Let’s clear up any confusion straight away: when gardeners talk about mulch, they could mean all kinds of materials to use as ground cover in a garden. This includes organic mulch made from grass clippings, pine needles, bark, or – you guessed it – wood chips. That’s right, wood chips are mulch.
When we talk about wood chips or mulch, what we’re really asking is whether wood chip mulch, such as that you might make by shredding wood in a chipper, is better than the wetter mulch, such as bark mulch, that you can buy in a store.
Both wood chips and bark mulch can prevent weeds from growing, encourage soil to retain moisture, improve soil quality, and reduce soil erosion. Wood chips are larger and dryer and will take longer to break down in the soil and require more nitrogen from the soil, which may make them less suitable for flower and vegetable beds.
When Should You Choose Wood Chips For Mulching?
Wood chips are a great choice if:
- You have a ready supply of wood chips – wood chips are often easy to source and more affordable than other types of mulch. If you’re chipping some trees or have a friend with too many wood chips, this is a great way to mulch on a budget.
- You want a clean look and feel – wood chips are dryer and cleaner than other types of mulch; this can make them useful when landscaping in areas where children or others might regularly go, such as around a tree in the middle of your lawn.
- You want your mulch to last longer – wood chips take longer to break down than bark mulch, so you’ll need to replace them less often (you may want to consider inorganic mulch in this situation)
- You’re not too worried about adding nutrients – because they take longer to break down, wood chips will take longer to add nutrients to your soil.
- You know the source – Chips are sometimes made from wood products, such as fencing or wood used for other purposes. This wood could have been treated with varnish, creosote or paint, and may add chemicals to your soil. You’ll want to avoid this.
When Should you Choose Bark Mulch Instead of Chips?
You should choose bark mulch instead if:
- You want to add nutrients to the soil – bark mulch will break down quicker and add organic mass and nutrients to your soil quicker than chips would. This can be beneficial to many plant species.
- You need to buy your mulch – if you have to purchase wood chips, and can’t get them free, then they are less cost-effective as mulch than something like bark.
- You want your mulch to stay put – dry wood chips can easily blow away. Wet bark mulch is a bit better at staying in place. If strong winds are a big issue, you might want to invest in organic mulch.
- You’re concerned about nitrogen levels – both chips and bark mulch will leach nitrogen from the soil as they decompose. However, bark mulch will pull out less. You may still need to add more nitrogen, however, to keep your plants happy (quick gardening tip: coffee grounds can help with this).
Best of Both Worlds? Ageing Fresh Wood Chips to Create Better Mulch
If you get the chance, let the wood chips age for a year or two before putting them around your tree or plants. Aged wood chips will be more like bark mulch – they’ll be wetter, break down quicker. This is easy to do if you’re a gardener with a plentiful supply of chips; you can build up a store that you can rotate over time.
Wood Chips vs. Mulch: What is the Best Type of Mulch for Your Garden?
As we’ve established above, both mulches have pros and cons, and both will provide ground cover, restrict weed growth, prevent soil compaction, retain soil moisture, and reduce water loss.
Our preference is to use bark mulch because it breaks down quicker and adds organic mass and nutrients to the soil quicker. If the objective is to have mulch that doesn’t need replacing often, then inorganic mulch is a better choice for your garden.
That said, wood chips are still a fine choice in most situations. If you are on a budget and can get it cheaply, it can do the job.
Wood Chips vs. Mulch: What is the Best Type for Landscaping?
For mulch landscaping in areas such as paths or anywhere that children might play, dry wood chips tend to be best. They’re less messy and can look neater – although you should be aware that over time they will darken. Wood chips will also need replacing less often, which may be a bonus if you are trying to keep the area looking smart. However, inorganic mulch may be a better option.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Wood Chips Cheaper than Mulch?
You can find both wood chips and bark mulch at pretty low prices, and you can even make your own. Wood chips are self-explanatory: they’re wood that’s been through the chipper. Bark mulch or other organic mulch such as leaf mold or compost is easy to make, but they take time.
If you’re in need of mulch and looking to source it quickly and at minimum cost, then wood chip mulch can be a great option.
Do Wood Chips Turn to Dirt?
Arborist wood chips, or wood chip mulch, will, over time, decompose and become part of your soil. It means that every year or so, you’ll need to replace the wood chip mulch that you’ve used on your garden.
That being said, wood chips don’t decay as quickly as other mulches, such as bark mulch or leaf mold. Wood chip mulch is high in carbon and has to take compounds from the garden bed underneath it in order for it to decay. This can lead to a lack of nutrients getting to plant roots, which can lead to restricted plant growth.