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 Angelina sedum is enhanced by a backdrop of red mulch. 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. Let's begin by learning what exactly this controversial landscaping product is and why there's a market for it.

Why "Colored" Mulches Were Developed

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:

  • A mulch that has not been colored artificially
  • 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 don't 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):

  • Red
  • Black
  • 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. Still others are wholeheartedly in favor of it, valuing the vibrancy it adds to your landscaping.

Grass and Clover on Cedar Chips Larger
EricFerguson / Getty Images

How to Decide on a Mulch Color

If you, yourself are about to landscape with mulch but have not made up your mind on a color choice, here are some widely-held views on the subject, reflecting both ends of the spectrum and more moderate positions somewhere in-between. Determining which position is most in line with your own design sense will help you decide on a mulch color before buying :

  • Black mulch looks more natural than red. It blends into the background so that you don't notice it. Instead, you notice the plants growing out of it. That's a mulch's job: to suppress weeds and promote plant health without being noticed. In fact, from a distance, a black or dark-brown mulch looks like soil, which is ideal for gardeners who dislike the look of mulch and wouldn't use it at all if not for the threat posed by weeds.
  • Red-colored mulch is unnatural-looking. In regions with hot, humid summers, in particular, many prefer the cooler look of dark-brown mulch.
  • Design tastes come and go. Red mulch may have been popular in your area years ago, but it may be out-of-favor now. Consider this possibility if you're sprucing up your property to sell it.
  • But red mulch blends in with brick houses, red outdoor storage sheds, etc. Lovers of red-and-green color schemes may appreciate the look of a flower border with red mulch lining one side of a beautifully green lawn.
  • A red-colored mulch can also look good as a background for plants with yellow flowers.
  • Many prefer brown as the most natural-looking mulch but will make exceptions and use black mulch in a very targeted way in a specific area of the yard. For instance, in a Hosta bed planted with a golden cultivar such as Fire Island, they may use black mulch to create a contrast.

Achieving Color While Staying Natural

If the vibrancy of a red mulch appeals to you but you want something "natural," consider buying red volcanic rock. Being rock, it won't break down the way a wood mulch will. But this product, too has its pros and cons:

  • It keeps its color.
  • It will be a long time before you have to replace it.
  • It does not, however, add nutrients to the soil, as only a mulch that decomposes can.
  • And while the material is, technically, natural, it's not very "natural" to have a volcanic-rock mulch in regions not known for volcanoes.

Safety Concerns

Its appearance is quite a separate issue from the question of whether or not colored mulch is safe. You may be surprised to learn that the crux of the safety controversy is not the dye, itself but something else. The safety of rubber mulch (which comes in various colors) has also been questioned.