Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Cedar Mulch in Gardens: Pros and Cons, Uses, and Benefits

By: Zac Friedman

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A common tip for gardeners is to apply mulch to the top of their soil. One of the more popular types of mulch is cedar. Cedar mulch offers a number of benefits. It’s long-lasting, insect-repellent, and weed-inhibiting. It’s also beautiful and has a pleasant aroma. Of course, there are some drawbacks to consider as well. This guide outlines the pros and cons of cedar mulch. 

In this guide, we’ll cover water retention, nutrients, aesthetics, odor, longevity, cost, and more. In addition, we’ll talk about some different types of cedar mulch including shavings, chips, natural, and dyed. We’ll also talk about when you should and shouldn’t use cedar mulch. Hopefully, this guide helps you decide whether or not cedar mulch is the right choice for your garden. 

Cedar Mulch for Landscaping: Uses and Pros and Cons pin

What is Cedar Mulch?

Mulch is a layer of organic matter that is applied to the surface of soil. It offers a range of benefits including moisture retention, soil temperature regulation, weed control, and overall garden aesthetics. Common materials used for mulch include straw, leaves, grass clippings, wood chips, and bark chips among others.

Cedar mulch is a highly valued type of mulch derived from the bark of cedar trees. It is created by chipping or shredding the bark and branches of cedar trees into small, manageable pieces. The pieces are then spread over the surface of the soil. The aromatic and resilient nature of cedar mulch makes it an excellent choice for many gardeners.

Cedar mulch can be used in its natural state or it can be dyed. Cedar mulch is available in cedar chips and shreds. It is one of the most popular and versatile of the hardwood mulches.

Cedar trees are evergreen conifers with a widespread presence across different parts of the world including North America, the Mediterranean, and the Himalayas. In the U.S., cedar trees typically grow in USDA hardiness zones 7-9. The most common types of cedar trees used for mulch include the western red cedar (Thuja plicata), eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), and white cedar (Thuja occidentalis). 

Cedar mulch is a byproduct of the wood industry. Trees aren’t typically harvested for mulch. Cedar trees are commonly used as timber.

This species of tree is desired for its durability and aesthetics. The trees also grow fast and fairly straight, making them easier to work with. 

Pros of Cedar Mulch

  • Water retention
  • Weed suppression
  • Soil temperature regulation
  • Insect repellent
  • It’s long-lasting
  • It has a pleasant aroma
  • It’s attractive

Cons of Cedar Mulch

  • It can increase soil acidity
  • Some people don’t like the odor
  • It can temporary deplete nitrogen
  • It repels beneficial insects
  • Expensive
  • Can retain too much moisture
  • It doesn’t add many nutrients to the soil
Cedar mulch around the base of a palm tree in the front yard of a home

Pros of Cedar Mulch 

In the following sections, I’ll explain the benefits of applying cedar mulch in-depth. Many of these benefits are true of all types of mulch. Some are specific to cedar mulch. 

Water Retention

Cedar mulch is great for maintaining soil moisture. When spread over the top of the soil, cedar mulch acts as a physical barrier between the soil and the atmosphere. This significantly minimizes water evaporation by shielding the soil from the sun’s heat. Essentially, cedar mulch creates shade and keeps the soil cool. This prevents the sun from drying it out. This is particularly important in hot and dry climates.

Apart from the sun, wind is another element that can deplete soil moisture by drying it out. The protective layer provided by cedar mulch shields the soil from harsh winds. It acts as a barrier that hinders the wind’s ability to whisk away the moisture. Moist soil is ideal for plant growth. 

The ability of cedar mulch to retain moisture offers a number of benefits for gardeners. With cedar mulch, less frequent watering is needed. Your plants remain hydrated over extended periods. This not only saves time but also leads to a noticeable reduction in your water bill. The layer of mulch can also reduce soil erosion. 

Water conservation is also beneficial for the environment. By utilizing less water for your garden, you are partaking in a more sustainable and eco-friendly gardening practice. 

The longer retention of water in the soil ensures that plants have a consistent supply of the moisture they need to thrive.

