How to choose mulch bark & wood chips

Written by julie christensen
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How to choose mulch bark & wood chips
Use bark mulch or shredded bark mulch for a professional, clean look. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Bark mulch usually refers to mulch made from the bark of hard or softwood trees and is a byproduct of wood milling industries. The bark may come in chunks or shredded. Wood chips include not only the bark, but the wood of trees, and are a byproduct of landscaping maintenance. Many communities offer wood chips for free. Make your own wood chips by running damaged limbs and branches through a wood chipper.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Consider how you plan to use the materials. Bark mulches are more expensive generally than wood chips, but last longer and look more aesthetically appealing. Wood chips may include large wood chunks or sticks and tend to fade to a silvery grey over time. Choose bark mulches for formal perennial beds, reserving wood chips for use on paths or beds in natural settings.

  2. 2

    Compare prices. For example, wood chips are often free or very inexpensive. Shredded, natural bark mulch is usually the next most economical option. Bark chunks tend to be the most expensive. Buy bagged mulch at a garden centre for small projects, but order bulk mulch through landscaping companies for large projects.

  3. 3

    Consider aesthetics when choosing mulch. Some bark mulch is dyed red or dark brown. This mulch may cost more initially and has an unnatural appearance, but it fades within a year or two to a natural brown. The advantage of this mulch is that it resists fading to a white or silver grey colour. Shredded bark mulch is soft to walk on and easy to spread in the garden, but it breaks down more quickly than bark chunks or wood chips.

  4. 4

    Smell mulch before purchasing it. Improperly stored wood mulches may develop toxic gases, such as ammonia, methanol and hydrogen sulphide gas. Toxic mulches have a sour vinegar or silage smell, rather than a fresh wood or compost smell. When placed in your garden, they may cause permanent damage to plants. Avoid mulches with a sour smell. The problem is most prevalent in bulk mulches, although bagged mulches may also be toxic.

Tips and warnings

  • Wood mulches can initially deplete soil of nitrogen during the decomposition process. Give plants a dose of nitrogen fertiliser, according to package directions, before applying mulch to offset nitrogen loss.

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