Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Bark Dust Vs Mulch for Landscaping: What’s the Difference?

By: Zac Friedman

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Bark dust and mulch are similar products but they aren’t exactly the same. Both have slightly different purposes and uses. Bark dust is used to retain moisture, regulate soil temperature, and reduce erosion. Mulch is also used for these purposes. In addition, mulch adds nutrients to the soil. Both bark dust and mulch can be used for landscaping and gardening. In this guide, I outline the similarities and differences between bark dust vs mulch. I also list some benefits and drawbacks of each and explain when you should use them.

Over the years, I’ve used both products on my property in different ways. I’ll also outline my experience with bark dust and mulch. 

Bark Dust for Landscaping: What is It and Pros and Cons pin

What is Bark Dust?

Bark dust is a unique type of mulch that is made from small chips or shreds of the bark of various trees. It is commonly used in landscaping and gardening as a top dressing for soil. 

Bark dust acts as a protective layer over the top of the soil. This natural material helps with soil moisture retention, weed control, soil temperature regulation, and erosion control.

Bark dust also enhances the aesthetic appeal of gardens and yards. It is an attractive ground cover with a nice natural look. It can also affect the soil pH. 

Bark dust is made by stripping the bark from trees and grinding it into varying sizes and textures. Bark dust comes in a range of sizes and textures, from fine to coarse.

Bark dust around a tree

Fine bark dust is smaller in size, providing a smooth texture. This makes it ideal for paths and walkways. Coarse bark dust, with its larger particles, is more suitable for covering areas around trees and shrubs.

Different types of trees are used to make bark dust. Each species has unique characteristics. Common trees used include Douglas Fir, Pine trees, Spruce, Hemlock, and Cedar.

Generally, softwood trees are used. The choice of tree bark contributes to the color and texture of the bark dust. Different trees produce different colors. This gives you a range of options for landscaping. Sometimes different types of bark dust are mixed. 

Bark dust can also be referred to as bark chips, beauty bark, or bark mulch. Course types of bark dust can be referred to as bark nuggets. 

Bark dust is somewhat of a regional product. It is prominently found in the Northwestern United States. It’s a popular choice among gardeners and landscapers due to its organic nature and compatibility with native soil and plants. In other parts of the country, bark dust is less common. It is still available but you may have to shop around a bit to find it. Bark dust is a byproduct of the lumber industry. 

What is Mulch?

Bark dust in a flower bed

Mulch is a protective cover that is placed over the soil. It is used to maintain moisture, reduce erosion, and suppress weed growth. In addition, mulch provides nutrients to the soil as it breaks down.

Types of Mulch

A variety of materials can be utilized as mulch including. There are organic and inorganic mulches.

Organic Mulch includes materials like wood chips, bark, straw, pine needles, sawdust, compost, and grass clippings. Organic matter decomposes over time, enriching the soil with essential nutrients.

Inorganic Mulch comprises non-decomposing materials such as stones, gravel, and rubber. Inorganic mulch is primarily used for decorative purposes and doesn’t enrich the soil.

A pile of mulch and a wheelbarrow

Benefits of Bark Dust and Mulch

Bark dust and mulch are similar products. Actually, bark dust is a type of mulch. Both offer similar benefits and uses. A few key benefits of bark dust and mulch include:

  • Moisture Retention: Mulch and bark dust help retain soil moisture by reducing evaporation rates. They shade the soil from the sun and block the wind. This ensures that plants remain hydrated, especially during dry periods. This also helps with water conservation. You use less water. Your water bill will be lower and you won’t have to water as frequently.
  • Temperature Regulation: By acting as an insulating layer, mulch and bark dust aid in regulating soil temperature. They keep plant roots warmer during cooler periods by creating a barrier between the snow and ice and the soil. They keep plant roots cooler in the summer months by shading the soil. They also minimize temperature swings between the day and night. This reduces stress on your plants. 
  • Weed Suppression: Mulch and bark dust act as a barrier, preventing weed growth by blocking sunlight. This makes it challenging for weed seeds to germinate and grow. Weed seeds also have a hard time reaching the soil. This results in fewer weeds. Mulch is a great weed barrier. 
  • Erosion Control: Mulch and bark dust reduce soil erosion by minimizing the impact of heavy rains on the soil surface. These materials promote better water retention and prevent soil displacement. Some types of mulch can float or get washed away in heavy rains and flooding. If you’re mulching an area that floods, you have to be careful about the type of mulch you use.
  • Aesthetic Appeal: Mulch and bark dust can be used to enhance the visual appeal of gardens and landscapes. They provide a uniform and tidy appearance and improve the overall aesthetics. A range of mulch colors are available. Dyed mulch options also exist.