Weed Inhibition

Gardeners really hate weeds. Cedar mulch is known for its ability to inhibit weed growth. When spread over the soil, cedar mulch acts as a physical barrier that significantly reduces the number of weed seeds reaching the soil. The seeds get stuck in the mulch.

Additionally, the mulch blocks sunlight from reaching the soil. This creates an environment where it’s difficult for unwanted weeds to thrive. Plants need sunlight to grow.

With a layer of cedar mulch in place, most weed seeds find it challenging to germinate. The conditions beneath the mulch are not conducive for their growth, thanks to the lack of light and the physical obstruction from the mulch material.

A gardener pulling weeds

 On the rare occasion that weeds do manage to sprout, they are easily noticeable against the backdrop of cedar mulch. This makes it simple to spot and remove them before they spread and become a nuisance.

There are many benefits of reducing weed growth. For starters, you won’t have to spend as much time weeding. This is a significant advantage, especially for those managing large garden spaces. 

With fewer weeds to contend with, there’s a reduced necessity for herbicides or weed killers. This not only results in financial savings but also promotes a more eco-friendly gardening approach. The reduction in chemical use is better for the soil, the surrounding environment, and the health of the garden ecosystem.

Of course, your garden will also look better when there aren’t a bunch of weeds sprouting up.

Cedar Mulch Helps to Regulate Soil Temperature

Cedar mulch acts as a protective shield for the soil. When spread over the soil, cedar mulch functions as a form of soil insulation. This insulation effect is beneficial year-round, especially in regions with extreme seasonal temperature variations. Your Plants will stay healthy and grow stronger and faster when the soil temperature isn’t too hot or too cold. 

During the hot summer months, cedar mulch provides a layer of shade over the soil. By blocking direct sunlight, it helps in keeping the soil cooler. This shade is particularly beneficial during scorching days. It prevents the soil from overheating which could potentially stress or harm the plants. The shading effect of cedar mulch creates a conducive environment for soil microbes and plant roots, which in turn, contributes to the overall well-being of the garden.

As the seasons transition to winter, cedar mulch continues to protect the soil, but in a different manner. It provides a layer of protection between the ground and snow and ice. The snow doesn’t touch the ground directly. It sits on top of the mulch. This helps in keeping the soil warmer, providing a buffer against the freezing temperatures. The mulch can also trap some remaining heat. This can help to prevent the plant roots from freezing, which is crucial for their survival through the cold season.

In addition, soil temperatures won’t swing as much between the day and the night. Cedar mulch acts as a temperature control. Temperature swings can be stressful for plants. Plants grow better when the temperature is stable.

Bug Repellent

Cedar mulch offers natural bug-repellent properties. The secret behind this lies in the natural oils found in cedar wood. These oils are aromatic and act as a deterrent to a variety of insects, including some that could be harmful to your plants. Some species that cedar repels include mosquitoes, termites, cockroaches, certain types of ants, and carpet beetles. When you spread cedar mulch around your plants, you are essentially laying down a protective barrier that wards off unwanted insect pests.

termites in the dirt
cedar mulch can help repel bad insects such as termites

The benefits of having a naturally bug-repellent mulch like cedar are especially pronounced if your garden is prone to insect infestations. By opting for cedar mulch, you are choosing a solution that acts as a natural pesticide, while being friendly to your plants. 

This reduces the need for chemical pesticides. These chemicals can be harmful to both the environment and the beneficial organisms living in your garden soil. You also won’t have to spend as much money buying pesticides. You’ll save time not having to apply them. 

By keeping pest populations at bay, cedar mulch helps in maintaining the overall health and vigor of your garden. Fewer pests mean fewer diseases and less stress on your plants, allowing them to grow strong and vibrant. 

It’s important to note that cedar mulch doesn’t repel all pests. It helps but it’s not the solution to every pest problem. If you have an infestation, you may still have to use pesticides or take other actions to solve your pest problem. 

Cedar Mulch is Long Lasting

Cedar mulch is a good choice for those looking for a long-lasting mulch. The longevity of cedar mulch can be attributed to its slow decomposition rate compared to other mulching materials.

