The Debate: Pea Stone vs. Mulch

Right about this time of year all the landscaping projects that have been in the works since early spring are coming together. At the tail end of most projects, most people usually incorporate some kind of mulch or landscaping rock to set off the new design.

The question becomes which one is best. The answer depends on different variables such as how permanent you want it to be, if you are trying to retain moisture, will people be walking on it or is it for aesthetic purposes only, etc. We have run the gamut from just about every kind of mulch to every variety of landscaping rock.

Thankfully, two years ago Jim had the foresight to redo most of our landscaping areas and use pea stone. These small rocks are worn smooth over time by wind and water, and they come in various colors. It is almost as if they are polished by Mother Nature.

For our yard, this choice has been a godsend. We have a lot of maple trees in the yard that are magnificent except for spring when they produce the helicopter seedlings and in the fall with all the leaves. In both the mulch and larger river rock that we had down before, the seedlings and the stems of the leaves would become wedged in and even leaf blowers couldn’t budge them. As for the pea stone, leaves, seedlings, twigs and most all other debris glide right over the top and you have a clean bed of stone left behind.

Another advantage of pea stone is that it is easy to handle, not being as heavy as other rock, yet it stays where it is placed. We have a long area along the drive where grass would not grow and the area is plagued by raised tree roots. In between the trees Jim landscaped with various antiques, bottle trees and other yard ornaments. Then we took the loader tractor and dumped buckets of pea stone in and raked it level. Our trouble spot has now become a virtually maintenance-free landscaped area.

Another advantage of the pea stone is if you lay it 2 to 3 inches deep, it becomes a natural weed block without the need to lay landscaping plastic under it. Except for an occasional lonely straggler once in a while, weeds are pretty hard-pressed to spring up in this bed of stone. It is also light enough to be used around small plants and is great for both large and small areas.

OK, usually there is always a down side to a good thing, and this case is no exception. Being small and smooth, pea stone requires some kind of border to hold it in place along the edges. Your imagination is the limit here because it can be landscaping timbers, bricks, larger rocks or a number of other materials. Though the sky is the limit, keep in mind what kind of edge you want to mow around. Since we are rock hounds, we used larger rocks. However, that gave us an uneven border that needs to be sprayed with weed killer since we can’t mow up to it. Smoother-edged materials give a neater, well-manicured appearance.

To achieve a uniform look, we did all areas in the yard with pea stone except for a couple key spots. In these we used red lava rock, which is actually mined from volcanic lava domes, mostly in the American Southwest, and the white landscaping stone. We kept these to give a little different look to some areas.


Before we went to pea stone we used mulch in all of our landscaping areas. The word “mulch” covers a broad spectrum of different materials including leaves, grass clippings, peat moss, wood chips, bark chips, straw, and even cardboard and newspaper. There is definitely a place for this usually organic material, depending on what you are trying to achieve.

For many years we used the red bark mulch, which creates a very striking visual appeal, especially against green grass. However, it does decompose and must be either completely re-done each year or, at the very least, top dressed every year. This gets not only expensive, but also labor-intensive.

On the flip side of this, though, the decomposition improves the fertility and health of the soil. This is good if you have plants embedded in the bark, but bad for weed control. Organic mulch also improves the soil by attracting and feeding earthworms. They are natural tillers of the soil and their feces are some of the best fertilizer and soil conditioner around.

A new face on the horizon in recent years has been rubber mulch, manufactured from recycled old tires. The rubber insulates the soil from the heat and reduces weed growth, but at the expense of leaching some chemicals into the soil. These chemicals are touted to be non-toxic, but they are still chemicals going back into our environment.

A Ft. Myers, Florida, company, Allied Prefer LLC, has begun manufacturing  a product called Mulch-Less, which is an engineered, mineralized mulch product. It is made from melaleuca trees, uses natural dyes and contains no arsenic that is present in some other dyed mulches. At this time, the new product is roughly double the cost of other mulches but lasts three years.

Thus, there are advantages and disadvantages to both mulch and landscaping rock. In a nutshell, rock tends to be more permanent, does not decompose, allows less weed growth and is less likely to promote fungus growth. Mulch, on the other hand, costs roughly 50- to 75-percent less, is easier to move around and better retains moisture.

The bottom line when deciding which route to go probably boils down to personal preference. All I know is, with the maple seedlings being so prolific this year, I have already cleaned the stones four times with the leaf blower. I may have had to resort to some not-so-acceptable words had we not had pea stone!

Published on Jun 25, 2015

Grit Magazine

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