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What mulch is best?

Last updated : 21 November 2014

Red mulch, black mulch, brown mulch… aren’t they all the same?

No, they are not all the same.  So I will explain how they vary and where and how you should use each one.  My favorite mulch is hardwood bark mulch.  To better explain this I made a movie for you.

My Secret Potting Soil Recipe

Pine Bark Mulch

In the movie I did not mention Pine Bark Mulch.  I Didn’t have any handy!   Pine bark mulch makes a good mulch for mulching planting beds and it’s also a great additive or can even be used as the base for a good potting mix.  Pine Bark mulch doesn’t break down as quickly nor does it contain the nutrition that hardwood bark has, but it’s still a great mulch to use for growing and potting soil.  Actually here in Ohio pine bark is hard to find unless you buy bags.  But the local nursery growers here like it so well as a potting mix they actually have it trucked in from North Carolina 90 cubic yards at a time.

 

Shredded Hardwood Bark Mulch

Shredded hardwood bark mulch is made from 100% tree bark, and not ground up wood.  Therefore it contains a great deal more nutrition for your plants and as it decomposes it greatly improves the soil in your gardens.  When the logs of hardwood trees are arrive at the saw mill one of the first things that happens is the logs are put through a de-barking machine and all of bark is removed from the logs before they are cut into lumber.

The bark is the shredded and often times it’s shredded two or three times.  That’s what they mean when they say double or triple ground.  But the most important thing for you to know is to confirm that you are indeed buying mulch that is made 100% from hardwood bark.  Because . . . there are a lot of mulches that pretend to be hardwood bark mulch and they are not.

The Impostors!

Red Mulch     Black Mulch     and Brown Mulch that has been dyed to obtain the brown color.

All of the impostors are dyed to get their color.

The impostors, as I call them, are mulches that are made of ground up wood, usually pallets.  These mulches contain little to no bark at all and are 100% wood.  Wood might be okay as a mulch to keep down weeds, but not only do wood mulches contain no nutrition for your plants, they actually pull nitrogen from the soil and the wood decomposes.   Once the pallets are ground up to look like mulch, the ground material is dyed so it has a deep color.  Today a lot of people like these mulches because they are red or black in color because of the dye.

Tha’ts fine, and using this kind of mulch to mulch the beds around your house is okay.  I don’t like these wood mulches for several reasons.  One, the mulch floats out of the beds too easily and is always all over the sidewalk.  Plus these mulches really don’t break down all that well.  I want a mulch that is going to improve my soil, not pull nutrients from the soil.  But as a mulch they are okay.  In potting mix they would be disastrous!

Wood Chips from the Tree Trimming Company

Tree trimming service produce tons and tons of wood chips and they are often looking for places to get rid of all of this mulch so they offer to drop a load off at your house free or charge.  Wood chips from a tree company are okay for mulching pathways in your garden, but that’s about all I would ever use them for.  They contain a great deal of ground up wood, leaves and twigs.   It takes this material a long time to break down and as it does it will pull nitrogen from your planting areas.

But more importantly, wood chips contain no nutritional value therefore really do your garden more harm than good.  If allowed to rot for a period of many years, they might be okay.  But they are not something I’d ever use in a planting area around my home or in my nursery.   They’re great to use over a muddy path.  For that they are wonderful.

Compost

Many supply yards that sell mulches also sell compost.  Compost can vary considerably from supply yard to supply yard.  For the most compost materials are great for the soil.  They really don’t make the best mulches because they are really fine textured and contain enough nutrition that weeds will grow right in the compost.

So compost materials shouldn’t be used as a mulch, but they are great for adding additional organic matter to a landscaping bed.  Most compost materials are made from leaf compost, maybe mushroom compost, and sometimes the include material from sewage plants.  It’s important to know for sure what’s in the compost that you are using.  Should the compost that you buy contain any material from a sewage plant you should not use it in your vegetable garden.

I hope this helps!  -Mike McGroarty

 

 

Comments

  1. Marilea says

    Mike,
    Thank you for clarifying the differences among the various mulches. We have access to Mint crop residue. It is available after the mint oil is steamed out. Farmers here use it abundantly on summer fallow. I need to know what is it’s value to crops and does it harm earth worms?? I would greatly appreciate any and all information you may have.
    Sincerely,
    Marilea

  2. Susan says

    What do you think about pine needles as mulch? Also, I’ve had such bad problems with termites, I’m thinking of using stone in my beds next to the house.

