Mulch Colors: What to Consider

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If you are considering a colored mulch for your garden or landscape, what you choose should complement your home, show off your plants, and match your garden’s style.  You are not limited to only wood-derived products. Choices can include rock and stone, recycled rubber, and glass. 

With all these options, you can find a rainbow of colors.  But how to chose?  How to use them?

Different colored mulches have different aesthetic appeal and purposes.

Considerations

First, consider the area in which you live.  Pine straw would look oddly out of place around a home in the desert.  Pink gravel might look fantastic around a white house in Miami but terrible around a red brick Chicago bungalow.

Natural wood materials range from dark, rich browns like cocoa hulls to red like cedar to buff-like pine straw and grass clippings.  Decorative stone, quarried from different places, can be shades of brown, black, red, gold, and even pink, blue, and gray.

And then there’s rubber and glass dyed to match nearly every crayon in a box of 64!  And, you can also buy mulch dye in a variety of shades and do-it-yourself.  Black pine straw, anyone?

Dyed materials should get their color from non-toxic dyes and be Mulch and Soil Council (MSC) certified.  MSC tests and reviews products so that consumers can know that the labeling is accurate – “that what’s on the bag is in the bag.” Look for the MSC logo on the bag, or ask your bulk supplier.  

You can use different colors to differentiate the areas of your garden.  For example, you can use one color for your landscape beds and another color (or material) for the paths.

All mulches help suppress weeds, can hold in soil moisture, and regulate soil temperatures.  Organic materials can supply beneficial nutrients and condition the soil as they break down.  Our article on “Types of Mulch” tells you all about it. 

When you bring color into play, you decide if you want the mulch to blend in, highlight or contrast your home and landscape.  But keep in mind that you want people to look at your plants first, not your mulch! 

Let’s look at some different options to help you decide.

Brown Mulch

This is the most natural-looking, and it goes well with most garden plants and complements most homes.  It is a very traditional material and quietly blends into its surroundings.  Since it can look like soil from a distance, you can consider brown a neutral.

Someone spreading brown organic material around a plant

Types

  • Undyed oak hardwood
  • Mixed hardwood
  • Pine bark
  • Cypress
  • Cocoa hulls
  • Dyed recycled wood (enviro)
  • Dyed rubber

When To Use

  • Use when you want a natural look and prefer a product that doesn’t call attention to itself.
  • It is great choice for a red brick house.

Drawbacks

  • Organic products often fade quickly, requiring yearly replenishment.
  • If you have a lot of dark-leafed plants, they will not stand out.

Black Mulch

Black mulch can look like rich, dark soil from a distance, and it can also add an edgy element to a contemporary or modern style home.  When it’s dyed wood, it’s usually dyed with carbon, which is non-toxic.

Black material can really make a sharp contrasting design element

Types

  • Black or gray shale
  • Lava rock
  • Bluestone, La Paz pebbles, and other dark stone and gravel
  • Dyed recycled wood
  • Dyed rubber
  • Glass

When to Use

  • Use black materials when you want to create a subtle yet dramatic effect. 
  • It makes light-colored plants pop. 
  • It looks fantastic against a white, yellow, or gray house.

Drawbacks

  • Will hold heat, so it’s not a good choice in the south and southwest; it may make the soil too hot.
  • Wood products will fade over time.

Red Mulch

Love it or hate it, no one is on the fence about this stuff!  Red mulch first became popular in the 1970s, and the trend continues to this day in some areas.  It is usually dyed with non-toxic iron oxide, but check to be sure.

Red lava rocks can be used to stop weeds

Types

  • Red cedar is naturally red
  • Dyed recycled wood
  • Lava rock in various sizes
  • Other red-hued rock might be available in your area
  • Recycled rubber
  • Glass

When to Use

  • This product works best highlighting light-colored plants.
  • A red/green color scheme can be attractive. 
  • Works well with terra cotta, gold, and other warm colors in your garden.
  • Sheets of red plastic in the vegetable garden can increase yields, especially for tomatoes, basil, melons, and strawberries.

Drawbacks

  • May stain your hands, so wear gloves when spreading it.
  • Can stain light-colored concrete and clothing.
  • Wood-based products may fade quickly.
  • Red mulch calls attention to itself, not your landscape plants.
  • Your neighbors might shun you, depending on where you live.

Gold Mulch

Golden-colored mulch is a little hard to find, but it just might be the next Big Thing.  Gold looks great against dark painted or dark brick houses and highlights dark evergreens.

Gold mulch has recently become more popular

Types

  • Western cypress
  • Pine straw
  • Dyed recycled wood
  • Sunset pebbles
  • California Gold decorative rock and others

When to Use

  • Use gold mulch when you want a dark/light contrast with evergreens or with a dark-painted house.
  • Also looks good with a brightly painted house –  blue, green, or red.

Drawbacks

  • It may not be available in all areas.
  • May draw attention to itself, rather than your plants.

Other Colors

You can find rubber-dyed teal blue, pink glass stones, purple crushed gravel, and all sorts of materials in colors not found in nature.  Sometimes an unusual color strikes just the right note.  You might want to create the look of a meandering stream with a ribbon of blue glass through your garden.  Or your rock garden plants could be showcased by a variety of different colored gravels and stones.  Or your kids’ play area could be a riotous swirl of many hues of rubber mulch.  How about a sprinkling of glow-in-the-dark artificial stones along your garden path?

The thing to remember is that it is your garden and every inch of it should bring you joy…mulch included.

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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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