Is Colored Mulch Toxic – Safety Of Dyed Mulch In The Garden
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Although the landscape company with which I work for carries many different types of rock and mulches to fill landscape beds, I always suggest using natural mulches. While rock needs to be topped off and replaced less frequently, it does not benefit the soil or plants. In fact, rock tends to heat up and dry out the soil. Dyed mulches can be very aesthetically pleasing and make landscape plants and beds stand out, but not all dyed mulches are safe or healthy for plants. Continue reading to learn more about colored mulch vs. regular mulch.
Is Colored Mulch Toxic?
I sometimes encounter customers who ask, “Is colored mulch toxic?”. Most colored mulches are dyed with harmless dyes, like iron oxide-based dyes for red or carbon-based dyes for black and dark brown. Some cheap dyes, however, can be dyed with harmful or toxic chemicals.
Generally, if the price of dyed mulch seems too good to be true, it probably is not good at all and you should spend the extra money for better quality and safer mulch. This is pretty rare, though, and usually it is not the dye itself that is of concern with the safety of mulches, but rather the wood.
While most natural mulches, like double or triple shredded mulch, cedar mulch or pine bark, are made directly from trees, many colored mulches are made from recycled wood – like old pallets, decks, crates, etc. These recycled bits of treated wood can contain chromates copper arsenate (CCA).
Using CCA to treat wood was banned in 2003, but many times this wood is still taken from demolitions or other sources and recycled into dyed mulches. CCA treated wood can kill beneficial soil bacteria, beneficial insects, earthworms, and young plants. It can also be harmful to people spreading this mulch and animals who dig in it.
Safety of Dyed Mulch in the Garden
Besides the potential dangers of colored mulch and pets, people, or young plants, dyed mulches are not beneficial for the soil. They will help retain soil moisture and help protect plants during winter, but they do not enrich the soil or add beneficial bacteria and nitrogen, like natural mulches do.
Dyed mulches break down much slower than natural mulches. When wood breaks down, it requires nitrogen to do so. Colored mulch in gardens can actually rob the plants of the nitrogen they need to survive.
Better alternatives to dyed mulches are pine needles, natural double or triple processed mulch, cedar mulch, or pine bark. Because these mulches are not dyed, they will also not fade as quickly as dyed mulches and will not need to be topped up as often.
If you want to use dyed mulches, simply research where the mulch has come from and fertilize plants with nitrogen rich fertilizer.
Best Mulch for Vegetable Gardens (and Worst Mulch)
Anna Brown Added: June 29, 2018 Updated: July 13, 2019
Mulch is used for flower beds, trees, gardens, leveled ground, roses, etc.
We all know that mulching has numerous benefits for your plants, but which is the best mulch for vegetable gardens?
Luckily for you, I made a list of the best mulch types for your veggies.
When it comes to choosing a mulch type, the number of options available can be overwhelming.
Some of the mulches may look good and can be great for landscaping but are not all suitable to be used for vegetable gardens.
Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. This means that the owner of this website might be compensated for any qualifying purchases made via these links.
The dye isn't a problem, but the mulch itself might be. Check the label carefully to determine where the mulch came from. Mulch from treated wood, such as used pallets, can contain chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which includes a form of arsenic. This arsenic is a poison that can leach into your soil -- definitely a problem around your vegetables. It can also get on your hands as you handle the mulch. Manufacturers often use red dye to cover imperfections in the contaminated wood mulch. According to Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management, the red dye can actually retard the release of CCA into the soil, reducing the amount of arsenic released by 60 percent.
There might not be a health hazard with using red wood-chip mulch, but it sometimes seems inconvenient. If you want to change the color the next year, you must remove the existing red mulch or it can show through the new color. The dye fades quickly, sometimes lasting no more than a season at full color. When you're spreading the mulch, it can stain your hands and your clothing. If it runs off near your driveway or sidewalk, it can stain that as well.
Potential Soil Contamination by Dyed Mulch
The toxic contaminants mentioned above don’t stay in the mulch.
Over time mulch breaks down and water washes over it. This causes those contaminants in mulch colorant to leach into the soil. This sometimes includes the actual dyes used for the coloring. Though those are often harmless.
These chemicals can exist in the soil for a very long time and cause issues with plant growth. They could even end up in food grown in the soil. This is especially the case with heavy metals. Even the chemical contaminants that aren’t long-lasting in the environment can greatly affect young plants. As well as get in the way of fresh landscapes establishing proper soil life.
10 thoughts on “ Why Not to Use Dyed Mulch ”
Thank you for putting my township name on the website. I have had so many people come up to me again as they ride past my house and ask where i had it done. I send them to the website. Hoping it sends some people who really appreciate a beautiful landscape like me.