  3. Subramaniam Krishnan says

    Your article is well written and very good. The importance of mulch in not yet understood by many farmers. Good to have your guidance.

  4. Shawn says

    I have a lot of long needle pines on my lot. I use that to keep my weeds under control, buy I am hesitant to plant a food crop in the beds because I am not sure what it the vegetables would absorb from the soil having been mulched with pine needles for many decades.

  5. Jennifer says

    Hey Mike! I definately learned alot from this, thank you! Living in NE Mississippi in a loggng town, I’ve got easy access to pine mulch & hardwood mulch. Especially since an f5 tornado cleared 90% of the timber here last April. Ive got many piles of ground up pine & oak stumps everywhere. I cannot wait to get started gardening this year!

  6. JoAnn Forrest says

    Mike,
    Have so appreciated your inspiration and so value your opingion from years of successful experience. This was most helpful to read about pros & cons of both mulch & compost. Just wanted you to know that you have opened up my world to better understanding home gardening and you also bring a spark of motivation and ingenuity.. Thanks again, and so grateful to be among the many who receive your Emails and benefit from your expert experience.. May we all have a great year of gardening this next year, Take care, JoAnn

  7. Chris says

    Very informative video, I like it. Didn’t know ground hardwood bark mulch is good for plants. It seems this would be a good addition to a compost pile to help aerate it and thus speed up composition. Pretty hard to find hardwood bark mulch around here. Do you think pine bark chips run through a shredder would be comparable?

  8. George says

    I see Ceder bark mulch in my garden center, but it is not as fine as the bark mulch you show. This stuff is quite chunky. Is that any good? I want it to put around mature Rhododendron bushes because the people that came to blow the leaves last fall also blew away all the ground cover, so I have bare exposed soil around everything now.

  9. Jann Keith says

    Mike, I really enjoy your widsom and wit about gardening. I live in Springboro, which is between Dayton and Cincinnati. I have a year old rose bush, planted in a pot that needs to be trimmed. I feared doing it in the fall thinking the winter was going to be ‘normal.’ The bushes have tiny leaves growing and wonder if it is too late to trim it. By trimming I mean shaping it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Keep up the good work. I am anxious to get my ‘bibs’ on and get down and dirty. Best wishes.

  10. Malcolm Brown says

    What to think of using grass clippings as mulch? Seems like they would have lots of nutrients. Normally I let the cuttings stay on the lawn, but when the grass is growing fast (or I miss a week) I have to rake or blow off the excess. I have used this as mulch around the ornamental trees and shrubs beds.It mats and keeps the weeds down.

  11. Kathy Dawson says

    Hi Mike! I’ve been following your sites for about a year now and I just love all the information you give out. You are such a down-to-earth guy (no pun intended) and give such simple, sensible information.
    Regarding the mulch – great video and very accurate. A note on the colored mulch – people need to be careful when using this. If they have a load dumped on their driveway, they need to make sure they get it used up before it rains or they will have a nice big stain to look at! Also, I hate the died mulches because if some of it wanders out into the grass, it is so ugly. Also, the died stuff fades too fast and looks pitiful. If they use the hardwood bark, it just kind of disappears into the dirt under the grass.
    I too use it in a soil mix. It’s great! Everything you said about it breaking down and improving the soil is so true. Here in Fort Wayne, Indiana we have that wonderful clay, which I’m guessing you also have. I use anything I can to break it down. I also have a little trick for my compost. I just make big old piles in my boxes (4×8 foot, 12 inches deep) in the fall and mix a little dirt between the layers. In the spring, I just plant my stuff on top of them. They love it, and are fed all summer.
    Anyways, thanks for being you! I really look forward to all of your information. It confirms most of what I’ve picked up over the years (I’m your age) just by messing around. I garden full time for other people, and it’s the blessing of my life. I’m not happy unless I have my hands in dirt.
    God bless you! Kathy

  12. Linda says

    Well, I’m 63, and I have been gardening since I was three. I never knew this! I can’t believe, that this was not in the 100 books I have on gardening. Thanks a lot.

    This past year, I asked my favorite nursery where they got their dirt — I got some. I also planted $500.00 of tulips and daffys. I am eagerly waiting for my garden to start blooming this spring! I do enjoy your posts.

  13. Anis Bootwala says

    Hi, Mike; i get a lot of pine bark mulch here in atlanta, but my purpose of using mulch is to prevent weeds. I will spread a layer of around 3 to 4 inches thick around a tree and about 3 feet in dia to control weeds.I hope it is o.k.

