Dyed mulch can create a sharp, clean look in your garden. But using the wrong dye can hurt your plants and introduce dangerous chemicals to your yard. We'll cover what kinds of mulch are safe to use and how to color mulch yourself.
Why Use Mulch?
Whether your personal preference is for a natural look or a dyed color mulch, using mulch is always a good practice in the landscape to maintain moisture around your plants and to keep weeds down.
Even in its blandest form, mulch adds a different aesthetic to your gardens and landscaping that soil alone can't provide, but dying your mulch can take things to a brighter, eye-catching level with relatively little effort.
Follow these steps to learn how to dye mulch for an inexpensive way to keep your garden looking bright and attractive without having to replace the faded mulch. These dyes are simple to use and are known to last almost a year from the time they are applied.
Because it's a somewhat new practice, mulch dye has been the center of much discussion regarding whether it's ultimately a dangerous practice that negatively affects your soil.
However, the jury's still out, and no discussions have pointed to it being problematic at present. The materials used in the dyes, more than the dyes themselves, are usually what prove harmful. Proceed only if you are comfortable with this uncertainty.
How to Color Mulch
Step 1 – Choose Your Mulch Dye
You will often have up to 10 colors to choose from when dying mulch, depending on what your local retailer supplies. Some colors are more natural, such as cedar and redwood. Others include black, yellow, and red.
You will be happier with your color selection if you choose one that is closer to that of your existing mulch. That way, if you miss a spot when applying the dye, the missed spots will not have a glaringly different color than mulch that has been dyed.
Step 2 – Plan and Prep
Mulch pieces that dry when stained will ultimately look more attractive. They'll have fewer streaks and more even coloring. Mulch requires a minimum of six hours of drying time after dying and before it can get wet. So, plan your dying at a time when no precipitation is expected.
Step 3 – Protect the Surroundings
Before mixing and applying your dye, use plastic sheeting to cover surfaces, plants, lawns, and other areas that you don't want to be colored. Protect surfaces such as sidewalks, driveways, buildings, and trees that border areas to be dyed.
Be sure to wear gloves and old clothing when using the dye in case of any messes.
Step 4 – Mix Your Mulch Dye
Into a sprayer that holds at least 2 gallons of liquid, pour 1 1/2 gallons of water and a 12-ounce bottle of mulch dye. This should be enough to cover a 200 square foot area, or an area of 14x14 feet, with color.
When the dye has been added to the sprayer, replace the sprayer cap and shake the sprayer until the dye is well mixed with the water. A well-mixed container of dye and water is essential to apply the color evenly.
If the area to be covered exceeds 200 square feet, mix enough dye to cover your entire area before starting to apply the color. It's a good idea to get your measurements ahead of time so that you can anticipate the quantity you'll need.
Step 5 - Apply the Dye to Your Mulch
To get an even color, hold the sprayer head six inches from the mulch. Varying this distance will likely result in uneven colors. Spray back and forth, overlapping each pass until the entire area is covered.
Is Colored Mulch Safe for Vegetable Gardens?
Most dyed mulch is safe, but some low-quality products can leech chemicals into the ground. This can come from cheap coloring compounds, but it's more likely to come from the wood itself.
Cheaper mulch tends to be made from recycled wood, which can sometimes be sourced from demolition sites. If some of this wood was treated before current regulations, it might contain chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which can be dangerous for plants, healthy garden bacteria, and even people.
If you dye mulch yourself, just make sure you start with untreated wood chips. You can source them online, pick them up at your local landscaping store, or cut them yourself with a woodchipper.
In a vegetable garden, where aesthetics are less important than producing healthy food, colored dye just makes things harder. It can leach chemicals into the soil, which can kill helpful bacteria and worms, and potentially injure your plants.
You're better off with natural materials that will both protect your plants and break down faster to share their nutrients, like compost, grass clippings, or straw.
How Long Does Mulch Color Last?
In a best-case scenario, your dyed mulch will last about a year. Untreated mulch will fade into a neutral gray tone within a few months.
Colored Mulch Guide
Now that you know how to color mulch, why do it?
Many homeowners use colored mulch in their landscaping and gardening. Popular options like red mulch and black mulch not only provide the horticultural benefits of mulch but also give your multicolored flowerbeds a decorative pop. Although, many critics cite the potential dangers, garish colors, and unnatural look.
Regardless of color, mulch still serves a purpose, so to get the best results from any kind of mulching routine, provide a 2-3 inch layer to your garden in the spring for water retention and again in the fall for winter protection.
While using colored mulch is a personal choice, there are some things you should consider before choosing red or black mulch.
Why Do Some People Favor Colored Mulch?
