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Which Mulch is Best?

posted Feb 28, 2010, 11:05 PM by Customer Service   [ updated Feb 28, 2010, 11:22 PM ]

4 mulch options exist in our area (Greensboro, NC). Most common is pine straw. People always ask me, which is better? I am going to let you answer that for yourself, but first, I will give you the pros and cons of each.

Pine straw: A good long leaf pine straw has a beautiful bronze/orange appearance when first installed. Whether or not it holds its color depends on quality and sun exposure. An area that gets mostly shade will look almost as good in 12 months as it did the day it was put down. However, an area receiving full sun exposure will look grey and begin to break down rapidly after only about 6 months, leaving those who are particular about their landscaping with no choice but to re-apply. The great thing about the pine straw, aside from uniformity, is that there is generally very little weed seed contained within the pine straw.

The cons of pine straw: You have to know what you’re getting. If you don’t purchase fresh long leaf pine-needles, you will not get a good product. Lowe’s and Home Depot sell slash pine straw for about $3.50+tax per bale. Even at its best, it is a crappy product. At its worst, you could also have issues with mold, as well as aged/partially decomposed pine straw that does not look fresh, even when you first install it. Also, you have to make sure you fertilize your plants (and preferably amend the soil before you plant), because the nutritional value for your plants provided by pine straw is next to nothing. That said, I make sure that the long leaf pine-needles I provide are baled the week they’re delivered, and I use an organic fertilizer specifically for the pH level preferences of the plants in the landscape.

Coverage of Pine Straw: On a re-application, you can adequately cover about 50 square feet with each bale of pine-straw. If it is your first time applying, you will need to go thicker, at approximately 35 sq ft per bale.

Pricing of Quality Pine Straw: While slash pine-needles from Lowe’s/Home Depot/Wal-Mart may only run about $3.50+tax/bale, a quality long leaf pine-needle bale will usually range from $4.50 to $5 retail. You can expect installers of top quality pine straw to charge anywhere between $6.50and $8 per bale, mostly dependent upon how many bales you need. After all, the installer has to factor in loading time, delivery time, labor, workman’s compensation, vehicle costs, liability insurance, etc.

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Dyed Mulches are also gaining popularity. I’ve mulched countless houses in the prestigious Arbor Run neighborhood in Stokesdale, NC with black mulch. What draws people to it? – When you want elegance & simplicity, the black mulch is absolutely stunning. It adds depth and punch to the definition of the house & plants. Black or brown dyed mulch is typically preferred for brick homes. The red sometimes complements homes that are a colorful vinyl or masonite siding. Dyed mulches also are 99.9% weed free in most cases. They also decompose slower than standard hardwood mulch, so you can go much lighter on the touch-ups year after year. Some people can get 2 to 3 years out of their mulch depending of how clean they keep their beds & sun-exposure.

Cons: Since they are dyed chipped lumber, they do not have the nutritional value of regular hardwood mulch. If you have pets or a playground area, you should use non-dyed mulch, called “certified playground mulch”, since the dyes contain lead. Clippings, leaves, and dead weeds stand out like a sore thumb since you have such a consistent, unnatural color. If you are OCD in any way, it will be hard not to notice the little things that make the bed “not perfect”.

Retail price for dyed mulch is around $30 per cubic yard. It can usually be installed for about $40 to $50 per cubic yard. If you have a substantial area to cover, don’t even think about buying bags of it, as you will spend about $70 per cubic yard. If you do the math, the equation equals shooting yourself in the foot if you use bags on anything of size. One cubic yard will cover about 100 square ft at 3″ (first application) or about 150 sq ft at 2″ (subsequent applications).

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Double-ground hardwood has many benefits with little drawback. It may not look as uniform as the pine-needles or dyed mulches, but if you have a significant number of plants or ground-covers, the plants will thank you. You will notice your plants spread & fill out far better with hardwood mulch & don’t require as much additional fertilizer, if any. It also tends to retail about 30% cheaper than the dyed mulches, around $22 to $27 per cubic yard. You can expect to pay between $25 and $40 per cubic yard installed, if paying a professional, with the main variable being quantity being installed.

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Pine bark is used sparingly in our area. The benefit is that for smaller areas, it often holds its color decently for well over a year, and is relatively inexpensive. Aside from color retention, the drawbacks are similar to those of pine-needles. Coverage per cubic yard is about 100 sq ft at 3″ and 150 sq ft at 2″.
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