Stone, Rocks, or Mulch - Which is More Cost Effective?

Plant bed with mulch and landscape stones

Last Updated: February 2, 2024

Are you planning to remove a small amount of your lawn and replace it with either stone, rock, or mulch? Maybe you are just in the mood to give your current landscaping a fresh, new look. Either way, you may be trying to decide which option will look the best and be the most cost-effective. In this article, we’ll look at the costs and benefits of mulch (both organic and inorganic mulch), stone, and rocks.

On the surface, organic mulch might seem like the most cost-effective option, but by digging a little deeper, we’ll help you see how other choices might actually save you more in the long run.

Understanding the Difference Between Stones and Rocks

Rocks and stones in a garden bed

Many homeowners consider the terms “decorative landscape stones” and “decorative landscape rocks” to be interchangeable. However, landscape professionals see them as very different things.

Decorative landscape stones are usually small (about the size of your fist or smaller), smooth, and flat. They come in a variety of colours and compositions and are often used to create stone walkways, footpaths, and decorative landscape borders.

Decorative landscape rocks, on the other hand, are typically larger than stones, are more likely to have an irregular shape, and are usually cut and dressed specifically for landscape installation. Rocks are more likely to be used primarily as decorative statements than they are as functional aspects of your landscape.

Like landscape stones, rocks can come in many different colours. They can also be dressed for different sizes and shapes with interesting veins and features to help personalise your lawn.

The Costs of Rock and Stone

Rocks, stones, and mulch in plant bed

The cost of decorative landscape stones is around triple the cost of most mulch. The cost of decorative landscape rocks will vary significantly depending on the type and size of the rock. Particularly large rocks can be very pricey (with added costs for delivery and placement).

Though the cost of rock and stone are initially higher than mulch, both hold up really well when exposed to the elements. They don’t break down, fade, or disappear into the soil like mulch eventually will. Rock and stone hold onto their neat appearance for much longer. As a result, you can usually recoup the cost of stone in about three years. (The recoup timeline of rocks will vary more.)

The Benefits of Rock and Stone

Drainage system around a house

In addition to cost savings over the long term, decorative landscape rocks and stones are good choices if you’re looking for a lower maintenance option. Since rock and stone require a lot less upkeep to maintain their appearance, you can go several months without doing much of anything. They may need to be rinsed off occasionally to keep them looking clean and tidy, but they won’t need to be replaced.

If your landscaping has drainage issues, stones are beneficial because they help water drain quickly. Stones are also good for high-traffic areas. Whether it’s people or pets, stones tend to fare well regardless. Of course, if the stones get kicked up, you might have to tidy them up from time to time. For the most part, though, they hold up well to the stress of high traffic. Mulch, on the other hand, can get scattered and messy when used in high-traffic areas.

One final consideration for using stone or rock is your personal preference. Some homeowners prefer the look of rock and/or stone over mulch. If you’re considering adding a statue or fountain as part of your landscaping, stones provide a great foundation. A well-laid-out bed of stones presents a clean, modern look and feel to your yard. Decorative rocks can also serve as landscape statement pieces in their own right.

Organic Mulch vs Inorganic Mulch

Landscape with mulch in plant beds

Before we dig into the costs and benefits of mulch, it’s useful to distinguish between organic and inorganic mulch.

Organic mulch is most likely what you think about when you hear the term “mulch.” This type of mulch is made from plant-based materials. The most common types of organic mulch are wood and bark chips, but organic mulch can also be made of wood shavings, peat moss, and even compost.

Inorganic mulch is a mulch made from non-living materials. Technically, landscaping stones, gravel, recycled glass, and even landscape rocks are inorganic mulch. However, for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on one of the most popular types of inorganic mulch, which is rubber mulch.

Rubber mulch is often made from recycled tires. It can come in different shapes, with shredded pieces beingthe most common. It also comes in a variety of colours, including brown, black, blue, red, yellow, and more.