This is the number one reason to consider colored mulch. In terms of its utility, colored mulch is essentially identical to regular mulch, but people find the shock of red or black color attractive and enjoy the way it complements their existing plants and landscape.
Since one of the basic goals in both gardening and landscaping is to create a space that looks appealing, it isn't hard to see why many homeowners would choose the stark contrasts of red and black mulch.
Claims of Improved Mulching
While it’s yet to be proven in a controlled setting, many gardeners claim that the specific colors of their mulch do have an influence on the success of their planting.
Colored mulch enthusiasts swear by red mulch for strawberries and tomatoes, claiming the color reflects more sun back toward the plants and encourages better growth.
Some gardeners also believe that black mulch keeps soil warmer, as black pigments absorb sunlight and heat rather than reflecting it as lighter colors tend to do. In situations where a plant would benefit from increased warmth at the soil level, black mulch would potentially have an advantage over other choices.
Dyed Mulch vs Natural
One downside of dyed mulch is that it absorbs more nitrogen as it breaks down, just because it takes longer to decompose than regular wood. This process competes with your plants for a nutrient they need to thrive.
If you're interested in purely natural options, pine needles, pine bark, and cedar chips make excellent choices. Their colors are more subdued, which gives you less of a visual pop, but also means they'll change less over time.
Downsides of Colored Mulch
The large-scale manufacturers of colored mulch use iron oxide to dye their red mulch and carbon black for their black mulch. Both of these additives are non-toxic and safe to handle.
Iron oxide is basically just rust, which isn’t harmful in the context of mulch, and carbon black is essentially the same residue you notice when handling burned charcoal.
The real controversy surrounding mulch dyes exists due to smaller, off-brand companies that use forms of dye that are considered toxic.
These options are sometimes cheaper, so even while safer options exist with the bigger brands, thrifty and uninformed consumers still buy these colored mulches and leech those toxins into the environment, not to mention their own skin and lungs.
CCA pressure-treated wood should never be used as mulch because one of the ingredients that make up the CCA (chromated copper arsenate) is arsenic, a poisonous substance and carcinogen. It can leak through the surface of the wood.
Even though this type of wood was phased out in 2003 by the EPA, mulch manufacturers that create their products from used wood, like old crates and pallets, are likely sampling from stocks of harmful, treated wood. This threat is much more prevalent than toxins from dyes.
Choose mulch made by companies whose wood comes from raw lumber rather than recycled wood items to eliminate this risk.
Fading and Color Transfer
Colored mulch fades and has to be replaced more often than natural mulch. Another common problem is the color from the mulch dye transferring to your hands and arms as you spread it. You should always wear gloves and cover exposed skin while planting to minimize this exposure.
New mulch also hasn't "settled" yet, so you shouldn't walk across it or let it come into contact with anything that could be stained. Walking across the mulch will probably track the color, which may be difficult to remove from some surfaces.
It’s worth noting that no such precautions, risks, or expenses are necessary with regular mulch that isn’t colored.
Black mulch, or black gold, can make a powerful compost soil for your plants. It contains all the necessary nutrients for your plant to thrive. Black mulch is a gardener's best friend for its effectiveness in keeping flowers and plants healthy without spending too much time weeding and watering.
Aside from its practical use, black mulch is also used to enhance the aesthetics of a garden as vivid colors of plants and flowers do well in contrast with the color of black mulch.
Luckily for you and your garden, you can DIY black mulch with simple ingredients. Below are the materials you need, along with the instructions on how to make black mulch yourself.
Step 1 - Wear your Protective Gear
Before starting to make your own black mulch, wear a good pair of work gloves and a mask. The working gloves and mask are necessary since you will be handling manure and other organic ingredients.
Step 2 - Prepare your Working Ground
Prepare the ground where you will be working on your black mulch by putting two layers of cardboard on the ground. With a garden hose, slightly dampen the two sheets of cardboard. For ease of transport, it is best to choose a working ground near the garden where you will apply the black mulch.
Step 3 - Spread the Manure
Spread a single layer of manure six inches thick on the cardboard using a shovel. You can use either cow or steer manure that you can purchase at your local garden center. You can use any type of manure according to your preference.
Step 4 - Additional Ingredients
Add another layer of leaves, kitchen scraps, and grass cuttings to the manure. If you are adding kitchen scraps, make sure not to include bones and meat, instead only add vegetable kitchen scraps.
The ideal layer thickness for this procedure is four inches, give or take one inch. After adding the kitchen scraps and yard waste add a layer of peat moss two inches thick.
Step 5 - Additional Layer
At this time, additionally layer manure, kitchen scraps, and yard waste together with peat moss. Start with adding the manure as instructed in Step 3, and then add the remaining ingredients at their appropriate layer thickness.
