Too Much Bark?

June 2, 2021

It’s been a couple of years since I bought bark mulch so I’m a bit out of touch with prices. I have looked at prices over the past few years, but I’ve never really sat down and figured out what it would cost me to mulch even a small foundation planting area on a square foot basis. Although not the cheapest prices available, I found two suppliers that both had prices around $55 per yard. (These are retail prices, so the costs to landscapers would probably be at least 20% less). Once I did my math and determined that at a minimum of 2 inches deep only about 160 sq. ft. would be covered. Two inches isn’t very heavy coverage, 160 sq. ft. is a pretty small area, but $55 seems pretty “spendy” for an area ten feet x sixteen feet! Needless to say, labor to haul the mulch (whether delivered or picked up) and spread it must be added on to the total installation price.

As the cost of bark mulch continues to rise, I often wonder if planting groundcovers is a more affordable option. Once established, groundcovers are permanent and don’t need to be refreshed every couple of years like bark does. Although the initial planting price sets you back a little, money may be saved in the long run. If plants like Pachysandra or Vinca are planted 6-8 inches on center, they will very quickly form a dense cover under trees or large shrubs and shade out most weeds. There are numerous great choices for ground cover plants. Obviously, if used as an understory planting, the groundcover needs to be fairly shade tolerant. Other than Pachysandra or Vinca, two of the most common and probably the fastest to fill in, plants like Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Paxistima, Bearberry or Wintergreen are great choices. I have also used some groundcovers in sloped areas where bark was constantly washing out in heavy rain storms.

Several shrubs, although usually not as shade tolerant, may be alternatives to the boring old bark. There are many low growing junipers not just the usual Blue Rug, but maybe Blue Star, or procumbens Nana, just to name a few. Although a bit taller and a bit aggressive, Stephanandra is a good groundcover for an area where it can sprawl. Cotoneaster is known as a “leafcatcher”and a major hassle to clean up in the spring, but I still like it for its red berries and habit. Microbiota is a great evergreen for shade.

Like deciduous shrubs used as groundcovers, perennials don’t offer year-round interest, but while in-season they are a great substitute for bark mulch and add a great blast of color. Possibilities are almost endless, and any that have spreading habits and stay fairly low are far under utilized.

I wonder if design people took the time to do a little math homework they might figure out that using more plant material and less bark would pay off? No, I don’t have the exact answer, but as groundcovers spread and less bark is required to cover open areas, it may be worth comparing the costs. Groundcovers aren’t foolproof and can get diseases or die, but it seems that if you were to figure on say a 20-year life span versus applying new bark every year or two, the cost comparison bight be surprising.

Maybe your next planting project is worth considering a few more plants and a little less bark mulch?

— by Phil Caldwell, a past president of NHLA (1989) who now lives and works in Maine.