a close up of pine bark mulch

Differences Between Bark Dust and Mulch

The main difference between bark dust and mulch is that mulch is usually used to add nutrients to the soil. As the mulch decomposes, it releases various nutrients like nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into your soil. 

This helps to make the soil more fertile. These elements are beneficial to both plants and beneficial microorganisms living in the soil. They also reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers. 

Bark dust will also add some nutrients to the soil but the amount is pretty negligible. This is because bark dust decomposes slowly over a long period of time. 

Bark dust is most commonly used for decoration. You can use it on pathways or flower beds to enhance the aesthetic appeal of your home. It’s great for improving curb appeal. 

Another difference is the material origin. Bark dust is specifically made from tree bark, making it a more specialized type of mulch. In contrast, mulch can include a variety of materials such as wood chips, grass clippings, straw, sawdust, compost, etc. 

The composition and texture are also different. Bark dust usually has a more uniform composition due to its specific source. Mulch can range from finely ground materials to larger, more coarse pieces, depending on its origin. Some mulch contains large wood chips and pieces of bark. 

Mulch, with its diverse range of materials, is also more versatile. Different types of mulch can be chosen based on specific gardening needs, such as adding nutrition to the soil, controlling weeds, retaining moisture, or decorative purposes.

For example, you might mulch with compost in your garden beds to improve the soil quality. You might put cedar mulch on a pathway through your garden. 

Potential Drawbacks of Bark Dust

Bark dust isn’t the best choice for every application. There are a few drawbacks to consider including:

Soil Acidification

One potential drawback of bark dust is that it can increase the acidity of your soil (lower the pH).  Bark can release acetic acid into the soil. This happens when the bark begins to break down and decompose.

Exactly how much the bark will lower the pH of your soil depends on the type of tree it comes from. Pine is one of the more acidic species. 

The effect of bark dust on soil pH is usually negligible in most cases. For gardens with acidic soil or where maintaining a neutral to alkaline pH is important for specific plants, bark dust might not be a good choice. 

It’s a good idea to test the pH of your soil before applying bark dust. If it’s acidic, consider a different type of mulch.

Nitrogen Depletion

Bark dust can temporarily deplete nitrogen from the surface of the soil. As the bark dust breaks down, the microbes responsible for the decomposition consume nitrogen from the surrounding soil to fuel their activity. This causes a temporary nitrogen deficit in the area where the mulch contacts the soil.

This isn’t just an issue with bark dust. All woody mulches can deplete nitrogen including common types of mulch such as wood chips and sawdust.

This nitrogen depletion only affects the soil surface where the bark dust contacts the soil. The deeper layers of the soil are not affected.

However, if the bark dust gets mixed into the soil, it could deplete nitrogen near the plant roots. If this happens, plants may exhibit stunted growth or yellowing leaves due to nitrogen deficiency.

For this reason, it’s best to only use bark dust around established, permanent plants rather than in areas that will be tilled frequently. This ensures that the mulch remains on the surface and doesn’t get mixed into the soil.

Another option is to supplement the soil with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer or compost. This can help restore nitrogen levels, counteracting the temporary nitrogen depletion caused by the cedar mulch.

It’s important to note that the nitrogen depletion is only temporary. As the mulch decomposes and the bacteria die off, the nitrogen that the bacteria consumed is released back into the soil. This can take some time because bark dust decomposes so slowly. 

For more info, check out this article about nitrogen depletion and mulch from the University of Saskatchewan.

Bark Dust Can Be Bad for Dogs

Some types of bark dust can be toxic to dogs. It can cause slivers in their paws. It can also be a choking hazard if they try to eat it.

If you have dogs, choose a sliverless and non-toxic form of bark dust. Hemlock and cedar are good options. 

These can still be a choking hazard so you’ll want to keep an eye on your dog when you install the bark dust so they don’t get the idea to try eating it. 