The natural oils present in cedar wood act as a preservative, slowing down the breakdown process. The oils protect the wood from insects and other organisms that cause rot. This characteristic allows cedar mulch to retain its structure and effectiveness over a longer period of time.

Typically, cedar mulch can last for 3-5 years before requiring replacement. Exactly how long it will last depends on the specific conditions of your garden such as moisture levels and temperature as well as the climate where you live.

When compared to other types of mulches like straw or grass clippings, which may need replenishing yearly, cedar mulch stands out as a more durable option. It lasts a long time. 

The main advantage of this longevity is that it reduces maintenance. Only having to mulch once every few years saves you time that could be redirected towards other gardening tasks. You won’t have to purchase or spread mulch as often.

It Smells Pleasant

Cedar mulch is known for the pleasant odor it emits. The aroma of cedar mulch comes from the natural oils present in cedar wood. These oils are known for their refreshing and woodsy scent. 

The pleasant odor contributes to a more enjoyable gardening experience. Being in a garden that not only looks good but smells good too can significantly enhance the joy and tranquility associated with gardening.

Moreover, the pleasing aroma of cedar mulch could also play a subtle role in masking any unpleasant odors in the garden, making your outdoor space more inviting. This can be particularly beneficial in urban gardens or in close-knit communities where outdoor spaces are shared. It can also be nice if you raise livestock.

It’s important to note that this odor doesn’t last forever. It diminishes over time. It can be heightened with rainfall. 

Cedar Mulch is Attractive

Cedar mulch is often chosen for aesthetic purposes. Fresh cedar mulch boasts a vibrant red or orange hue that provides a beautiful contrast against the green foliage of your garden. This color contrast really makes the plants stand out.

In addition to its natural color, cedar mulch also presents an opportunity for further aesthetic customization. It can be dyed to match the gardener’s preference or to complement the existing color scheme of the garden. A variety of dye colors are available including black, yellow, dark brown, and red. 

An up-close view of red cedar mulch

However, it’s important to note that the color of cedar mulch does not last indefinitely. Over time, as the mulch starts to break down and interact with the elements, its color becomes less vibrant. To keep the mulch looking fresh, you’ll have to reapply it every year. 

Helps to Preserve Nutrients in the Soil

Cedar mulch protects the soil from various environmental factors that could lead to nutrient depletion. For example, it helps in reducing the impact of heavy rains, which can wash away essential nutrients from the soil. This ensures that plants have a consistent supply of the necessary nutrients for growth and development.

The natural composition of cedar mulch also contributes to its ability to maintain soil nutrient levels. It decomposes at a slower rate compared to other organic mulches, gradually releasing nutrients back into the soil over time. This not only sustains the nutrient levels but also improves soil structure, promoting a healthier root environment for plants.

Cons of Cedar Mulch

Cedar mulch isn’t always the best choice. There are some situations where another mulch material might be a better choice. In this section, I’ll outline some potential drawbacks of using cedar mulch. 

Cedar Mulch Gives Off an Odor that Some People Find Unpleasant

The distinct odor that cedar mulch emits can be quite unpleasant to those with fragrance sensitivities or allergies. The essence of cedar can trigger discomfort in individuals who are sensitive to strong scents. This makes it a less than favorable choice for mulching in communal areas or shared garden spaces.

Among those with fragrance allergies, the scent of cedar mulch can trigger an allergic reaction. Symptoms may range from mild to severe and could include sneezing, itching, watery eyes, and skin irritation. In more severe cases, respiratory distress could occur. The extent of the reaction can vary from person to person, depending on their level of sensitivity.

However, it’s noteworthy to mention that the majority of individuals find the aroma of cedar mulch to be pleasant and refreshing. The scent is often described as a natural, woodsy aroma. 

If you’re planning to apply cedar mulch in communal gardens, public landscapes, or any space where a variety of individuals will visit, it’s important to consider this potential issue.

Cedar Mulch can Lower the pH of Your Soil (Make it More Acidic)

Cedar mulch has the potential to influence the pH level of the soil to which it is applied. Cedar can release acetic acid into the soil. This occurs as the fresh cedar mulch begins to break down and decompose. The natural process of decomposition facilitates the release of acetic acid, which can increase the acidity of the soil.

