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There are two options when updating your landscaping beds, mulch or river rock. Both are visually appealing and compliment flowers or plants. Mulch is a classic choice but can be high maintenance because of replacement labor and material costs. River Rock may be lower maintenance, but it’s not as cost effective as mulch. If you’re having trouble deciding what’s right for you, let the style of your home and geographic location dictate if mulch or river rock is right for you.


Mulch is beneficial to your garden beds because when mulch breaks down, it adds nutrients to the soil for your plants. In addition, mulch is a natural insulator, meaning it keeps your plants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. When deciding between mulch or river rock, know that mulch is most ideal for homeowners in northern climates. 

Despite the added cost of replacement each year, mulch is easy to install. However, it’s important to be aware of the amount that you’re laying. A layer more than 3 inches deep can stress your plants. There are different times of year to install mulch depending on where you live. For cooler climates, spreading mulch too early won’t allow your soil to warm up naturally, causing late blooms. For warmer climates, spreading too late causes excessive weeds.

Mulch for landscape delivered to home own in driveway

Materials and Colors

Mulch is available in many different materials and colors. What you choose should compliment your existing landscaping. Shredded bark is made from cedar and pine wood. Shredded bark is an ideal choice because the mulch interlocks and does not wash away. It decomposes into the soil and enriches your garden beds over time.

Shredded Bark

Shredded bark is best for flat garden beds. This option is extremely popular in Midwestern states like Illinois, IndianaMichigan, and Ohio. Shredded bark is relatively cheap. The best benefit of shredded mulch is that it comes in a variety of colors including: black, dark brown, gold, natural, and red.

Pine Straw

Pine straw is only available in the south, so it’s ideal for people who live in states like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Pine straw is slow to break down, making it a smart choice for sloped areas. 

Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch is most commonly used on playgrounds. If you have a play set, opt for rubber mulch instead of bark mulch or river rock. Since it’s made from recycled tires, it provides a soft cushion for slips and falls.

Man doing yard work chores by spreading mulch around landscape bushes from a wheelbarrow


On average, mulch can cost between $17 and $68 per cubic yard. Cost varies depending on the type, color and region. 

Shredded bark is a popular choice for flowerbeds, with cedar bark being a top choice. The average cost is about $93 per cubic yard installed. 

Pine straw is one of the most inexpensive options. On average it costs about $4 per bale and covers about 50 square feet. 

Rubber mulch is more expensive, but a great choice for areas where kiddos play. This mulch will run you between $8 and $14 per cubic foot. While it’s pricey up front, rubber mulch will save you money in the long run because of how low maintenance it is

Traditional Home Styles

Traditional home styles are a mix of classic elements from historical architectural styles of the 17th and 18th century. These homes are known as simple and welcoming. Traditional homes most commonly use stucco, brick, and stone for their exterior. Traditional architecture takes comfortability to outside landscaping as well. Gardens tend to be well defined and feature abundant spring bulbs and flowering shrubs.

Row of neighborhood houses in the suburbs

Fun Facts About Mulch

Bark (also called hardwood) mulch grew in popularity throughout New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in the 1960s. During this time, every lumber mill had a mountain of decomposing bark that needed to be disposed of. By grinding this bark a little finer, they were able to use the remains for landscaping. Because mulch is organic, retains moisture, controls weed growth, and decomposes; it became popular to landscape with.

Fast forward to 2022, the lumber industry has all but disappeared. Quality mulch is now a manufactured mix of green waste, ground-up stumps, and land clearing debris. Suppliers dry it for a few months then dye it. 

Unfortunately, the quality of mulch has declined while its popularity has soared. Lower quality mulch, which is largely used, decomposes quickly and calls for frequent replacement.

River Rock

While river rock costs more upfront, there is little to no replacement costs year-to-year. For those in warmer climates that are prone to wildfire, rocks make a good fire break. Best of all, river rocks attract far fewer bugs, unlike mulch which erodes and breaks down. If the choice between mulch or river rock was solely based on keeping pests away, the right choice is river rock.

You should know that river rocks do come with some disadvantages. If you choose dark rocks, they hold heat that raises the ground temperature, while light colored rocks deflect heat onto your plants. Both will require extra watering to prevent plant damage or wilting. 

Additionally, river rocks are something you’d want to hire a professional to install because they are heavy. 

Crushed stones in the hands of a man. Selective focus.

Types of Rock

River Rock

River rock is a type of smooth rock that’s a much more durable alternative to mulch. It’s great for drainage and as a space filler between stepping stones. 

Pea Gravel

Pea gravel is a type of smooth gravel great for around walkways and patios. This option is immensely popular and used widely in areas with a lot of foot traffic.


Flagstones are typically used in flatter areas, as paver stones. Flagstones are great options for building an edge around a garden bed or other landscape edging. 

Brick Chips

Brick chips are made from bricks that have been crushed and then sized for use. Though they are typically used for trails and walkways, brick chips can also be used in landscape beds. Brick chips are great for maintaining an even temperature and retaining moisture in soil. 

Lava Rock

Lava rocks are useful in garden beds because they suppress weed growth and are useful in drainage areas, due to their porous nature. For optimum weed prevention, be sure not to allow soil between the fabric layer and lava rock.


Landscaping river rocks are typically bought by the ton. Since rocks are heavy, it’s useful to purchase materials this way to avoid extra labor. When reviewing prices for landscaping rocks, it’s important to remember that the upfront cost may be more, but over time, you’ll save on replacement costs.

River rock costs between $90 to $650 per cubic yard. Prices vary by region and supplier.

Pea gravel is a more affordable option at $25 to $67 per cubic yard. While pea gravel per cubic yard may cost less, you’ll find yourself using more to achieve a finished look.

The national average cost of flagstone is $2 to $6 per square foot. These again make great walkways and garden bed edges. 

Brick chips cost about $190 per ton and range in size from 1/2 inch to 2 inches. A ton of brick chips should cover about 400 square feet.

Lastly, lava rocks will run you about $75 to $150 per cubic yard, this is definitely the most expensive option.

Modern or Mid-Century

Contemporary or modern landscaping draws influence from a few aesthetics, such as mid-century. Defined by its geometric shapes and sharp contrasts, modern landscaping takes influence from architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. Brutalism was also an influence with its use in building materials like concrete over natural stone. 

Modern landscaping is dependent on three major components: design, materials, and function. The design elements most commonly seen in modern landscaping are clean, straight lines, balance, and a mixture of textures. Focus on neutral tones, stone, and foliage over flowers when landscaping a modern home. 

Plants to consider should be compatible with rocks and gravel. Choose trees slow growing, low-maintenance trees. Include native grasses and succulents for a mix of color and textures.

Modern House Exterior

Fun Facts About Landscaping Rocks

Landscaping rocks were popular by the 19th century, but known then as rockwork (or rockery). Rocks were great for areas with shallow soil and plants that needed the extra heat from the sun.

Landscaping rocks have become increasingly popular since 2019. Because mulch can look disheveled, rocks have become a major upgrade. 


Overall, it’s important to keep your preferred aesthetic in mind but more importantly the benefits you’re looking to achieve.

Ask yourself this: Does this garden bed get an excessive amount of sunlight? Does my soil need extra nutrients? What climate do I live in? 

Your answers here will help you decide if mulch or river rock is best for you and your landscaping needs.