Bark Mulch: What Should I Look For When Buying It?

Last updated on October 23rd, 2023 at 09:45 am


Bark mulch is popular with amateur gardeners: it can be used to quickly and easily create garden paths and cover the ground around plants. However, there are differences between bark mulch products and mulch is not always useful.

When buying bark mulch for your garden or landscaping, there are several factors to consider to ensure you select the right product for your specific needs. Here’s what you should look for when buying bark mulch:

  1. Type of Bark Mulch:
    • There are different types of bark mulch available, including hardwood, softwood, pine, cedar, and cypress. Each type has unique characteristics, such as durability, color, and aroma. Choose the type that best suits your aesthetic preferences and the needs of your plants.
  2. Size and Texture:
    • Bark mulch comes in various sizes, from fine to coarse. The size and texture of the mulch can affect its appearance and performance. Fine mulch is suitable for ornamental gardens, while coarser mulch may be better for suppressing weeds in larger areas.
  3. Color:
    • Bark mulch is available in different colors, typically shades of brown, from light tan to deep brown. The color can impact the overall look of your landscape, so choose one that complements your garden’s aesthetic.
  4. Mulch Freshness:
    • Fresh bark mulch has a more vibrant color and pleasant aroma. Avoid mulch that looks dull or has an off-putting odor, as it may be old or decaying.
  5. Bark Mulch Origin:
    • Consider the source of the bark mulch. Sustainable, locally sourced mulch is often more environmentally friendly and may be free of contaminants.
  6. Free of Contaminants:
    • Ensure that the bark mulch is free of contaminants, such as pesticides, herbicides, or diseased wood. Contaminated mulch can harm your plants.
  7. Mulch Thickness:
    • Determine how deep you want to apply the mulch in your garden or landscape. This will help you calculate the amount of mulch you need to purchase.
  8. Mulch Longevity:
    • Consider how long you want the mulch to last. Hardwood mulch tends to last longer than softwood mulch. Choose the right mulch for your specific needs.
  9. Cost:
    • Compare prices and ensure that the bark mulch fits your budget. Keep in mind that high-quality mulch may cost more but can provide better results and a longer-lasting mulch bed.
  10. Delivery or Pickup:
    • Determine whether you want to pick up the mulch yourself or have it delivered. Consider the logistics of transporting a large quantity of mulch, especially if you need a significant amount.
  11. Reviews and Recommendations:
    • Research customer reviews and seek recommendations from local gardeners or landscapers to find reliable suppliers with a good reputation for quality and service.
  12. Moisture Content:
    • Check the moisture content of the mulch. It’s best to choose mulch that’s adequately dried to prevent mold or fungal growth.

Bark Mulch: What Should I Look For When Buying It?

Remember to calculate the amount of bark mulch you need for your project to avoid over-purchasing or running out mid-project. By considering these factors and choosing the right bark mulch, you can enhance the aesthetics of your garden, control weeds, and improve soil moisture retention for healthier plants.

Bark mulch: What is it used for?

Many amateur gardeners like to turn to bark mulch because it is so versatile. Bark mulch is usually made from the bark of pine, spruce or Douglas fir trees. It is often a waste product because tree trunks usually have to be peeled for wood processing.

You can cover the ground with bark mulch to prevent weeds or to secure paths and playground equipment. This is because the material is loose and can cushion falls. Dogs and cats rarely use the surfaces as a toilet. However, bark mulch is not suitable for all surfaces and there are quality differences between products.

However, bark mulch is not always suitable:

  • Bark mulch is not useful for freshly planted perennials, freshly planted ground covers, and plants that like alkaline (calcareous) soil. These include, for example, the rhododendron and blueberries.
  • It is not suitable as a fertilizer in vegetable and perennial beds because it rots much more slowly than other fertilizer alternatives. Green cuttings and compost make more sense here.
  • Bark mulch is not suitable for covering roses and perennials. In fact, when it rots, it removes nutrients from them, especially nitrogen. However, already rotted bark mulch, so-called bark humus, is useful – or simply compost.