This acidifying effect is only an issue with fresh cedar mulch. If you use aged cedar mulch, you don’t have to worry about it. As cedar mulch ages, the potential for acetic acid release diminishes significantly. The aged or well-composted mulch has already undergone a fair degree of decomposition, reducing its ability to further acidify the soil.

The effect of cedar mulch on soil pH is often considered negligible in most gardening scenarios. The slight increase in acidity is usually not enough to alter the soil pH to harm your plants. However, for gardens where with acidic soil, or where maintaining a neutral to alkaline pH is crucial for the health of specific plants, fresh cedar mulch might not be the best choice. 

It can Deplete the Nitrogen in Your Soil

Cedar mulch can contribute to the temporary depletion of nitrogen from the soil surface. As the cedar mulch breaks down, the microbial organisms responsible for this decomposition process consume nitrogen from the surrounding soil to fuel their activity. This leads to a temporary nitrogen deficit in the area where the mulch contacts the soil.

This isn’t just an issue with cedar mulch. All woody plants can deplete nitrogen including pine bark mulch. 

This nitrogen depletion primarily affects the soil surface and not the deeper layers where most plant roots reside. However, if the cedar mulch gets mixed into the soi,  it could deplete nitrogen near the plant roots. In this case, plants may exhibit stunted growth or yellowing leaves due to nitrogen deficiency, as nitrogen is a vital nutrient for plant growth.

To mitigate this concern, there are a few precautions you could take. One effective approach is to use cedar mulch around established, permanent plants rather than in vegetable gardens or areas that will be tilled frequently. This ensures that the mulch remains on the surface and doesn’t get mixed into the soil, minimizing the risk of nitrogen depletion near the plant roots.

Additionally, supplementing the soil with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer can help restore nitrogen levels, counteracting the temporary nitrogen depletion caused by the cedar mulch.

It’s also important to note that this 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 years because cedar decomposes so slowly. 

It Will Repel Beneficial Bugs

Cedar is known for its ability to deter unwanted insects from the garden, thanks to its natural bug-repellent properties. However, it doesn’t discriminate between harmful and beneficial bugs. The same aromatic oils in cedar that deter pest insects also repel beneficial insects such as such as ladybugs, ground beetles, butterflies, and bees. 

Beneficial insects help to control the population of pests in your garden. This helps keep your garden healthier. For example, beneficial insects like ladybugs and ground beetles are natural predators of common garden pests like aphids and slugs. Without the presence of these natural predators, harmful insect populations could surge, leading to increased plant damage and the potential for disease spread.

Moreover, cedar mulch’s repellent effect extends to pollinators as well. This could have significant implications for your garden’s productivity and the local ecosystem.

A honeybee

Pollinators like bees and butterflies are essential for plant reproduction, aiding in the process of pollination which is crucial for fruit and seed production. A garden devoid of pollinators may see a decline in fruiting and flowering, which not only diminishes the garden’s yield but also its aesthetic appeal and ecological function.

The potential to repel beneficial insects and pollinators is an aspect worth considering when opting for cedar mulch. It’s probably one of the most significant negative effects of the use of cedar mulch. If you want to encourage more beneficial insects to live in your garden, it’s best to avoid cedar mulch. 

It’s Expensive

When compared to other mulching materials such as straw, pine straw, or recycled wood chips, the cost of cedar mulch is notably higher. For example, a cubic yard of cedar mulch might cost $100. To compare, a cubic yard of wood chips might cost $65. The cost difference may not seem like a big deal but it adds up if you need to cover a large area.

If you’re on a tight budget, there are free mulching options. One common option is grass clippings, which are a byproduct of lawn mowing Grass clippings can be collected and spread around the garden as a mulch at no additional cost, making it an attractive option for budget-conscious gardeners.

Other free or low-cost mulching options could include leaves, straw, compost, or other organic materials which might be available in abundance depending on the season and locality.

