Homesteading, Gardening, and Off-Grid Living

Mulch Vs Bark: What’s the Difference and Which is Best?

By: Zac Friedman

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When gardening or landscaping, it’s a good idea to apply some type of ground cover to suppress weeds, regulate soil temperature, retain moisture, and add nutrients to the soil. One of the most popular types of mulch is bark. Other popular types of mulch include wood chips, compost, grass clippings, straw, and leaves. In this guide, I’ll outline the differences between tree bark and other types of mulch. I’ll also list some pros and cons of mulch vs bark.

Mulch Vs Bark for Landscaping: Which is Best?

What is Bark Mulch?

Bark mulch is made from the bark of trees. The bark is stripped from the tree using a machine called a de-barker. It is then ground or chipped into small pieces with a grinder or hammer mill.

Bark mulch is commonly used as a top dressing for soil in gardening and landscaping. It’s a popular choice because it is durable, long-lasting, affordable, and beautiful. 

Different types of trees can be used to make bark mulch including pine, oak, ash, hickory, cedar, or maple. Pretty much any type of bark can be used as mulch. Different trees produce different colors of bark mulch. Bark mulch from Pine trees is the most common. Cedar mulch is also popular.

Bark mulch is usually applied in a layer that is 2-4 inches thick around trees, on garden beds, and on pathways. Bark mulch comes in a range of different sizes from small particles of bark dust to large bark nuggets.

Pine bark mulch

Pros of Bark Mulch

  • Widely available- Bark mulch is one of the most common types of mulch. It’s available at every home and garden store. You can buy it in large quantities or in small bags.
  • Moisture retention- Bark mulch helps the soil retain moisture longer by reducing evaporation. It shades the soil and blocks the wind. This helps your plants stay hydrated. It also helps with water conservation. You won’t have to water as frequently. You’ll save money on your water bill as well. 
  • Durability and longevity- Bark mulch lasts a long time because it is resistant to decay. You can usually get 2-3 seasons out of it before you need to add a fresh mulch layer. This makes it a low-maintenance option. 
  • Soil temperature regulation- Bark mulch insulates the soil. It keeps the soil cooler during the summer by shading the soil. It keeps the soil warmer during the winter by creating a barrier between the soil and the snow and ice. It also insulates to minimize temperature swings between the day and night. This reduces stress on your plant’s roots. 
  • Aesthetics- Bark mulch can enhance the curb appeal of your home. It looks beautiful in flower beds and on walkways. Most bark mulch has a nice dark brown color. There are lighter varieties as well. Bark maintains its color over time. It doesn’t turn gray like some other mulches. There are different sizes and textures available as well. 
  • Weed control- Bark mulch acts as a barrier. It prevents weed seeds from reaching the soil. It also blocks the sunlight from the soil so weed seeds have a harder time germinating. Some weeds will still grow but you won’t have to weed nearly as much. 
  • Helps reduce erosion- Bark mulch blocks the impact of heavy rain on the soil surface. It can also absorb some moisture. This can help to prevent soil and nutrients from being washed away during heavy rains.
  • Resistant to compaction- Bark itself doesn’t compact when you walk on it or when it gets rained on. Your plant’s roots can spread more easily when the soil isn’t compacted. 
  • It’s safe- Kids can safely walk and play on bark mulch. Bark dust is great for children’s play areas because most varieties are splinter-free. Bark is also safe for pets. It is rare for people to be allergic to bark. Overall, it’s a safe choice. 
  • It’s environmentally friendly- Bark mulch is a byproduct of the lumber industry. Trees are not harvested for their bark. Bark mulch is also a completely organic material. It degrades away over time. It doesn’t add anything bad to your soil.