The Cost of Mulch

Of all the landscape options presented in this article, organic mulch is the cheapest to purchase initially. Organic mulch is cheaper than inorganic mulch, decorative landscape stones, and decorative landscape rocks.

But depending on how much organic mulch is needed and where it’s being used, it can get pretty expensive. If you’re using organic mulch to cover a large area that is exposed to direct sunlight for most of the day, you should consider the cost of replacing it every 3 to 4 months.

Depending on the type and quality of organic mulch you use, most will begin to fade within a few months when exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods. And if you like how your landscaping looks with a new layer of fresh mulch, you may be replacing it 3 or 4 times a year. Not only does this mean additional costs, but there is additional labour involved, too.

The Benefits of Mulch

There are some benefits to using both organic and inorganic mulch for landscaping.

Organic Mulch

Wood chips for mulch in a plant bed

Organic mulch helps soil retain moisture, so you won’t use as much water to keep your plants, flowers, shrubs, and trees looking green. This type of mulch also helps limit weed development and growth by blocking the sunlight they need to sprout. It’s a good anchor for your soil, which can prevent heavy rains from washing it away. As it degrades and breaks down, it returns to the soil where it first started. The decaying chips then become nutrition that actually enriches the soil and feeds plants and flowers.

On the other hand, stones, rocks, and rubber mulch don’t add any nutritional value to the soil, which means fertilizing more often to keep plants and flowers thriving.

Inorganic Mulch

Plant sprouting out of bed with rubber mulch

Like its organic counterpart, inorganic mulch can also suppress weeds and help the soil retain moisture. However, inorganic mulch won’t break down nearly as quickly as organic mulch. Rubber mulch can last several years, though you may need to rake it back into place and refresh it from time to time. It can also be a good choice for high-traffic areas, as it stands up well to kids, dogs, and lots of foot traffic.

Homeowners should know that the colours of rubber mulch can fade over time, especially if placed in high-sun areas. Rubber is also good at absorbing heat, which means it can heat the soil on warmer days. Finally, some rubber mulch can have an odour, which usually fades over time.

Related Topic: What Are the Different Types of Mulch?

Which Option Is Right for You?

Stone, rock, organic mulch, or inorganic mulch? As we reviewed, there are benefits to using each option, with a variety of factors to consider. Choosing the best option often comes down to a matter of personal preference, though it’s also important to keep your budget in mind.

If you’re having trouble deciding, contact The Grounds Guys®. We can discuss different mulch installation options and help you decide which one is best for your property. Our local teams throughout Canada are reliable, knowledgeable, and friendly. That’s our Neighbourly Done Right Promise™ to you.

Find The Grounds Guys location nearest you and request a consultation and free estimate.

Mulch, Stone, and Rock FAQ

What are some common stones used as decorative landscape stones?

The great news for homeowners is that they have lots of great choices when it comes to choosing landscaping stones. Some of the most popular options include the following:

  • River rocks
  • Flint
  • Limestone
  • Lava rocks
  • Pea gravel
  • Slate
  • Gravel
  • Granite

How long does organic mulch last?

The durability of organic mulch (like bark or wood chips) will depend on a variety of factors, like how much sunlight it gets, weather patterns, and foot traffic. Organic mulch will fully decompose in two to three years, but you may need to replace it more frequently if the mulch is in high-sun areas (which can cause bleaching) or in high-traffic areas. In some cases, you may need to replace your organic mulch three to four times a year.

What is the cost of inorganic mulch vs. organic mulch?

Inorganic mulch (like bark or wood chips) is almost always less expensive than inorganic mulch (stones, gravel, rubber) on a per-unit basis. In some cases, organic mulch can be three or even four times as expensive as its inorganic counterparts.

However, it’s important to recognize that inorganic mulch has a much longer lifespan than organic mulch. You may need to replace your organic mulch each year or even multiple times a year if it is in high-traffic or high-sun areas. In contrast, inorganic mulch can easily last three years or more and requires only minimum upkeep.