10 Wood Mulches and Their Pros and Cons

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Mulches are not all the same.

If you’ve read our article on “Types of Mulch” you know that certain products lend themselves better to different applications. 

With wood mulches, the differences between them are less obvious and your choices will often come down to personal preference for color, price, and what is available locally.

Wood mulches are organic – that means they decompose over time, not that they are made organically (although they might be).  They are used to suppress weeds and hold in moisture, moderate soil temperatures, and help create a uniform look across your garden and landscape.  And they all do a good job at that.  They are also used as protection from mower and string trimmer damage around trees.

As they decompose, these materials add nutrients to your soil.  They all will require replenishment from time to time – sometimes yearly, sometimes every few years.

Let’s look at 10 different wood mulches and how to use them in your garden.

Each wood mulch has a time and place to be used.

1. Cedar and Cedar Chips

This product is made from the bark and wood of cedar trees – western red cedar, eastern red cedar, and white cedar.

These mulches are golden brown in color and are shredded into long strands that form a mat.  You can also buy it as chips, which are small chunks and nuggets.

 Pros:

  • Long-lasting
  • Highly decorative.
  • Decomposes slowly
  • Repels insect pests

Cons:

  • Repels beneficial insects
  • It can be more expensive
  • Color fades fast, so it is sometimes dyed
  • It doesn’t provide a lot of nutrients
  • It could be a problem for people with fragrance allergies.
Red cedar mulch is very commonly used in gardens

2. Cypress

Bald cypress and pond cypress are used to make this product.  These deciduous conifers are native to North America, and this mulch used to be made from the byproducts of the lumber industry.  

Today, harvesting cypress trees to make mulch is harmful to wetland ecosystems. We do not recommend using it. It is sometimes sold as “No-Float”  and sometimes in a blend with other hardwoods, and has a golden brown color.

Pros:

  • If made from old trees, it has insect repelling properties.

Cons: 

  • Expensive!  It can cost nearly twice as much as other hardwood mulches.
  • May not allow water to reach plants’ root zones, especially if it dries out.
  • Not sustainable.
Cypress wood can also be used and can be red, but it can be very expensive

3. Oak Hardwood

This is made from the bark of oak trees and is usually sold double ground – that means it was processed twice. It has a rich brown color and a uniform size.

Pros:

  • Very attractive.
  • Holds it color through the season.

Cons:

  • It decomposes faster than other hardwood products.
  • May need replenishment every season

4. Mixed Hardwood

Similar to oak hardwood, this is made from maple, ash, hickory, birch, and other deciduous trees. It can be double or triple ground (sometimes called double or triple hammered) hammered). 

With its dark brown color, shredded mixed hardwood mulch provides a uniform, natural look.

Pros:

  • Less expensive than oak hardwood, yet it can still provide the same look.
  • Sometimes free from tree service companies or municipalities.

Cons:

  • Single ground wood chips are fresh out of the chipper and can damage plants, causing what’s known as “nitrogen burn.”
  • Chipped hardwood may be too coarse looking for some gardens.

5. Pine Fines

These are very small pieces of pine bark.  The pieces are usually no bigger than a fingernail, giving this mulch a very fine texture. It has a medium brown color and is best used in flower beds and vegetable gardens. 

Pros:

  • Excellent as a soil conditioner.
  • It can be used as an element when mixing your container soil blends.
  • It has a wonderful aroma when first spread.
  • Its short decomposition time means you won’t have to remove old mulch before spreading new.

Cons:

  • Decomposes quickly; doesn’t last very long.
  • Expensive.
  • Usually it is not used in typical mulching projects such as around trees or large areas.
Pine fines decompose quickly and can be costly

6. Pine Bark Nuggets

These chunks of chipped bark come in different sizes – the smaller the nugget, the faster the product will decompose.  Different sizes will give different looks.  Use the smaller nuggets around more delicate-looking plants; big chunks can be used around trees and shrubs.

Pros:

  • It is acidic – good for acid-loving plants.
  • It takes a long while to break down; it doesn’t need replenishment as often as other products.
  • It holds color longer than other mulches.
  • An excellent choice for shrub and evergreen planters.

Cons:

  • It is acidic – might adversely affect neutral or alkaline loving plants.
  • It may be too coarse-looking for some gardens and landscapes.
Pine chips are good for acid-loving plants

7. Melaleuca

The melaleuca tree is native to Australia and was introduced in Florida in 1906 as a timber source and landscape tree.  It has become an invasive species and is causing many problems in south Florida and the Everglades.  One way to combat this invasive species is to turn it into mulch!  Sold under the name Florimulch, it has a medium brown color and a medium texture. 

Pros:

  • Least attractive to termites in tests at the University of Florida.
  • Good, environmentally sound use for an invasive species.

Cons:

  • Not readily available in all areas.

8. Eucalyptus

It is made from plantation-grown eucalyptus trees.  It is a renewable, sustainable product, it is shredded and has a dark brown color and a sweet smell. 

Pros:

  • Has insect repelling properties, keeping pests away.

Cons:

  • It repels beneficial insects, too.
  • May release chemicals into the soil that could be harmful to certain plants.
  • It might not be available in all areas.
Eucalyptus can repel insects

9. Playground

The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) certifies mulch that is milled soft enough so that children who take a tumble will have a gentle place to land.  It is also certified to be residue-free. It is often a light brown color, but colors may vary depending on the trees used to produce it.

Pros:

  • It is a biodegradable, environmentally friendly choice over rubber mulch.
  • Made from wood without paint or chemical residues; non-toxic.

Cons:

  • It will need replacement every 2 to 4 years, depending on the traffic it gets.
  • Some products labeled “playground mulch” may not be certified.  Check the label, or ask your bulk supplier.
Playground mulch is wood that is very finely cut

10. Dyed Recycled Wood (“Enviro”)

It is made from demolished decks, scrap lumber, old pallets, old furniture, decommissioned utility poles, and construction debris.  These materials are milled to a uniform size and are then dyed. 

You can find brown, red, or black “enviro” mulch easily; gold is out there, but it might be a color that’s a little harder to locate.

Pros:

  • You’re giving a second life to waste destined for the landfill.
  • Nice variety of colors.
  • Less expensive than other hardwood products.

Cons:

  • It may contain toxins, so don’t use it in vegetable gardens.
  • It does not add nutrients to the soil as it decomposes
  • Its color may fade quickly

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About the author: Alaine has been working way too hard in horticulture since 1992, beautifying golf courses, resorts, and hotels. She is a part time landscape designer who works full time caring for a 28,000 square foot public garden. At home, she maintains her own 400 square feet plot. Alaine lives in northern Illinois - zone 5b.

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