Cons of Bark Mulch

  • Can attract pests- Rodents can nest in bark mulch. It can also attract carpenter ants. Termites can also eat bark mulch if they don’t have any other food sources available. You shouldn’t put bark mulch right up against your home. To avoid infestations, leave a gap of a few inches.
  • It can float away- If you place the mulch in an area that floods, it can float away. This can be a problem with pine bark nuggets. 
  • Can be expensive- Bark mulch is more expensive than other types of mulch. On average, bark mulch costs $30-$100 per cubic yard, depending on where you live and the type of bark mulch you buy. If you have a large area to mulch, the cost can add up. There are many cheaper or even free mulch mulches available. If you’re on a tight budget, bark mulch isn’t the best option.
  • It doesn’t add many nutrients to the soil- Bark will add some nutrients as it degrades but the amount is negligible. This is because bark degrades slowly. It also doesn’t contain as many nutrients as other types of mulch such as compost. 
  • Soil acidification- Bark mulch can increase the acidity (lower the pH) of your soil. This happens when the bark breaks down and decomposes. The pH decrease is usually pretty negligible. If you already have acidic soil or if you need to maintain neutral or alkaline soil for specific plants, bark mulch may not be the best choice. In most cases, the acidification is so minor that it’s not worth considering. 
  • Nitrogen depletion- Bark mulch can temporarily deplete the nitrogen in the surface layer of the soil. As bark breaks down, microbes use nitrogen from the surrounding soil to fuel their activity. This temporarily reduces the nitrogen in the area where the mulch contacts the soil. This nitrogen depletion only affects the soil surface, unless the mulch gets tilled in. For this reason, it’s best to use bark mulch only on established plants. It’s important to note that the nitrogen depletion is only temporary. As the mulch decomposes and the bacteria die off, the nitrogen is released back into the soil. This is an issue with all types of wood mulch.
  • Can be bad for dogs- Bark nuggets can be a choking hazard for dogs. Some dogs will try to eat it or chew on it. You should keep an eye on your dogs after you install bark mulch to make sure they don’t chew it.  Some types of bark dust can also cause slivers.
  • Can be a fire hazard- Bark mulch can burn easily, like any other type of wood mulch. If you live in an area that is susceptible to wildfires, it may not be the best choice. 
A wheelbarrow and a pile of mulch

Types of Bark Mulch

Bark mulches come in different sizes and textures. It can be ground into fine particles or it can be chipped into larger pieces. Bark mulch can be made from a range of trees including pine, cedar, fir, and hemlock. Most bark mulch comes from conifers. Where I live, pine bark mulch is the most common. In this section, I’ll outline the different types of bark mulch. 

Bark Dust

Bark dust is made by stripping the bark from trees and grinding it into small pieces. It can be ground into tiny granules or it can be a little bit more coarse, like pea size. Bark dust is commonly made from pine, fur, cedar, spruce, or hemlock trees. Generally, softwood trees are used for bark dust but hardwoods can also be used.

Bark dust is a somewhat regional product. It is common in the northwestern U.S. but is pretty uncommon outside of that region. I live in Washington State and I see it all the time. 

You can spread bark dust yourself or you can have a professional apply it. It can be a bit hard to spread because it’s so fine. A professional will usually use a blower to spread bark dust. 

One nice thing about bark dust is that it is splinter-free because it’s ground up so small. It’s also very soft. This makes it a good choice for children’s play areas and pathways. It’s nice to walk on.

For more in-depth info, check out my guide to bark dust mulch.

Regular Bark Mulch

Bark mulch is made from shredded or chipped bark. It can be made from hardwood trees such as oak, hemlock, ash, and hickory, or softwood trees such as pine, fur, cedar, or spruce. Hardwood bark mulch is probably more popular. 

Bark mulch comes in different textures. Some bark mulch contains larger nuggets. It can be double-shredded or triple-shredded into smaller pieces. 

Bark chips are a common type of mulch. They are available everywhere. They are also very versatile. You can use them in flower beds and on walkways. 