  14. Harold Whitaker says

    Sense I’m from nc just wandering how fine pine bark should be ground too? I live in in a rural area and use all leaves for compose.

  15. Johnny Cruz says

    Hi Mike,

    That was a good clip, the one where you have the different types of mulch…. I learned a few things…

    Thanks!

  16. Lola says

    Where do you weigh in on hazelnut shells? I live in the Pacific NW (you know… extremely wet here, also have dense clay soil.) I put some hazelnut shells as a cover around my blueberry bushes last year and am SOLD. Not only is the drainage much improved, but pulling the weeds is so easy. I like only having to add them every 5 years (not looking for them to break down so much as drain well.) I’ll be adding them everywhere this year! My only concern, do they pull nitro too???

  17. Art Pudark says

    Hi Mike,
    Re “compost that you buy contain material from a sewage plant” “you should not use it in vegetable garden”;
    It used(?) to contain heavy metals, etc, but aren’t these ingredients limited, or not part of sludge now?
    What of shredded newsprint, or color-magazine shreddings?
    Thanks, Art

  18. Ray Piechocki says

    Hey Mike,
    Great video on mulch. I learned a loy. I live in Savannah, Georgia, and the mulch of choice here is pine needles. It is cheap and is available anywhere.I have lived about three years and I have heard that pine needles do not make great mulch. What is your read on this?
    Thanks,
    Ray

  19. says

    Mike,
    Where in Ohio do you live? I find everything you post so interesting. I live south west of Shreve, Ohio, which is SW of Wooster. Thanks for all the tips, and very interesting emails, and videos.

    • Kitty West says

      hi sandy

      i havefamily who live at shreve. i also wonder where mike lives i am in southern ohio.

      happy growing in 2012

    • Gordon Waddington says

      I truely believe Hemlock is the best Mulch of natural wood heratige. It breaks down nicely each year to fine black organic soil. The hardwoods seem to layer, rot, and do not break down fast at all. It may be good in very dry open areas but for nice groomed house gardens, Hemlock is my prefered mulch-looks great and smells wonderful for a long time.

  20. Anonymous says

    i’ve been very discouraged with mulch as of lately for the ants and insects ( mostly ants), how does the shredded hardwood bark mulch do with the ants?

  21. says

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for the tips. I use the ground up trees mulch for paths, like you said, it’s great for that and lasts a long time. Here in the Pacific Northwest – muddy paths are a big issue. I’ve also used the paper from documents that I’ve shredded for paths and around plants to keep the weeds down. Makes sure the information is safe. :) Can’t wait for gardening season to start in a few more weeks!

  22. Donna says

    Hi Mike,
    Thanks for continuing to do a great job. I always learn a thing of two with every email from you.
    One more mulch you might want to address is cocoa shell mulch. Looks beautiful, smells heavenly for a while, decomposes well, BUT it should forever be outlawed. It also smells good to dogs. Unfortunately, it can severely debilitate or even kill your best buddy if he eats it, and boy, do they love to eat it. I haven’t seen it around for a while. If anyone knows of it being available, please spread the word about its toxicity to dogs. Thanks again Mike.

  23. says

    Mike this was really very helpful. I always use the Red beacuse the color eally stands ot but if it has no value I will not use it anymore.No one really explains the different knids so now I’ll try to find Hardwood mulch.
    Thanks for the Great tip. I’m sure alot of people appreciate this information.
    Thanks Mike.

  24. Farm Boy says

    Some observations relating to brown mulch on moderately well drained loamy soils in NE OH. Over a year Spring – Spring; 3″ of brown mulch is pretty well broken down. I do distribute (by hand) some regular garden fertilizer over the mulched beds – to partially compensate for the nutrient demand.
    After application, I spray the mulch with my garden hose to enable the pieces of mulch to “knit together” to greatly prevent wind/water loss. If needed, I will break up any area of mulch that sheds too much rainfall. Thank-you Mike for all you do!

  25. Michie says

    Hi, Mike:
    Thanks for the mulch article. What do you know about the free mulch offered by a county? We have this service here is Fairfax, Virginia. Is this mulch usable, you think, for adding nutrients to the soil?

  26. Debra says

    Another reason to be wary of the free wood chips from tree services is that often the wood comes from trees that are being cut down because they are dead or dieing as a result of disease or infestation. You run the risk of possibly spreading this in your landscape. You could inquire first, but then you have to trust the tree professional at their word.

