Sunday, March 27, 2016

Red Mulch Rant

Dyed mulch is taking over - taking over the mulch aisle, that is. The mulch aisle at the big box stores used to have an array of bagged goods: pine bark mulch, pine bark nuggets, pine bark mini nuggets, hardwood mulch, cypress mulch, and soil conditioner (finely ground pine mulch). At least two of those types are gone now, their floor space given over to dyed mulches in at least 3 colors.

The popularity of these dyed mulches has exploded and the stores feature huge spring sales. For the last two years, the parking lots of both Home Depot and Lowes have enormous stacks of these mulches at special prices. I watch as pick-up trucks pull up and get 20+ bags at a time! Red, black and brown dyed mulches are the most common colors.

Mixing red mulch and pinestraw

These mulches are showing up in our neighborhoods and even professionally landscaped areas. Screaming red and coal black landscapes smother scattered perennials, occasional shrubs and solitary trees. Am I the only one that cringes at the unnatural palette they paint? Geez, at least get the brown one!

Nice blend with the natural woodlands - not!

Perhaps my personal preference should be left out of this. Not everyone has the same taste. Leaving aesthetics aside, there are still two reasons to seriously reconsider using dyed mulch.

The Dye

The largest companies proclaim that their dyes are “natural” dyes made from iron oxide (for the red) and carbon black (for the black). While these might be natural by-products, I am not very confident that I need large amounts of rust (iron oxide) and charcoal surrounding my plants. Should we believe them that these are “safe?” I’m sure we can all remember when they said several other chemicals (glyphosate as in Round-up, now considered harmful to humans, to name one) were fine. 

The Wood

Even small amounts of casual research reveals that the wood used in these mulches is primarily waste woods such as ground up pallets, shipping crates, and reclaimed woods such as old lumber that might have been treated with chemicals.

Sometimes it takes a few years for consistent results to show up. Also, are they evaluating human toxicity or plant toxicity? What about earthworms and soil bacteria? We are potentially poisoning the organisms that do the most work for us. (It reminds me of using neonicotinoids on plants and killing the bees. How counterproductive!)

Here are some ideas for mulch:

-          Leaves from your trees make the best, free mulch you can get. They are constantly decaying and releasing nutrients back into the soil while also attracting beneficial bugs and worms that help with the process and provide ground-hunting birds with food. If your leaves are too thick/large, chop them with a shredder or lawnmower before you place them in the beds.
-          Chips from tree companies can be a source of free mulch as most of them don’t want to have to pay to dump their chips in a landfill. These raw chips should not be piled high in the beds as they will heat up. You can age them in a big pile if you have room and then use them later (several months).
-          Bagged or bulk mulch that has not been dyed: pine bark, hardwood mulch (you may consider avoiding cypress mulch due to harvesting concerns, do your research).
-          Pinestraw is a choice that is readily available in the South; it is gathered from pine plantations. Examine the contents when applying to pull out any weeds caught up in the baling process (the non-native old world climbing fern has been known to hitchhike in the landscape that way).
-          Grass clippings, old garden straw – these are options if you know they are chemical free. Don’t pile them too thickly as they can create a barrier to rain if the clippings mat together.

This black mulch isn't 12 months old and it already looks faded


  1. I really, really dislike red mulch. I have never seen an example of it in a home landscape where it is attractive. That aside, natural mulch is hard to find. Even garden centers (not big box stores) don't even carry it anymore. Our HOA requires pinestraw or mulch in front of the house. Everywhere else we use leaf mulch (beds) or recycled tree mulch from the power company (for pathways).

  2. I'm so glad to know I'm not the only one who can't stand the dyed mulches! Do people think they need to "paint" their yards like they do their houses!? Thank you for facts about what is in it that back up my feelings about these mulches.

  3. I'm as offended as you and others, Ellen. I don't understand the attraction of these unnatural additions to landscapes.

  4. Thank you for highlighting one of my pet peeves. Red mulch, in particular, sets my teeth on edge. My favorite alternative is green (as in plant) mulch using our lovely, well-behaved native wildflowers. Or, maybe even moss.

  5. Hmmm.... Maybe check this article...

  6. I dislike the red mulch and can't understand why anyone would want it.

  7. The red mulch doesn't look unnatural to me anymore, provided it's close enough to the color of red clay. I discovered this when we had a tree stump ground down in an area with an abundance of clay soil -- the resulting mulch mixed with the clay to produce naturally-colored red mulch!

    It's still ugly in most situations, just not unnatural.