Cedar Mulch Can Make Your Soil Retain Too Much Moisture and Become Boggy

Cedar mulch is a favored choice for its capability to retain soil moisture. In certain scenarios, this benefit can be a drawback. 

When applied to garden areas, cedar mulch acts as a barrier that slows down the evaporation of moisture from the soil. This retention of moisture is generally beneficial, especially during hot and dry periods.

However, in low-lying areas, spots with poor drainage, or during heavy rains, the moisture retention could lead to overly saturated soil conditions. This can turn the ground boggy over time.

The scenario becomes particularly concerning when the slowed evaporation caused by the mulch leads to prolonged soil saturation. The soil, instead of drying out, remains wet, which can be detrimental to many plants.

Excessive moisture around plant roots creates an environment conducive for the proliferation of harmful fungi and bacteria, with root rot being a common consequence. Root rot is a serious condition that affects the plant’s root system, hindering its ability to absorb nutrients and water. Over time, if left unaddressed, root rot can severely weaken and eventually kill the plant.

For gardeners dealing with garden spots prone to waterlogging or with known drainage issues, it’s best not to use cedar mulch. 

It Doesn’t Add Many Nutrients to the Soil

One reason gardeners apply mulch is because it adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes.  Cedar mulch doesn’t add much in the way of nutrients. The main reason for this is its slow decomposition rate. Cedar wood contains natural oils that act as preservatives, slowing down the decomposition process significantly. As a result, the nutrients contained in cedar mulch are released into the soil at a much slower rate, rendering the nutrient addition almost negligible over the short to medium term.

Different types of mulch decompose more rapidly and thereby release nutrients into the soil more quickly. For example, compost mulch, leaf mulch, or straw mulch are known to break down at a faster pace, enriching the soil with essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium along the way. These nutrient-rich mulches not only serve as a protective layer over the soil but also as a slow-release fertilizer, promoting soil fertility.

There are many benefits of nutrient-rich soil. It encourages plant growth. As these mulches decompose, they continuously replenish the soil with vital nutrients, reducing the need for additional fertilization.

Depending on the specific needs of the garden, a better option might be a more nutrient-dense mulch to support soil fertility. Especially in gardens where soil nutrient levels are low or in vegetable gardens where nutrient demands are high.

A layer of mulch over soil

Types of Cedar Mulch

When choosing your cedar mulch, you have a couple of different decisions to make.

Cedar Shavings Vs Cedar Chips

Cedar mulch comes in a couple of different forms including cedar wood chips and cedar shreds.

Cedar chips are larger, chunky pieces of wood and bark nuggets that are exceptionally durable and resistant to decay. Their substantial size makes them ideal for areas where a more robust mulch is required, such as around trees and shrubs or in pathways. 

Cedar shreds, on the other hand, are smaller and more finely textured. This allows them to knit together, forming a protective mat that effectively retains moisture, suppresses weeds, and prevents soil erosion. Cedar shreds are excellent for covering larger areas and around smaller plants and flowers.

Natural Vs Dyed Cedar Mulch

Cedar mulch comes in two primary varieties: natural and dyed. The natural form retains the original color of the cedar wood, while the dyed version undergoes a coloring process to achieve a specific hue.

Dyed cedar mulch is available in a spectrum of colors, including black, brown, red, and gold. The coloring process involves applying a dye to the mulch, often using a tumbling or mixing technique to ensure an even color distribution.

Dyed mulch can provide a vibrant and polished look to flower beds. The color choice allows for a personalized touch, matching or contrasting with the existing landscape colors or the colors of your home to create a visually appealing garden aesthetic.

However, the use of dyed mulch has some drawbacks. The dye used to color the mulch contains chemicals. As the dyed cedar mulch breaks down and decomposes over time, these chemicals can leach into the soil.

Eventually, these chemicals could end up in your plants. The introduction of these chemicals into the garden ecosystem could have environmental implications, disrupting the soil microbiology and potentially affecting the health of the plants and the local wildlife.

Furthermore, there’s a health consideration, especially for edible gardens. Vegetables grown in proximity to dyed mulch could absorb the chemicals from the dye, posing a health risk to individuals consuming the produce. The potential for chemical contamination makes dyed cedar mulch a less favorable choice for vegetable gardens.

