Why I don’t recommend dyed mulches

Ranking with my disdain for the “Annual Crape Myrtle Massacre” and killing trees with weed-and-feed fertilizers is my disgust for dyed mulches. 

I especially loath the black variety. 

Among the many reasons for my hatred is that the wood sources are very questionable trash wood.  And I don’t care what they dye it with, it’s still a dye that leaches into the soil, causing negative side effects. 

Let me take you back a few months to a debate I had with a landscaper at a party.  I could tell right away he was one of those “I got a bone to pick with you” guys.  He agreed with me on crapes, and stated that he didn’t use weed-and-feeds.  But then he argued that he just complies with customer requests when it comes to applying dyed mulch.   I told him he was being “environmentally irresponsible”… and lazy, and he actually didn’t argue either of those points. 

I asked him to write down the following five reasons to employ in convincing clients not to use dyed mulch.  After considering the list, a revealing look washed across his face.  And at that point, I knew I had converted him to Texas-native and naturally shredded mulch. 

If you are a landscaper or have a neighbor or friend using dyed mulches, please consider these five points. If your landscaper insists on using dyed mulch, get a new landscaper.

  1. It doesn’t look natural:  It looks artificial, and to me, it’s the equivalent of putting plastic or fake flowers in a landscape – an artificial look that people make fun of.  Mulch for a landscape should be part of nature … and it should reflect the area’s natural aspects.  Plus, when dyed mulch dries out or the leaching happens, it looks gray and ugly. Then, more dyed mulch gets lumped on top. Ugh!!!
  2. Most dyed mulches are made of recycled waste wood:  It’s almost always composed of trashed pallets, old decking, demolished buildings, or - worse yet - treated “CCA lumber.”  CCA stands for chromium, copper and arsenic - chemicals used to preserve the wood.  That ground-up trash wood is then sprayed with a dye or tint to cover up the inconsistencies in the wood and give it a uniform color.  Most dyed-mulch manufacturers claim their dye is “organic,” but they rarely reveal their wood sources.  So, if it looks like chipped-up wood with no elements of compost or organically enriched soil, that’s an indication of a questionable wood source.
  3. There’s a negative effect on the soil:  Dyed mulch doesn’t break down into the soil the way native and shredded mulches do. Instead, dyed mulches – especially the midnight-black variety - leach the dye and possible CCA contaminants into the soil, killing good bacteria, beneficial insects and earthworms. 
  4. Nitrogen fixation almost always follows:  This is indicated by yellowing leaves on annuals and perennials.  The soil’s natural nitrogen, needed to help keep the plants green, starts working hard to break down the mulch wood instead.
  5. Shredded native mulches with composted elements break down in the soil: The best mulches become part of the soil’s organic content over time.  That makes for more beneficial soil bacteria and enhances the environment for earthworm production.  Composted mulches, or those naturally aged, actually release nitrogen into the soil, helping the plants rather than robbing from them.

Now, you may be wonder which mulches I do recommend. That list can be found with my 10 Commandments of Mulch.   

While some mulch manufacturers dye shredded hardwood mulches and try to convince you that they’re a “new innovation,” it’s still dyed. And the dye still leaches into the root system, but at an even faster pace!  On the positive side, those suppliers are at least trying to make positive changes in colored mulches, and that gives me hope that one day they will be usable. But I still don’t like the unnatural look, and until that changes, I’m nowhere close to recommending any dyed or colored mulches.

I’ve long asked landscapers to come forward with data showing that dyed mulch is good for a landscape.  Bring me the research.  No one has ever been successful. 

In fact, it seems that the only landscapers who want to argue with me on this issue are those who got fired or are about to be replaced because they don’t do the environmentally responsible thing, or they’re too lazy to explain the five points to their customers.  The last time someone chewed me out because they were fired by a customer who wanted the change, I was told, “You don’t know anything … you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”  Really?!

GardenLine with Randy Lemmon

GardenLine with Randy Lemmon

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