Both bark and wood chips are used to mulch ornamental garden beds. A good mulch stays in place and doesn't compact over the soil bed, allowing moisture and air to still penetrate to the soil beneath. While a mulch helps make a bed more attractive and gives it a finished look, it also improves the health of the plants and soil. Choosing between bark and wood chips depends on several factors.
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Bark mulches usually come from evergreen trees, including fir, pine, redwood and spruce. Bark is often used as an ornamental mulch due to its attractiveness, low-cost and density. The heavier bark chunks do not blow away easily. Finer bark granules and shredded bark break down more quickly than bark chunks so are often worked into soil beds to provide aeration instead of being used as a mulch.
Wood Chip Characteristics
Wood chips come from a variety of trees, including both hardwood and softwood varieties. Most wood chips for landscape use come from removed trees that have been run through a chipper, so it's often impossible to know the exact type of wood and its condition. Wood chips weather more quickly than bark and don't remain attractive as long. Wood chips also decompose more quickly than bark, which causes them to temporarily rob nitrogen from the soil which can negatively impact plants in the bed.
Both materials help retain moisture in the soil by preventing rapid evaporation after irrigation. The mulches also inhibit weed growth, though some weeds are able to root in the loose mulch layer. Wood chips are often applied too densely in beds in an effort to renew them and keep them attractive, which can prevent air circulation and moisture penetration to plant roots. Bark mulches are more expensive than wood chips, but they do not need to be replaced or replenished as often. Some bark mulches are toxic and shouldn't be used around new plants.
Choosing a Mulch
Bark mulch is preferable over wood chips if cost isn't an issue, since bark must be purchased and wood chips are usually available for free or at a low cost. Bark works best in perennial beds since it breaks down slowly and requires only infrequent replacement. Wood chips are better suited to annual beds that are replanted each year, as you can dig the decomposed chips into the soil and replace them with fresh ones every spring.
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