Bark Nuggets

Bark nuggets are large chunks of bark that usually come from pine, fur, redwood, and spruce trees. The nuggets come in sizes ranging from 2-5 inches in length. 

Bark nuggets are long-lasting. The large pieces take longer to break down because they have less surface area for microbes to work on. They can last years. They also maintain their color and shape over time. This is a very common type of mulch. It is available everywhere. 

Bark nuggets aren’t ideal for walkways. They aren’t very comfortable to walk on because they are unstable. They work great around trees and shrubs. 

How to Apply Bark Mulch

Bark mulch can be applied just like any other mulch. Before you apply mulch, give the soil a good watering. Also, remove any weeds. You may also consider installing a weed barrier fabric before applying mulch. Don’t apply your mulch over weeds or they will just grow through. 

You can apply a layer of mulch at any time of year. Most gardeners choose to apply it during the spring or fall. Avoid applying mulch early in the spring because it can prevent the soil from warming up. This will shorten your growing season.

When applying mulch around trees or next to a building, leave a gap of a few inches. This will help avoid rot and reduce the likelihood of pest infestations.

You can spread mulch with a shovel or by hand. If you’re spreading bark mulch with your hands, be sure to wear gloves. Some types can cause splinters. 

It should be applied in a layer 2-4” thick. On average, one cubic yard of bark mulch will cover 100 square feet of space. If you’re buying bark mulch by the bag, 13.5 bags is equal to one cubic yard. If you need to cover a large area, you can buy bark mulch in bulk and have it delivered to your property. 

What is Mulch?

Mulch on a garden bed

Mulch is a broad term for any top soil cover. You can use mulch on your flower beds, vegetable garden, around trees and shrubs, and on pathways. Bark is a type of mulch. 

Mulch is used to:

  • Maintain soil moisture
  • Reduce soil erosion
  • Suppress weed growth
  • Build soil quality
  • Regulate soil temperature
  • Protect plant roots
  • Provide nutrients to the soil as it breaks down
  • Improve the aesthetic appeal of your garden

Most mulches are made from organic matter. It can be made from a range of different materials.

Common types of organic mulch include:

Organic mulches decompose over time. They will need to be replenished every year or two. As they decompose, they add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. This improves the soil quality. 

There are also inorganic mulches. These are made from materials that don’t biodegrade such as rubber chips, lava rock, pea gravel, river rock, etc. Plastic sheeting can also be used as a type of mulch. 

Inorganic mulch doesn’t add any nutrients to your garden but it does last for many years because it doesn’t degrade. Rock mulch will last pretty much forever. 

Bark Vs Wood Chips

Wood chips are made by grinding trees up in a wood chipper. All parts of the tree are used including the bark and branches. Some wood chips are made from only the wood. Cedar and cypress are popular options. 

Wood chips offer many of the same benefits as bark mulch such as moisture retention and weed suppression. Wood chips can provide more nutrients to the soil. Hardwood mulch lasts a long time.

Some people also prefer the appearance of wood chips. A range of different colors are available. For example, cedar has a nice reddish color. Dyed wood mulch is also available. When you buy wood chips, you have to make sure they haven’t been chemically treated. 

Cedar wood mulch
Cedar is one of the most popular types of wood mulch

My Experience

I use bark mulch on my property regularly. Personally, I love the look of it. It’s got a nice natural dark brown color that contrasts nicely with green shrubs and plants. It’s also affordable where I live. I use it in the front of my house as part of my landscape design. 

I don’t use bark mulch in my vegetable garden. Instead, I use mulches that can add more nutrients such as compost or grass clippings. They don’t look as nice but I can get these mulches for free.  

Overall, I think bark is one of the best types of mulch. It is natural, long lasting, affordable, and environmentally friendly. It maintains its color over time and it doesn’t compact. It’s an excellent choice if you’re looking to improve the look of your garden. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best mulch for your property. 

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

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Mulch Vs Bark for Landscaping: Which is Best?

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