Chris Ahlgren says 60 to 70 percent of the groundcover they do is still mulch. The full-service maintenance and design/build company employs 10 full-time workers.

“I think mulch is still a constant. I don’t really see it fading away, at least in our area,” he says. However, Ahlgren has been finding more and more jobs that have warranted the use of stone ground cover instead of mulch.

It’s a different look and it comes at a different price, but stone is moving its way from commercial landscapes into residential yards.

Mulch is still about 20 to 30 percent the cost of stone, but Ahlgren has noticed that more customers are willing to pay for the higher quality.

In his service area, Ahlgren says there’s been a lot of new construction. Home owners are looking for something with less upkeep, and stone ground cover is able to provide that option.

“It saves on maintenance for them,” he says. “With the stone, you aren’t paying for that mulch every year. You kind of put it in and set it and forget it and it looks good year after year.” Larger stone sizes can be even more practical as a low-maintenance option, Ahlgren says. “Smaller three-quarter inch stone gets moved around more with the leaf blowers.”

The stone can even prevent weeds from sprouting in the flower beds because of the weed preventing fabric laid beneath it. Ahlgren says he recommends stone over mulch in cases where the property might be susceptible for erosion issues since the material is less likely to move.

He also opts for stone in areas that may have a history of certain pest issues. “Some from the areas that we service, there may be a big issues with termites or carpenter ants and things like that. Going with a stone, it helps keep those type of pests away,” he says. “And you’re not adding more insects to that area.”