After your gardens are prepared with nutrient rich soil and after they have been planted with attractive shrubs and flowers, you're now ready for the final step - applying mulch.
Mulch is very important because it insulates the garden from the hot summer sun, thereby keeping it moist longer. It also helps prevent weeds. How does it do that you might ask? We have the answer here in this article.
In addition, it just looks good.
As I'm sure you know, there are many mulch types, each with their advantanges and disadvantages.
Visiting the mulch area of your local garden center will make this perfectly clear - and may also confuse you as well.
Many people pick the mulch based on the look they like. While there's nothing wrong with that, it helps to know the different mulch types and if the one you use makes a difference so you can make an educated choice.
What You Should Know About Dyed Vs Natural Mulch
If you shop at the big box stores and look at some of the bags of mulch, you'll notice many will have a guarantee of the color lasting for a certain amount of time. One popular brand, "Earthgro"? made by Scotts says this: "Year Long Color Guarantee."
What does this mean? It means the the mulch has been dyed and they are saying the their color dye will last for a full year.
This is a great marketing angle because they know that most people buy mulch for the way it looks and they know customers want the look to last all season long. If customers purchased dark brown mulch and in 3 months the color had faded, they wouldn't be happy with the product.
So the bottom line is that most mulch today is dyed because the manufacturers know it's what the customers want.
The question then becomes, is the dye used in mulch safe?
While there is some controversy over this topic, the general consensous is the dye used in mulch is rarely harmful. However, there is another reason to be concerned if the mulch you're using is safe? Want to know what that is? We go into more details in this article here.
As an alternative to dyed mulch, there are natural mulches you can use that are not dyed. If you're concerned about dye in the environment and you don't mind the natural look of the material, then we say use this type instead
Bagged vs Bulk Mulch - Is One Better Than The Other?
As you probably know, you can purchase mulch in bags or in bulk.
Bagged mulch is usually found at the big box stores or smaller hardware stores, whereas bulk mulch is purchased at garden centers and nurseries (who might also sell mulch in bags too).
Does it matter which you buy? No it actually doesn't. However, there are a advantages/disadvantages of using one or the other that you should know so you can decide which one is best for you.
Bagged Mulch Advantages/Disadvantages:
- Comes in 2 cu. ft. or 3 cu. ft. bags.
- Better for smaller gardens, where you don't need large amounts.
- Easier to transport it to the actual garden where it will be applied.
- You just carry the bags to where you want them.
- Widely available at almost every store that carries landscape and/or garden products.
- If you need a lot, you may need to make several trips to the store depending on the size of your vehicle.
- Quality control is not consistent (depends on brand though). It's hard to see the quality of the mulch through the bag and the quality can be different between different bags of the same brand on the same pallet.
- Bagged mulch is almost always small to larger chunks of wood and not usually shredded finely.
Bulk Mulch Advantages/Disadvantages:
- If you need a lot, it may be better to buy it in bulk rather than carry dozens of bags around your home.
- You'll need a vehicle to transport it, such as a pick-up truck.
- Usually bulk mulch is dumped into vehicles using a front end loader.
- Once you get it home, you'll need a way to get move it around your home's gardens - which usually means a wheel barrow.
- Bulk mulch can be delivered to your home. This will, however, increase the cost because you'll be charged a delivery charge.
- You can see the quality of the mulch easily and pick the one you like.
- Bulk mulch is used by more pros that bagged. Therefore, your garden beds will tend to look professional done.
- Bulk mulch tends to be shredded into a finer consistency, some is even shredded 2x or 3x. This helps it stay on the beds, even on a hillside (which is one of the reasons why pros use it).
Notice in the above lists we did not mention price.
This is because we've done the comparison and usually the price comes out very similar. There is no great big advantage on price using one versus the other. Of course it depends on what you're comparing. Bulk mulch prices can be different depending on where you go and bagged mulch also has a wide range of prices.
Here's an interesting fact...
When Art worked for one of the largest commerical landscape companies in the U.S. The Brickman Group, they did a test, comparing the cost and time needed to purchase and apply bulk vs. bagged mulch and the result was surprising. They conclude bagged mulch was the better option.
There you have it. The advantages and disadvantages of bagged versus bulk mulch.
Types Of Mulch - Breaking It Down Literally
There are many different mulch types, each giving a slightly different result. What you ultimately decide to use will be determined by your own needs.
Many of the mulches for sale are made from a variety of different materials, each shredded differently, some fine, some course. In addition, colored dyes add another layer to the final product. All of these things tend to blur the lines between the different mulch types and their advantages and disadvantages.
However, we'll try to make sense of it here for you.
Shredded Pine Bark Mulch:
Pine bark mulch is one of the most common mulch types and the one we use most for our clients.
This type of mulch is made from, can you guess? Pine and fir trees of course, and more specifically, the bark of pine trees. It provides a good consistency and will decompose into the soil over time, providing nutrients to the garden and plants.
Pine bark is available in bags as well as in bulk from nurseries.
Pine Bark Nuggets:
Also made from pines and firs, these wood chips are much larger than the shredded variety.
Therefore, they will take a lot longer to break down and will not stay in place easily, especially on hillside gardens.
Pine Straw Mulch:
Another by-product of pine trees, pine straw makes a good mulch as well. More common in the southern part of the U.S. pine straw can be purchased but, if you have pine trees on your property, you'll have your own free pine straw to use as mulch.
This mulch type doesn't lay over the garden as easily and completely as wood mulch. This means it may take a little more effort to get a complete, even coverage and you may have to fluff it as it gets applied. The good news is it's much lighter than wood mulch.