When to Use Cedar Mulch?

Using cedar mulch in your garden comes with a range of benefits. This makes it a suitable choice for a range of gardening scenarios. 

Cedar mulch is particularly beneficial during the spring season, where it acts as a formidable barrier against weed growth by blocking sunlight and preventing weed seed germination. 

Spring is also the time when temperature fluctuations are common. The insulating properties of cedar mulch help in regulating soil temperature, ensuring a stable environment for your plants to thrive. 

For gardens located in arid or drought-prone regions, cedar mulch offers the advantage of moisture retention, reducing the need for frequent watering, especially as the dry season approaches.

Apart from its functional benefits, cedar mulch is a go-to for aesthetic enhancement, offering a rich color and texture that contrasts beautifully with the greenery and blooms in your garden. It provides a clean, finished look that can significantly elevate the visual appeal of your garden beds. 

Moreover, if your garden layout includes pathways, cedar mulch can be an attractive, soft, and aromatic material to define these paths. 

Cedar’s natural insect-repelling properties add another layer of utility, providing a measure of protection against certain pests, such as mosquitoes.

Incorporating cedar mulch can be a sustainable gardening practice that aligns with both the functional and aesthetic aspirations of your garden landscape. 

When Not to Use Cedar Mulch?

Cedar mulch may not be the ideal choice in certain conditions. For example, in gardens that primarily host vegetable patches or are designated for growing edible produce, the slow decomposition rate of cedar mulch may not be favorable. Unlike other organic mulches that break down faster and enrich the soil with nutrients, cedar mulch’s slow decay may not provide the nutrient boost that vegetable gardens typically require.

Moreover, the aromatic oils that cedar mulch releases, while pleasant and pest-repellent, could potentially repel beneficial insects too. These insects are crucial for pollination and natural pest control in vegetable gardens.

In areas prone to waterlogging or with poor drainage, cedar also isn’t the best mulch. The moisture-retaining property of cedar mulch can exacerbate water retention issues, leading to overly saturated soil. This can promote root rot and other moisture-related plant diseases. In these cases, alternative mulching materials that allow for better evaporation or that decompose faster, improving soil structure and drainage, might be more suitable.

Generally, it’s best not to use cedar mulch with small plants, seedlings, and plants that have just germinated. Cedar mulch works best with bigger established plants, shrubs, trees, etc. 

Furthermore, if cost is a factor, cedar mulch may not be the most economical choice. Especially for large garden areas. Its higher price point compared to other mulching materials like straw or pine needles could be a deterrent for budget-conscious gardeners. 

Also, for those concerned with the natural aspect of their garden, dyed cedar mulch, though visually appealing, introduces artificial colors and potentially chemicals into the garden ecosystem, which may not align with organic or natural gardening practices. 

Final Thoughts About Cedar Mulch

As we have seen, cedar mulch offers a number of benefits. From its remarkable ability in weed suppression and moisture retention to its aesthetic appeal and natural pest deterrence, cedar mulch emerges as a great choice for various gardening scenarios. 

However, its slow decomposition, potential to repel beneficial insects, and cost factor mean that it’s not the right choice for every garden. Especially for vegetable gardens or budget-restricted gardeners.

As with many gardening choices, the decision to use cedar mulch should be informed by a thorough understanding of your garden’s specific needs, the local climate, and the environmental implications. Whether you are trying to enhance the visual appeal of your garden, conserve soil moisture, or naturally deter pests, cedar mulch holds a notable place in the toolkit of seasoned and novice gardeners alike.

Of course, there are many other types of mulch to consider. If cedar mulch isn’t for you, another similar kind of mulch to consider is cypress mulch. It has similar characteristics to cedar. It’s also a good idea to consider other mulch options such as grass clippings, straw, leaves, pine needles, wood shavings, pine mulch, and compost. These also make great mulch. You don’t have to apply the same mulch to your entire garden. Whichever type of mulch you use, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.

Do you use cedar mulch in your garden? Share your experience in the comments below!

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