Garden & Greenhouse


What Type of Mulch is Best?

Posted April 7th, 2015 by Mike McGroarty in ,

Pine Bark Mulch

Pine bark mulch makes good mulch for mulching planting beds. It’s also a great additive and 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 much as a potting mix they actually have it trucked in from North Carolina 90 cubic yards at a time.

Shredded Hardwood Bark Mulch243_2656557

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 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 is 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.

604_3292793The 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.

That’s 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 very well. I want mulch that is going to improve my soil, not pull nutrients from the soil. But as mulch they are okay. In potting mix they would be disastrous!

Wood Chips from the Tree Trimming Company

Tree trimming services 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 companies 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.


Many supply yards that sell mulches also sell compost. Compost can vary considerably from supply yard to supply yard. For the most part 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 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 they 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.

Mike McGroarty is a Garden & Greenhouse contributing editor, the owner of McGroarty Enterprises and the author of several books. You can visit his website at and read his blog at

Want more information? Read these articles:

Caring for New Landscape Plants

Maintaining Trees in the Landscape

Plan Your Flower Beds

Practical Landscape Specifications

Using Caladiums in Your Landscape

Subscribe to Garden & Greenhouse Magazine

Subscribe to Garden & Greenhouse Email Newsletter

2 thoughts on “What Type of Mulch is Best?”

  1. Roger Middleton says:

    I have been trying to improve my garden for a while now and I haven’t had much luck, although a neighbor had recommended I try using mulch. I liked that you had mentioned in your article that using compost as mulch can really help with the growth and is actually really great for the environment because you’re reusing things. My wife is in charge of our garden, but once I talk to her, I might have to look into buying some mulch for the garden.

    1. Robin Nichols, Publisher Garden & Greenhouse says:

      In many cases compost can be just as effective and better than mulch for your garden & landscape. Thanks for reading.