Bark mulch: What should I look for when buying it?

Rindenmulch ist in verschiedenen Körnungen erhältlich.

Bark mulch is available from well-known brand manufacturers as well as from the private labels of garden centers and DIY stores. One problem for amateur gardeners is: What “bark mulch” consists of is not precisely defined. The mulch doesn’t even have to contain bark; it can be made of other wood and plant parts. Also for the size of the shredded wood parts there are no defaults. Thus, an NDR test shows that bark mulch of different varieties varies in size. In some products there are small branches, in others the mulch rather reminds of sandy compost soil. The testers even found mold. Customers cannot tell in the store what the bark mulch is like because the bags are opaque and tightly sealed.

The fact that bark is actually contained in the bark mulch is proven by the RAL seal of quality “Substrates for plants”. In addition, there are various specifications for the size of the mulch here that customers can rely on. Larger stones, shards and plastics must not be included in the bark mulch.

Bark rots over time and the finer the bark mulch is (grain size), the faster it goes. Bark mulch is available in the following grain sizes:

  • Very coarse grain (for playground equipment and large paths, 0-50 mm).
  • Coarse grain (for paths, 0-40 mm)
  • Medium granulation (for flower beds, 10-40 mm)
  • Fine granulation (for flower boxes, 0-20 mm)
  • Extra fine granulation (for flower boxes and flower pots, 2-8 mm)

You should cover smaller areas with finer granulation, so that the ground cover does not look restless and chaotic. The coarser the granulation, the looser and more fall-absorbing it is. Therefore, a coarse to very coarse grain size is suitable for paths and playground equipment.

Bark mulch contaminated with cadmium

Rindenmulch gegen Unkraut auf Wegen und Beeten

As various tests by Öko-Test and NDR have shown, bark mulch is contaminated with cadmium in varying concentrations. Cadmium is a natural heavy metal that is released by the acidification of soils and absorbed by trees. This is how it gets into the bark and bark mulch. What is problematic about cadmium is that it is considered toxic and carcinogenic, according to the Federal Environmental Agency. The tests both showed that while the cadmium limits are met, the amount of cadmium differs greatly among the products. The bark mulch from Dehner and Praktiker contains particularly little cadmium.

Does bark mulch make ecological sense?

Rindenmulch aus heimischer Kiefer ist besser

These are the ecological advantages of bark mulch:

  • Mulch ensures that less water evaporates from the soil. This means that the soil does not dry out as quickly. This also reduces water consumption in the garden.
  • Bark mulch insulates the soil and reduces temperature fluctuations. Soil with a layer of bark mulch, for example, is somewhat protected from frost.
  • Soil organisms are protected by mulch, which promotes soil structure and fertility, according to NABU.
  • Unlike other ground covers (fleece, tarpaulin, etc.), bark mulch is a plastic-free natural product and rots naturally.

In addition, bark mulch significantly reduces the amount of maintenance required for the garden: There are fewer weeds and the mulch requires no special care. However, bark mulch does not contribute to biodiversity and can thus reduce biodiversity, as nature cannot simply grow here in front of you. So don’t spread your whole garden with bark mulch – it’s the mix that does it and the insects will thank you.

However, there are small differences between the barks used: Pine bark mulch usually comes from native forests, while pine bark mulch usually comes from Mediterranean pines. The latter is said not to rot as quickly as products made from pines and spruces. However, the long transport is not so good for the climate (CO2 footprint) and also raises prices.


  • James Jones

    Meet James Jones, a passionate gardening writer whose words bloom with the wisdom of an experienced horticulturist. With a deep-rooted love for all things green, James has dedicated his life to sharing the art and science of gardening with the world. James's words have found their way into countless publications, and his gardening insights have inspired a new generation of green thumbs. His commitment to sustainability and environmental stewardship shines through in every article he crafts.

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