When it comes to selecting mulch, these days you have a lot of options. For today, however, we’re going to focus on the most basic division for mulch types – organic and inorganic – and more specifically, wood mulch vs. rubber mulch.
While both of them have their perks and caveats, the type of mulch that you should go with will depend on a lot of factors, such as local soil nutrient levels, weather concerns, and overall aesthetics.
With that in mind, let’s do an in-depth comparison of these two popular mulching mediums so that you can see which option is going to be the best fit for you!
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Wood Mulch vs Rubber Mulch
When you take nutrients out of the question, organic and inorganic mulches provide essentially the same things. They provide insulation to keep plants cool in the summer and warm in winter, they aid in moisture retention, and they help to suppress weeds.
If you are looking for the most aesthetically-pleasing, low-maintenance option, then Rubber mulch wins hands-down. It won’t blow away, lasts up to 10 years, and even comes in a wide range of colors – but it won’t do anything for the soil. Wood mulch can last 5 to 7 years in wood chip form and 7 to 10 with bark chips. While it takes a little more maintenance at the surface level, it will enrich your soil the entire time that it is in place.
For most, that makes wood mulch – specifically bark chips – the most practical option, but if the soil in your area is quite fertile already then rubber mulch might well be the superior choice.
The Main Differences Between Wood and Rubber mulches
Starting off, the best way to compare things is usually a nice, stark contrast, so let’s take a look at the main differences between wood and rubber mulch mediums. We’ll cover the most important differences as a foundation and then take a deep-dive into the key features, followed by the pros and cons of each.
The main ways that Wood and Rubber mulches differ are as follows:
Longevity – Wood chips typically last 5 – 7 years, while shredded wood bark may last 7 to 10 – although in some environments it can decay faster, and may only last 2 – 3 years! Recycled rubber mulch is hardier and will last 10 years or possibly just a little longer before the color starts becoming compromised.
Costs – Rubber mulch costs considerably more getting started, with a typical range of $8 to $14 per cubic foot, while natural wood
Soil nutrient effects – Wood mulch will add nutrients to your soil, although it will also leech nitrogen in the beginning – so you’ll need to supplement with nitrogen fertilizer to avoid this. Rubber mulch will not add any nutrients and must be selected carefully, as it is made from petroleum and the wrong kind of rubber can add heavy metals and toxify the soil.
Weight – A bag of wood mulch is typically 2 cubic feet and weighs 20 pounds. This will cover a 12 square-foot area at a thickness of 2 inches. By contrast, a .8 cubic foot bag of rubber mulch will cover an area of 4. Square feet and weighs about 35 pounds.
Maintenance – You’ll need to turn over and rake your wood mulch multiple times during the season to maintain it. Rubber is heavier and tends to stay in place, although you’ll still need to check for weeds, spray it down to clean it, and turn-over areas on occasion when they become too compacted.
Weather resistance – Rubber mulch is the most weather resistant. The weight makes it better suited for windy areas and rain simply cleans it. With wood mulch, water from rains will be absorbed and make it heavier, although wind can blow it a bit when it’s dry and you’ll have to rake it back into place.
Key Features: Wood Mulch
Breaking down wood mulch into an at-a-glance view, we have the following key features (and note, some of these will appear in the pros and cons, so that the lists are as complete as possible):
- An attractive, natural mulching option that adds nutrients to your soil.
- Provides excellent insulation, as well as moisture and water retention.
- May attract insects.
- Requires regular maintenance and depending on the type (shredded, nuggets, chips, bark), may last anywhere from 2 – 10 years.
- Inexpensive – Typically costing $2 up to $3 per cubic foot.
- Easy to place and to rearrange as needed.
- Replaces soil nutrients as it decomposes.
- Will keep your plants warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
- Prevents weeds.
- May attract insects.
- Requires year-round maintenance in the form of raking to keep neat and to avoid clumping or compacting and the resulting obstruction of air and water flow.
- Nitrogen fertilizer is required, as wood mulch will leech nitrogen initially
- Must be carefully chosen – some woods are a risk for creosote or arsenic.
Key Features: Rubber Mulch
Rubber mulch has long been a popular staple at playgrounds for its wide range of color options and longevity. Let’s look at the key features and then we’ll go into more details with the pros and cons.
- Long-lasting and aesthetically pleasing
- Won’t blow away in high winds, less likely to mat or compress, and this mulch lasts around 10 years or a little more.
- Great at keeping weeds at bay – they tend to dehydrate well before they can reach the soil.
- Maintenance is a breeze – spray it down, check for compaction, and pull out the occasional (but rare) lucky weed that managed to breach the mulch’s defenses.
- Highly resistant to fungus and molds.
- More expensive at $8 to $14 per cubic foot.
- Some rubber mulch may be a risk for contaminating the soil – it must be carefully chosen from a trusted provider.
- Doesn’t add any nutrients to the soil.
- It is not biodegradable.
- It’s heavy and harder to place, with a bag of rubber mulch weighing approximately 35 pounds.
There are always alternatives if wood and rubber mulches don’t appeal to you or fit your specific needs. Let’s take a look at some alternative mulches you can use from both the organic and inorganic categories.
Compost – Always a classic, composted manure greatly increases growth factors and overall plant health, although it must be properly prepared – too fresh compost, for instance, can cause root burn. Some waste, such as dog or cat manure, can carry disease, so you need to do your homework to go with this option.