Good info on dyed mulch. I never knew how bad it was to use!
With all due respect, I have to disagree with your opinion on this topic. Using the correct manufacturer/supplier will prevent ANY of the above issues from happening. Yes, there are manufacturers that use the above described techniques. Are they a significant portion of the industry? No. I am with a dyed mulch manufacturer out of your own home state and I wish you were in our freight range so I could show you the difference between the “mulch” that you speak of and our mulch. This judgement (based probably off of one bad experience) applies to a very small portion of the market, even in your own state. Here are some things to consider about our Dyed Mulches:
* All of our mulches are %100 Virgin Wood Fiber which contain NO reprocessed material such as C+D (Construction and Demolition) or pallet material. This means no “CCAs” are present in ANY of our products.
* Because our raw material base is AGED, COMPOSTED, BARK, it will break down into the soil and replenish nutrients back into it. Nitrogen deficiencies occur from a application of a high percentage of FRESH, wood material.
I hope you consider these topics. Heck, if you would like, I’d be willing to give you a tour of our facility to show you how it really is done. Please feel free to write back to me or contact my organization at any time.
Thank you for your response to the blog we wrote about dyed mulch.
It’s refreshing to hear there are manufacturers who don’t use scrap/cca wood for their mulch.
Mine was not a blog based on one or two experiences, but on career long observations of over 40 years. Every location where I have seen dyed mulches, it has not broken down over a year or two and the pieces of ‘mulch’ were very coarse. This is not conducive to soil enrichment, which is one of the reasons to use mulch in the first place. I feel that jet black or red mulch is too artificial looking. There are many professionals who agree with me.
Again, I’m glad you don’t use recycled wood products and I have adjusted my comments to cover that possibility. Also, with the amount of red and black, and even yellow dyed mulch, in different landscapes I’m sure your business will continue to grow.
I, as a naturalist, will continue not to use them.
All the best,
John H. Fridy, Owner
In Seattle the city has so much mulch from trees it cuts they will deliver it too you. I don’t know how well dyed mulch takes to break down but the green undyed mulch they give to people here breaks down after a year or more and turns to dirt with the amount of rain we have. This undyed product does not last as long as cedar bark or fir and cedar mixed bark mulches. I have found in the ground layers of bark mulch while replacing a fence that people had put different things down over the years and the bark mulch still existed in the ground. Where as the undyed material breaks down and begins to grow weeds.
I purchased some dyed mulch material today from Lowes that came from WI. I don’t like the look of it. The size is much larger and has a lot of sharp pieces of what is clearly wood and appears to have no bark whatsoever noticeable in it.
I am planning on returning it tomorrow at 2 dollars a 2cf sack and getting bark mulch that has a much smaller size at the local QFC grocery for only 50 cents more. Because looking at it I just don’t feel it is going to be as desirable in the end and think it will ultimately break down faster too thought it may take longer than the standard green mulch the city will deliver.
There is also a lot of info about termites and mulches. I know some people find carpenter ants after getting bark delivered sometimes. They may even have a symbotic relationship here with the below ground termites. Termites will even eat treated fence posts below ground here at some point. One of the thoughts is you may attract termites if you have too much mulch. However in Texas where I am sure they have above ground type they place a board across the bottom of the fence along with some hardware cloth too to stop animals. But the board lines the bottom of the pickets and touches the ground and allows the termites to have something to eat. They change it out after so many years. We do not build them that way here as our termites only live below the ground or in a stump or dead log.
One more thing we see here. The landscapers that worked on this yard had material company deliver a type of compost/mulch that is fine in size. They put it down with a hose about 3″ sometimes 4″ or more. This not only stopped weeds from growing it stopped some of the plants or bulbs in the ground from reaching the surface. I believe it is equivalent to this product link below. This material has become popular here and does seem to keep weeds down for sometime but really without a weed barrier material nothing is going work as well for as long as it could.
Half fine bark & half compost – used for top dress in lieu of bark. Compost adds nutrients & a dark color.
This is not a difficult issue to figure out. In fact, it’s a no-brainer. I’m not in the landscaping or any related business at all, but common sense tells us, plants are living things (just like humans)and putting poisons (e.g. ciggarettes) and unnatural things into our bodies will either make us very very sick or kill us, like this dyed mulch business. I used to take care of the lanscaping at our residence with natural mulch and about 15 years ago our neighbors started using the colored/dyed stuff. So hubby wanted to take that route because it looked very nice (and I agree on that point.) We’ve used the red and the black mulches for years and all I can say is, we have replaced so many plants, not of old age and not of disease, common denominator is the dyed mulch! Simple.