In addition, because when pine straw breaks down it will make the garden more acidic, it's best used on beds planted with acid loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons and others.
As the name implies, hardwood mulch is made from hardwood trees such as maple and oak.
Hardwood mulch becomes more alkaline as it breaks down. Therefore, as it breaks down it will be beneficial to gardens with plants that are not acid lovers. Since these types of plants are usually more prolific in gardens, our advice is to use this wood mulcj to your gardens and not use pine straw which will make the soil to acidic. You can then add fertilizer specifically designed for the few acid loving plants you may have.
This is just another type of wood mulch that you may want to consider based on it's looks. We find both hardwood and pine bark to be very similar, so it all comes down to look.
Because cedar is a light wood, the mulch tends to be lighter (unless it's dyed) and will gray over time. This fact alone makes it less popular today.
In addition the cedar takes much longer to break down and in it's chip form, takes even longer, which means less humus and nutrients for the soil over time. You just might be removing the gray, less attractive chips before they break down.
The big advantage of cedar however is it has that odor that many humans love, animals and pests do not. In addition, cedar mulch produces an oil when breaking down that is a natural repellant for harmful insects.
Yes, you can use grass clippings as mulch over your beds and some people, we've heard, do this.
However, we would not recommend this for one simple reason. Grass clippings might contain weeds and weed seeds that will sprout up in your gardens.
If your lawn is totally free of weeds, then it might be OK. However, many weed seeds can remain hidden before they start growing - deposited there by birds or even the wind. The question is then, do you want to take a chance?
In our opinion, no. Don't take the chance. Weeds that sprout up in gardens are notoriously hard to eliminate for good.
Some people use shredded leaves over their gardens produced by shredding the leaves in their lawns using their lawn mower. However, this is also not a good idea.
For the same reasons we stated about for grass clippings, we would advise against using shredded leaves.
Plain and simple, DO NOT USE RUBBER MULCH IN YOUR GARDENS. PERIOD!
The first reason is it can be 3 times more expensive than other mulches, and if that's not reason enough, let us give you some more reasons.
The second reason is that rubber mulch is made from recycled tires. That means it's rubber. Can you guess how long it will take rubber to decompose? We don't really know, but it's a long, long time. In addition, rubber will provide nothing useful to plants and might even harm them.
Rubber mulch is made for playgrounds or pathways but NOT for gardens. 'nough said!
Here's a close up image of wood chips - possibly cedar but they could be hardwood as well. The point is, sometimes the type of wood is less important than the look.
What Color Mulch Looks Best
We cannot answer this for you as it's a totally personal choice.
That being said, we like dark brown mulch because it most closely resembles the dirt in the garden, meaning it's a more natural look.
Some people however like brown or red mulches and there is nothing wrong with those choices either.
For instance, one of our clients has a black awning over his front porch and wants his mulch to match. The black mulch along with the black awnings look very good together.
Red mulch, on the other hand, has a tropical, southern look - probably because we are used to seeing it in warmer climates in the southern and western U.S.
Gardens containing lots of cacti and other tropical plants such as hybiscus look good with red mulch.
Red mulch also goes especially well with spanish syled adobe and stucco homes with the red tiled roofs.
The mulch color you use it totally up to you, depending on the look you want to achieve.
Here's a great example of what dark brown mulch can do to your garden.
This garden looks very natural and the flowers pop! A great look.
The black mulch in this garden also looks great.
Just another look for you to consider.
The Best Mulch For Trees And Shrubs
Have you ever noticed the bulk piles of mulch sitting at your garden center. Do you see them steaming? If not, look closer.
Mulch will naturally heat up as it's decomposing. This is a good thing. These natural mulches are what you want to use in all your gardens, especially if it contains trees and shrubs - and I ask you, what garden doesn't?
The fact is a natural mulch product that's been bagged may not be physically steaming inside the bag, but that's not because it's not going to break down. Natural mulch breaks down, even in bags. That's why you'll often see condensation within bags of mulch that have been sitting at the store for a while.
They are doing their job - decomposing.
The fact is, wood mulch is the best choice, in our opinion. We've used it for decades and it has never done us wrong.
The Verdict Is In - The Best Type of Mulch For You
Well, we've covered a wide variety of mulch types and their advantages and disadvantages and we have said it before.
The choice is yours but if were up to us, we'd use a wood product - either pine bark, hardwood, or cedar mulch, either dyed or left in it's natural color, depending on the look we or our clients want.
Yes, the choices can be daunting. Wood, straw, shredded, chips, dyed, brown, red, bagged, bulk, cheap, expensive.
Only you can make that choice.
Here's what you should do. Visit the garden center and evaluate the different mulches available. Many stores have samples of mulch in bins so you can see and feel them. This will, not only help you choose, but also give you an education in the process. Knowing what you know now, you'll then be able to make an educated choice.
For more information on the other steps involved in planting your beds, read our article here.
For other gardening tips, including garden prep and maintenance, GO HERE!
April 27, 2021
Thanks for helping me understand that that you can use mulch treatment to provide and retain nutrients to your plants. My brother wants to grow a couple of plants around his new home to complement his outdoor space project. I’ll probably look around for a landscaping material delivery service if I was in his place.
April 27, 2021
Glad you enjoyed e post.
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January 28, 2023
Thanks for explaining that bulk mulch could help in making a garden bed look more professional. I noticed that my friend’s mother has been taking more interest in gardening, so she might like this article. I plan on looking for mulch providers in our area in case she’s interested in getting it for her yard soon.