Mulch in a flower bed with a fence

Types of Bark Dust

  • Fir Bark Dust- This type of bark dust is known for its rich, reddish-brown color and fine, soft texture. It is usually ground to a medium-fine consistency. Fir bark dust compacts well, providing a firm, cohesive layer of mulch. It also offers robust weed suppression and moisture retention. Fir bark dust can also be aged. As the fir ages, the color becomes more muted. The particles become rougher as they age. This color can blend in better in some yards. The most commonly used fir tree is the Douglas Fir. One potential drawback to fir bark dust is that it can cause splinters. You won’t want to handle it with bare hands when spreading it and you definitely won’t want to walk on it with bare feet. 
  • Hemlock bark dust- Devoid of slivers and splinters, hemlock bark dust offers a smooth texture that is gentle on the hands and feet. This makes it a great choice for areas where children play. Its darker coloration is aesthetically pleasing. It is also resistant to fading, ensuring that the landscape maintains a fresh, vibrant appearance over time. Hemlock bark mulch comes in a range of colors from a rusty red color to a deeper red to a nearly black color. It can match any aesthetic. The most common type of hemlock tree used is the Western Hemlock. 
  • Pine bark dust- Pine bark dust offers a delightful, fresh scent. It nurtures acid-loving plants with its slightly acidic nature. If your soil is already acidic you do have to keep an eye on the pH levels. Pine bark dust also doesn’t compact. This ensures optimal soil breathability and root and soil health.
  • Cedar bark dust- This variant is cherished for its pleasant aroma and insect-repelling properties. Cedar trees contain natural oils that have a delightful woodsy scent. These oils also naturally repel insects, including mosquitoes. This makes cedar bark dust a good choice for areas where people spend time such as walkways and gardens. Cedar is lighter in color, bringing a warm, welcoming appearance to the garden. Cedar bark dust also tends to be more resistant to decomposition thanks to the natural oils. It lasts a long time. You can get 3-5 years out of a layer of cedar bark dust.

When Should You Use Bark Dust?

Bark dust is the better choice than mulch when:

  1. You’re Seeking Uniform Aesthetics: When aiming for a unified, cohesive appearance in garden beds and landscapes, bark dust is a great choice. Its consistent texture and coloration contribute to a polished aesthetic that enhances the visual appeal of outdoor spaces. Bark dust can tie together your flower beds and walkways. It’s a beautiful ground cover. 
  2. Regional Compatibility: In regions like the Northwest, bark dust is prevalent due to the abundance of suitable trees. If you live in a region where bark dust is common, it can be an efficient and economical option. Its local availability ensures fresher, quality material that is compatible with the regional flora.
  3. Specialized Planting Areas: For areas dedicated to specific types of plants, particularly acid-loving species like rhododendrons and azaleas, bark dust, especially from coniferous trees, can be more suitable. It can help in maintaining the desired soil acidity levels, fostering healthy plant growth. The acidity can also make it a good choice for covering soil that is alkaline. It can neutralize the soil and make it more fertile for a variety of plants.
  4. Focused Weed Suppression: In scenarios where weed control is a paramount concern, bark dust with its finer particles and compact application can offer superior weed suppression. Its ability to create a dense layer of mulch makes it challenging for weeds to penetrate and flourish.
  5. Desire for Slow Decomposition: For those seeking a mulching material that decomposes gradually, bark dust can be an excellent choice. Its slower decomposition rate ensures sustained soil enhancement and low maintenance frequencies. A layer of bark dust can easily last for several seasons in most climates. You don’t have to re-apply every year like most mulches.

Who Should Use Mulch?

Mulch is better when you need:

  1. Versatility in Material Selection: When versatility is a priority, mulch offers a broader spectrum of material choices. From organic material like straw, grass clippings, and leaves, to inorganic mulches like rubber and stones, mulch provides flexibility to cater to various landscaping needs and preferences.
  2. Cost-Effectiveness: For those on a tight budget, mulch can often provide a more economical solution. You can use free materials such as grass clippings, leaves, pine needles, or compost for mulch. This can make mulching a more cost-effective option.
  3. Rapid Soil Improvement: In situations where quick soil improvement is desired, mulches like compost or grass clippings, which decompose faster, can be beneficial. Mulch can swiftly contribute nutrients to the soil, immediately enhancing soil quality and plant health.
  4. Sustainability: For those who are trying to live more sustainability and reduce waste, mulches derived from recycled garden materials or kitchen waste (like compost) are a great option. These waste products can be used rather than thrown out. They won’t end up in a landfill. This is good for the environment.
  5. Adapting to Different Gardening Contexts: Mulch adapts flexibly across varied gardening contexts, from vegetable gardens to flower beds and around the base of trees. Its adaptability makes it suited for diverse applications, ensuring that different parts of the garden thrive.

