Natural vs. Colored Mulch: Which Do People Prefer?

Appearance a Different Matter From the Safety Issue

Image of Angelina sedum against a backdrop of red mulch.
Some would say that the look of Angelina sedum is enhanced by a backdrop of red mulch. Others would vociferously disagree. David Beaulieu

Even with a product as mundane as mulch, you now have a choice of colors, thanks to the phenomenon of "colored" mulch. Its detractors deride it as unnatural, while its proponents enjoy the extra vitality it brings to the landscape. But what exactly is this controversial landscaping product?

What Is "Colored" Mulch?

This is a wood product that has been dyed (usually with a dye that is vegetable-based) to assume a color that a mulch would not have naturally (or to "lock in" color so that it does not fade so quickly).

There are mulches that blend into a landscape, and then there are those that make a statement in their own right or help bring out the colors in your plants. If you want your mulch to blend in and be unobtrusive, two types of bark mulch will fit the bill:

  1. A mulch that has not been colored artificially.
  2. A mulch dyed brown.

When a wood mulch has not been dyed, it loses its original color rather quickly. What starts out as a nice brown mulch will eventually weather to a grayish color, as the elements take their toll. Those who prefer the "natural" look in a mulch do not mind this color at all -- which brings us to the issue of the various opinions gardeners have about colored mulch:

Seeing Red: Who Knew Mulch Could Be Controversial?

But for those who want a showy mulch (and possess neither the time nor the inclination to shop around for the perfect natural solution), this weathering presents a problem.

Enter colored mulch. Colored mulch is widely available in three colors (others may be available at establishments that specialize in the product):

  1. Red
  2. Black
  3. Brown

The brown colored mulch can be considered something of a compromise, since it is not as "in your face" as the red colored mulch. But since the brown color is dyed in, the elements will not rob you of it so quickly (of course, it, too, will eventually fade).

 The black colored mulch is also relatively widely admired.

Opinions about colored mulch -- especially the red -- vary greatly. Some despise its unnatural appearance as garish and may even be disdainful of those who use it (something to keep in mind if you give a hoot about what the neighbors may think). Others, while they do not love it and generally would tend not to use it, do allow for exceptions, as when, for example, a red colored mulch is used as a background for plants with yellow flowers, as in the picture above (although many feel that black is better as a backdrop). Still others are wholeheartedly in favor of it, valuing the vibrancy it adds to one's landscaping.

The About.com Landscaping audience was surveyed to learn of their opinions on the subject of colored mulch. It is important, though, to remember that people who have strong negative feelings about something are the most likely to express their feelings about it, which is why the results of surveys of this sort (whether about politics, products, or anything else) tend to be hopelessly skewed.

Nonetheless, the opinions expressed in the survey are instructive -- even if only as representative of a vocal minority in some cases -- and six of the more interesting ones have been culled for inclusion here to illustrate how controversial the selection of a mulch color can be:

  1. "Around here black mulch looks natural," observes Cecilia. "Specifically, you don't notice IT, but you do notice the nice plants in the bed. That's what I think a good mulch should do: keep the weeds out and the plants healthy, without being noticed." 
  2. Carolyn "hates" red-colored mulch, explaining: "First of all, it is so unnatural looking. Second, we get very hot, humid weather here in St. Louis, and the last thing I want to see then is red-hot mulch. Even in the winter, I find it offensive. Third, dark brown mulch looks so natural, healthy, cool and comforting. It looks like rich earth. It reminds me of forests which I love."
  3. But Betty reminds us that "red mulch has its fans," noting that "it blends in with the brick on my house. It looks beautiful around my maple trees. Red mulch and green grass -- those colors make a finished landscape for me."
  4. Mary is in the camp that prefers the natural look but allows for some exceptions: "I really prefer natural brown mulch -- especially in a large area. A small area can call for black mulch. For instance, under yellow and/or green Hosta plants...."
  5. Some argue that we needn't choose between staying "natural" and having the colors we desire. Wiley openly questions whether red mulch is simply a substitute in some people's minds (subconsciously, perhaps) for red volcanic rock: "Natural mulch is available in enough colors to serve most all conditions, if you hunt for it. It may not be available in your big box store, but often landscaping, gardening, or bulk shops have it. One supplier near me offers natural black (primarily bark), cypress (light brown) red oak, light oak (I assume white oak) along with two other shades of tan and/or brown (mixed species). They sometimes have small amounts of other colors. In my opinion the red dyed mulch seems to be an attempt to imitate the look of the red, porous stone (volcanic rock perhaps). If that's the case, in the long term, stone would be cheaper and easier to maintain, although the benefits of organic mulch wouldn't be there. Rubber mulch actually attracts and retains heat, which might be appropriate in cold climates or for heat loving plants such as succulents and cacti, but for most of us in the South (and I suspect in most of the rest of the country) it should be used sparingly if at all."
  6. Professional landscaper, Luke has reassuring words for those who hate red mulch, asserting that it has probably gone out of style, anyway: "Where I'm from, red mulch was big a few years ago, but it seems to be going away, thankfully. I think it is way too overbearing for the landscape. I prefer to sell my customers on the natural browns, or the dyed black mulch. The only problem with the latter is when it fades out. When new, it looks pretty good and contrasts well with cobblestones as the border."

Of course, its appearance is quite a separate issue from the question, "Is colored mulch safe?" You may be surprised to learn that the crux of the safety controversy is not the dye, itself, but something else.