When you are done applying the additional layer, your pile should be about 24 inches high. With a garden hose, dampen the pile.
Step 6 - Cook the Pile
Cover the pile with a black tarp for eight weeks to allow all the ingredients to turn into a damp soil-like structure full of nutrients. Check your pile at least once a week to make sure the pile is not drying out.
Spray more water with the garden hose if you find the pile is drying out. It is normal for the pile to give considerable heat during the first weeks, so do not be alarmed.
Step 7 - Mix the Pile
After the eighth week of cooking the pile, you can now mix all the layers of the pile together using a shovel or pitchfork. Your black mulch is now ready for use.
Is Black Mulch Dye Toxic?
No. The carbon that darkens black mulch is the same ingredient used in ink and black paint and is generally considered non-toxic.
Red mulch is a popular choice because plants seem more green and vibrant against the red background. Some people enjoy black mulch as well, especially in gardens with multi-colored flowers.
While there's no proven benefit to using red mulch other than an aesthetic one, there are reasons you might not want to use it because of the effect it can have on your plants.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Susan Patterson, adds, "Mulch helps retain soil moisture and should never come in direct contact with tree trunks. Never apply more than a 3-inch layer of mulch."
Does Dye Ruin Any Of The Benefits of Red Mulch?
If your main consideration is look, then no, the dye doesn't ruin the benefits.
However, if your main concern is protecting your plants, you should either reconsider using red mulch or find a high quality version.
Non-organic dyes risk contaminating your soil, and their slow breakdown denies your garden the benefits of less treated materials.
Choose Brand Name Red Mulch
While there are some drawbacks to colored mulch, you can still enjoy it and help your plants by choosing a quality product. Read the bag and even contact the company to find out about the wood and the dyes used in making the mulch.
Many brands are colored with iron oxide, which is not harmful, as it's essentially rust. Other colorants are carefully controlled and as safe as or safer than any water-based paint. Some companies even use vegetable dyes and other natural products.
In the early years of dyed mulch, the manufacturers used toxic dyes. These dyes do still find their way into the system. Check any mulch you buy to be sure it does not contain petrochemical dyes.
Most commercial dyes are safer today, but they are still manufactured with petrochemicals that can be hazardous, particularly to vegetable gardens. Look for red mulches that specifically mention biodegradable pigments if you are going to buy red mulch.
TIP: Susan advises, "If you have a truly organic garden, always choose a colored mulch that has been dyed with organic materials. As the mulch breaks down in the garden, the dye will be released into the soil."
Red Mulch Manufacturing
For any kind of mulch, you should find out where the wood comes from. Some red mulch is produced by land clearing companies. The wood in these mulches comes directly from the raw lumber. As land is cleared, the logs are sent to a lumberyard where small pieces are turned into mulch. This type of mulch is the best.
Other manufacturers used recycled wood. They take old crates and pallets and turn that wood into mulch which they color with mulch dye. Even with the safest dye, this mulch should not be used. There's a high chance that CCA (chromate copper arsenate) wood has gotten in the mix and has been ground into mulch.
Dangers of Pressure-Treated Wood
CCA wood is also called arsenic-treated wood. This results when lumber is treated with CCA, which contains chrome, arsenic, and copper. If wood is called pressure-treated wood, it may have been treated with CCA.
The use of this process was phased out in 2003 when the EPA became aware of the dangers of arsenic leaking from the wood. Arsenic is a carcinogen that can cause various types of cancer. Make sure your red mulch was not created from recycled or salvaged wood so you can be sure it doesn't contain arsenic.
Colored Mulch Problems and Benefits
Some people claim that red mulch improves tomatoes and strawberries because the red color reflects more light onto the plants. This hasn't been tested in a controlled environment, so for now, it is unsubstantiated.
Avoid walking on the red mulch (or any colored mulch) because the dye can transfer to your shoes and track in areas you don't want it.
TIP: Susan adds, "Colored mulch will fade more quickly than natural mulch and has to be replaced frequently."
Brown mulch fits in well with all kinds of plants, though it will give you the biggest impact with brighter leaves. Its natural tones can help your garden's visual elements pop without feeling out of place.
Brown mulch can be made from various hardwoods, pine bark, or cypress. It's considered a neutral tone and tends to fade more quickly than other varieties.
Gold mulch is a more recent addition to the landscaping rainbow. It looks especially good with darker plants like evergreens and houses with stronger colors like warm brick or bright paint. It can be made from pine straw, western cypress, or sunset pebbles.
Once you have mulch you like, you can start using it in your garden. Check out our guides on types of wood mulch, mulching benefits, and mulching mistakes to avoid.