Bark Dust Vs Wood Chips

Cedar wood chips
Cedar wood chips

Bark dust and wood chips share some similarities. They are both ground coverings made from trees. They both can be used around flower beds, trees and shrubs, and outdoor structures. Both can help suppress weed growth, reduce erosion, and enhance the soil’s moisture retention. They are both attractive options as well. 

There are some differences to be aware of. Bark dust is typically derived from the bark of softwood trees such as pine, fir, and hemlock. Wood chips primarily originate from hardwood trees like oak and maple. Hardwood mulch is usually referred to as wood chips. 

The size of the particles is another difference. Bark dust undergoes a process of shredding, resulting in a finer texture. The pieces are a bit more irregular in texture as well.  Wood chips are processed into thicker, chunkier pieces. 

FAQ About Bark Dust

Wood mulch

How Much Does Bark Dust Cost?

 Bark dust costs around $40-$50 per cubic yard depending on the type of bark dust you buy. If you have to get it delivered, there will also be a delivery fee. In some regions, it can also be bought in smaller amounts by the bag at garden supply stores.

How is bark dust applied in landscaping?

Bark dust is spread across the soil surface around plants, trees, and pathways in a garden or landscape. It can be applied in layers varying in thickness, usually around 2-6 inches, to effectively suppress weeds and retain soil moisture. Sometimes, landscape fabric is laid down under the mulch. This can help to control weeds and reduce soil erosion. 

Where is bark dust commonly used?

Bark dust is popular in various regions, particularly in the Northwest, due to its availability and effectiveness in landscaping applications. It is used in residential gardens, commercial landscapes, parks, and various other outdoor spaces. It is used on walkways, around trees and shrubs, and in flower beds. 

Is there a specific time or season best suited for applying bark dust?

Bark dust can be applied at any time of the year, but it is commonly done during spring or fall. Applying bark dust during these seasons helps prepare the plants for the extreme temperatures in summer and winter.

How much bark dust do I need for my garden?

Bark dust is usually sold in cubic yards. How much bark dust you need depends on the size of the area you need to cover. In general, 1 cubic yard of bark dust will cover 100 square feet of space with 3 inches of bark dust. There are 27 cubic feet in each cubic yard. For an average residential property, you might need less than 1 cubic yard. For large commercial properties, you may need multiple cubic yards of bark dust. 

How long does bark dust last?

How long bark dust lasts depends on the type of bark dust, its decomposition rate, and the desired appearance. Generally, refreshing the bark dust layer every 2-3 years is advisable to maintain its benefits and appearance. Some forms of bark dust need to be reapplied every year. Some forms of bark dust, such as cedar, can last 6-7 years under ideal conditions. In some cases, bark dust may only last one year. 

What are some alternatives to bark dust?

Instead of bark dust, you could use another type of mulch such as straw, grass clippings, pine needles, or wood chips. You could also use compost. Wood chips or bark nuggets are also popular choices. Pine bark nuggets are common and popular. Sometimes one of these alternatives is the better choice. For example, if your goal is to improve the soil quality, compost or grass clippings would be the better choice. 

Final Thoughts

Bark dust and mulch are very similar products. Actually, bark dust is a type of mulch.

These products can add touches of beauty to your property. They also provide protection for the soil from extreme temperatures and reduce moisture loss. Mulch has the added benefit of adding nourishment to the soil.

Understanding their differences, from material origins to aesthetic impacts and soil enhancement capabilities, can help you choose the best mulch for your garden. 

Do you use bark dust on your property? Share your experience in the comments below!

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Bark Dust Mulch: What Is It and Pros and Cons
Bark Dust Mulch For Landscaping: What is it and Pros and Cons

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