Leaves or grass – Great for both groves and gardens, grass clipping and leaves are free and will increase nitrogen levels in the soil to boot! Layers must be small, however, and you need to take care to ensure that no chemicals were treating the lawn if you’re going to use those clippings.
Straw – Barley, oat, and wheat straw are another nice option, just make sure that you don’t get hay. Proper straw will shield seedlings from rodents and birds and also increase water retention until it decays.
Newspaper – Newspaper and cardboard can be useful for mulching, provided that you stick with black and white newspaper and natural, undyed cardboard – just avoid cardboard with chemical coatings and color newspapers, as these can toxify the soil if you use them.
Cocoa chips –While pricey, cocoa bean hulls are lightweight and good for both gardens or groves, plus you’ll only have to replace them yearly. One big caveat, however, is that this is not a good option if you have a lot of wildlife or pets in your area – cocoa beans are used to make chocolate and chocolate is toxic to many animals. This is especially so for dogs and cats and can be fatal.
Igneous rocks – Igneous rock is heavy, beautiful, and actually provides minerals to soil near the areas where you place it. You can’t put it too close to your garden or trees, however, as it heats up in the sun and can damage plants in this manner.
River stones and crusher dust – Stones, typically used with gravel or crusher dust filler, can help to deter weeds and create lovely paths, although they won’t provide any nutrients to your soil and add the risk of the same heat-stress effects. This option won’t maintain moisture well, either.
Landscaping fabric – Landscaping fabric aerates well and water will pass right through it, although it’s usually best to use it with wood chips or other mulching options. You COULD technically use it alone, but it will become damaged much faster this way and this can have an impact on your overall costs to maintain it.
While we try to be as comprehensive as possible in these articles, some tips can inevitably slip through the cracks. To help minimize this, here are some common questions on rubber and wood mulch to help you to finalize your judgment on which of these mulching mediums might be the best fit.
Does rubber mulch attract mice?
Nope, rubber mulch will NOT attract mice and what’s more, snails don’t like it either. Rubber mulch tends to repel just about every kind of pest when you get right down to it.
Ants and termites can’t eat it or burrow inside and with a wide color assortment, it’s not really even an ideal hiding place. This earns it a lot of points for some gardeners who want some plant cover that won’t double as a ‘pest hotel’.
Should you put anything under rubber mulch?
Ideally, yes. While you could use it without them, adding a weed block or a landscape fabric will help to reduce your overall upkeep and your rubber mulch will look absolutely sculpted in its presentation. You’ll do less work maintaining it and the added defense against weeds is certainly not a point to sneeze at!
How thick should rubber mulch be for landscaping?
For gardening and landscaping, 1 to 2 inches is going to be the ideal depth. If kids will be playing in the area, you could take it further by using ‘playground standards’ of 3 to 6 inches, which will actually cushion a fall considerably from heights of 6 to 12 feet!
What is the best quality wood mulch?
Cedar mulch is one of the most popular wood mulch options, in that it has natural oils which repel many pests. Termites and ants don’t like it, but also mice and snakes also don’t seem to enjoy that fine aroma that you’ll get for going with cedar.
Add in that it’s highly resistant to fungi and molds, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most popular wood mulch options around.
Cedar also lasts a long time – depending on your area, you might get as long as 5 to 6 years before you have to replace it. The way to know is to look for signs of soil erosion, discoloration, or decomposition.
As cedar tends to decompose slowly, unless your area has fairly inclement or extreme weather, you should get a lot of mileage out of this natural option.
What is better — wood chips or bark wood mulch?
While wood chips don’t last as long as bark, they’re usually the better choice and we’ll tell you why. While bark is hardier, you need to keep in mind what it does for the trees – it protects them.
Bark has natural waxes in its composition that can act to repel water. This makes it longer-lasting, but wood chips are going to be better with retaining and releasing water.
You’ll have to replace those wood chips more often but you’ll get a more efficient production of nutrients and much more efficient management of water.
Does wood chip mulch attract rodents?
It can — but it depends on the type that you choose. Wood mulches that use cedar or cypress will actually repel insects, rodents, and snakes, but some other types will actually attract them. Pine mulch is a good example of this.
While it smells amazing and looks fantastic, some pine mulch will attract bugs, including some of the most annoying, like mosquitoes!
To keep pests at a minimum, it’s usually best to pay a little extra and simply go with cedar or cypress. Cedar is the best of the two, although both will provide a superior defense against pests when compared to most other wood mulch mediums.
Now that you have all of the facts, you should be ready to decide whether wood or a rubber mulching option is going to be the best fit for you. To throw in our 2 cents worth, wood mulch is the most natural option if you don’t mind the extra work. Cedar, in particular, is quite hardy and may last up to 5 to 6 years, while providing useful nutrients and keeping problematic pests at bay.
That said, for aesthetics of ‘child-proofing’ a grove where kids might be climbing, rubber mulch may be a better fit. It can cushion falls, resists molds and fungus, and it’s very low-maintenance — although it’s heavy and you might want to enlist help in delivery or installation.
Ultimately, we favor the wood mulch option, but every landscape is unique, so be sure to make good use of the facts that we’ve shared with you today and purchase your favorite solution in confidence – they’re both fantastic landscaping options that you’ll be enjoying, ideally, for many years to come!
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