Interesting. I was thinking about putting red mulch in front of my mailbox.
Most reputable or well known companies do not use garbage, construction, or pallet wood in their mulch. It is usually debris from the lumber industry, BUT the dyes used are somewhat of a mystery. Although they will claim, officially, the dyes are non-toxic and no oils or petroleum products are used, I have yet to find one that will disclose the exact ingredients used in the dyes.
For example, Scotts Earthgro Color Advantage. Scotts reps state the dyes are made from proprietary ingredients (a secret recipe) and are the same type of water-based ingredients used in the cosmetics industry, but reps refuse to give details. They go on to say since cosmetics are “safe” and non-toxic, you can safely use these dyes in your vegetable garden.
But since they will not disclose the exact ingredients, and since we can almost be assured it’s not organic and can have GMOs, I would NEVER use these types of mulches in any area where I grow food or where it can leech into my soil. I have only used some sparingly in potted ornamental plants in the past, but have stopped doing that too.
Even if the dyed mulch does not have CCA it still has coloring added and leaches into the ground which can’t be good for the soil.
My town just put it down in our park and my gardening group removed it all from our gardens. The dye looks absolutely horrible with plants and I don’t understand any real gardener using such a product. Why would you want an unnatural ground cover when natural is always best for our Earth.
Today I had mulch delivers n applied. I asked before delivery whether it was dyed or not n told not . But after it was down n upon further inspection I noticed infact it wAs dyed n even had pices with nails in , it actually looked like decking that had been run through a chopper! I am furious because I just planted several new rose bushes n honeysuckle . I too am a naturalist n always want to enrich our soil not violate it! I feel like asking the landscaper to return n remove the nine yards I paid 500$ .
DO consider organic materials on your property that can be converted to mulch.
Give your wallet a break with the mulch-to-be goldmine on your property. If trees are plentiful, shred fallen leaves with a lawn mower and add to your veggie patch in the fall. Growth-inhibiting chemicals in leaves known to stunt young plants and seedlings will have plenty of time to break down in time for spring planting. Or pile fallen leaves in an area of the yard, protected from wind, where they can decompose to form leaf mold. It takes six to 12 months to break down, but the result yields an excellent soil conditioner for mulching the garden. Grass clippings, as long as they haven’t been treated with herbicide or any other toxic substance, are another good choice. Give them a day or two to dry out before mulching around plants.
FAQs About Your New Mulch
Do you still have questions about landscaping mulch? Here are some answers to frequently asked mulch questions.
Q. Is all mulch organic?
No, not all mulch is organic. Some mulches are made of inorganic materials. These synthetic mulches have their place in gardening and agriculture, though, and have many benefits. They’re easy to apply, effective, and sometimes cost less per square foot than some organic mulches, like wood chips.
Q. What are the types of mulch?
There are two main types of mulch, organic and inorganic. Here’s a full list of all the kinds of mulch you can use in your garden:
- Coco coir
- Shredded newspaper
- Shredded leaves
- Pine needles
- Stones, pebbles, rocks
- Crushed seashells
- Grass clippings
- Wood chips
- Tree bark
- Landscaping fabric
- Black or red plastic mulch
- Rubber mulch (sometimes called rubberwood chips)
Q. What type of mulch lasts the longest?
Inorganic mulches are the longest lasting, which makes them good for permanent garden plants, beds, or paths. Rubber and landscaping fabric won’t break down like other types of mulch. Landscaping fabric eventually needs replacing, though, but not for years.
The longest lasting of them all? Stones, rocks, and pebbles by far. Just know that rocks have disadvantages. They’re heavy, cumbersome, and difficult to remove if you decide to change your garden around.
Q. Does mulching grass make it grow faster?
Mulching grass can help improve the nutrient availability for your lawn and help it grow healthier. Hold on, though. Grass mulching doesn’t involve just any type of mulch. It specifically requires finely chopped-up grass clippings or an organic compost. In addition to adding nutrients, mulching your lawn can help with moisture retention, which, in turn, can help you reduce your water use and save money on your water bill.
Q. Do I need to pull weeds before mulching?
You don’t need to, but it’s a good idea. You’ll get better results if you weed before applying mulch. Weeds are considered garden intruders for a reason. They’re hard to get rid of. While you might get lucky, pulling them up helps keep them from popping up again in the future. When pulling weeds, you have to get them by the taproot. Simply cutting them at the soil line won’t permanently kill them.
Q. How often should you remove old mulch?
According to lawn-care company Reddi Lawn Care, you should reapply mulch every five or six years. You might need to replace mulch sooner or add some depth for various reasons, such as if an area has heavy foot traffic.