  27. patsy says

    Thank you so much for explaining the different kinds of mulch. I always bought the red mulch because it looked good. No more. Also this past fall you talked about dead spots in your grass and what you did about it. Please send that info again. I have dead spots already this year. Thanks again. Keep up the good work I look forward to your e-mails. I live in WV.

  28. Linda Berth says

    Mike,
    Thanks for all the great info you provide. My husband and I are looking forward to spring and the info on mulches was great. We always used the dyed or free tree trimming mulch and now we will have to look for a mulch that contains bark. Keep the info coming!
    Linda

  29. carrie says

    You forgot to mention cypress mulch and cypress mulch blend. Also preen mulch which contains weed preventer. And then there is rubber mulch.

    • PAUL says

      I believe Mike was talking about adding nutrients to the soil, when you talk about rubber mulch you are talking about polluting the soil.

  30. Kimberly says

    What about using rubber mulch? It’s great to “go green” by recycling, but I am not sure if using recycled tires as mulch is a good thing or not. I have thought of using it, but is rubber mulch good for plants since it does not break down? If not, would using this method actually be considered “going green”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    • PAUL says

      Rubber mulch is very bad tire companies from what I read would get rid of tires in third world countries and that got to costly so they thought of selling it as mulch and making money off. I am all for making money and as much as I can, but not at any cost, it has a bad smell when in the hot sun and it poisons the soil it is just the opposite of going green. Just remember you have the internet do your own research.

  31. Richard Heghinian says

    What about cow manure either raw or processed? I have used the processed stuff, sold in Home Depo, Lowes etc.

    As long as I mix it with sand (all we have in Florida) my plants have done quite well. Right out of the bag, I think it’s too strong.

  32. Janice says

    Mike – here in Pittsburgh, we have hardwood shredded mulch which I have used for years. But – it doesn’t say hardwood bark. Is this the same thing? Thanks!

    • PAUL says

      I to live in the Pittsburgh area in Beaver county can you share where you get the hardwood bark mulch.

      • says

        Paul,
        I would think hardwood bark mulch would be pretty easy to find around Pittsburgh. The mulch that we use here in Ohio comes from Pennsylvania. Most of it anyway, some from southern Ohio.

  33. Bianca Botto says

    thank you very much for the lesson about mulch, it was very interesting, now I know what kind of mulch to use on my yard.

    • says

      Thanks for the information on mulch,Mike. I have a huge oak tree that blew down during Ike and has lain on the ground for several years. It has rotted and the bark pulling away and has a black mulch under it that is moist and just like dirt. Someone told me that if you used too much,it would not let the water get to the plant roots,so thought I would get your opinion before I use it. The tree is very rotten beneath the bark. I filled a 5 gallon bucket full in just a few minutes. What is the best way to use it?

  34. Anonymous says

    Good information, however, hardwood bark mulch is hard to obtain. I’m in NY and buy my mulch in Home Depot, Lowe’s or garden centers.

    • Retired says

      Not for a Garden, but to Cover Grass..
      What Procedures forCovering a 10ft x 40 wide area of Grass
      I also Plan to Add 2- Crab Apple Trees at 20 ft Spacees and Nothing Else.. Not a Garden..

      I figure:
      1. Cut the Grass As Low As I can- Scalp it if Can and Dig a Edge of 6 inches Wide around the area..from the rest of the Lawn
      2. Spray Weed and Grass Killer on the Short Cut Grass.
      3. Lay a Fabric Underlayment and stake it down
      4. Add 3 Inches of Mulch at 400 Sq ft , est.35 bags..x $4 each = $140 HomeDepot will deliver for $50 = $200 with tax
      5. Expect to Spray Weed and Grass Killer on it Every Spring and Fall
      6. and a Top Dressing of 1 Inch of New Mulch every couple of yrs..

      Will this Plan Be Good Enough?

      Landscapers want over $800 to do this Job..
      Being Retired and have the time ( even if takes a Month Part Time at it) I save at least $600

      I called my Local HS to ask if any HS Kids Wanted to do it and Give them $100 each, but No Takers ..

      • says

        I like it all except the fabric underlayment. In my “very experienced opinion with the stuff” all it will do is lighten your wallet and aggravate you until the end of your days. Use newspaper or brown paper bags. They’ll rot and won’t haunt you forever. But truthfully, if you are going to spray the grass first, all you need is mulch.

        When you spray, but the grass short, then water it and give it a few days to start to green up. Then let dry, spray really well. The grass killer works best when the grass is actively growing. That’s what makes the herbicide translocate through the plants to the roots.

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