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What is the difference between wood chippings, bark mulch and ornamental bark?

Natural wood products are a popular addition to most gardens due to their versatility and the fact that when used as a mulch they naturally break down over a period of time, providing added nutrients to the soil; which isn’t the case when using inorganic mulches such as gravel or slate.
 
There are a few different wood mulch products available to buy online or in stores and you may be wondering which the best option is for your requirements, or what the differences are between each one, so we hope this brief overview of the three types most commonly specified will be useful.

Wood chippings or Play Chips

Wood Chippings - Garden, Paths & PoultryMost wood chippings are produced using virgin timber and are an untreated white wood product that doesn’t contain any bark. They are available in softwood and hardwood varieties and are possibly the most versatile of the options, as they can be used for the following purposes: 

Pathways

Wood chippings can prevent the path from becoming too worn or muddy if it has a lot of rain or foot traffic. They are easily spread and topped up, and can also help to create a clear, distinctive walkway area due to their light colour. 

Plant beds and borders

If you want to use an organic product to mulch your beds or borders but would prefer something that lightens an area rather than darker option of bark, then wood chips are an excellent choice. They will eventually break down over time and when they need to be replaced can be dug into the soil which adds nutrients and can improve the structure of the soil. Gravel doesn’t have this benefit as digging it in will leave you with stony topsoil and removal from the surface can be difficult without taking some of your topsoil with it.
 
Using wood chips as a mulch has the same benefits as bark, such as weed suppression, moisture control and protecting plant roots from frost. 

Play surface

Softwood and hardwood chippings can be used as a safety surface in playgrounds when applied at the minimum depth recommendations; this can vary depending upon the height of a potential fall. For example, in play areas where there is a critical fall height of 4 metres, a minimum of depth of 300mm of play chips should be installed, plus a little extra to allow for settling. If using for this purpose check with your supplier that the product has been tested to BS EN 1177:2008 as an Impact Absorbing Playground Surfacing to ensure it is suitable for use as a safety play surface at the recommended depths. 

Chicken runs

Wood chips are ideal for poultry enclosures. We’re reliably informed by our customers that their feathered friends love scratching around in them and they are an ideal flooring to prevent muddy feet; the chippings also make it easier to clear out droppings. Untreated (more about this later) softwood and hardwood chippings varieties are both suitable, though hardwood tends to take longer to break down, so may require a top-up less often and be more cost effective than softwood chips. 

Bark mulch or chippings

If you’re searching online for ‘bark chippings’ or mulch, often your results will include general purpose bark mulches, usually labelled as Bark Mulch or Landscaping Bark. This product contains pieces of varying sizes and includes chipped strips of bark as well as a small amount of white wood and sometimes pine needles.
 
As mentioned earlier, bark is most widely used as a mulch for beds and borders to suppress weeds, reduce the amount of watering required and act as a blanket to insulate the soil below, therefore protecting the roots from frost and equally shading the soil below from the sun during hot weather, such as during a heatwave. The dark colour and rustic appearance make it a popular product for mulching, as many gardeners prefer the natural appearance of bark rather than using a colour in contrast to the soil, such as when gravel or wood chips are used.
 
Bark mulch or chippings can be used on paths to prevent muddy areas due to excess wear, but unless they are large or thick pieces, they are unlikely to be as long-lasting as hardwood chippings or Play -grade bark.

Important note:

Whilst bark is ideal for use in beds, borders and pathways, only white wood chippings are suitable for poultry and animal enclosures - bark should never be used. The fungus Aspergillus can grow profusely on bark and the spores can cause serious respiratory issues (or even death) in chickens and in other animals that have a weakened immune system.

Ornamental or play-grade bark

Play Grade Bark ChippingsThere are a few names for the chunkier bark which contains more rounded pieces, such as Play -grade, Ornamental, Decorative Bark, or Bark Nuggets. They have similar uses as a general bark or wood chip, such as on pathways or as a mulch, but where ‘play grade’ is mentioned they can also be used as a play safety surface.
 
Most of the chunky bark options take longer to break down than a standard landscaping bark mulch due to containing more of the thick pieces of bark which have a tumbled appearance. These bark options usually contain less white wood content than a standard landscaping bark mulch and as such, tend to be a little more expensive. 

Important notes:

  • Wood/bark products may be treated with a pesticide called methyl bromide and some may contain pathogens, both of which can affect plant growth and animal health, so it’s important to check the description of the product you are buying. If it doesn’t advise on these points specifically, then you should always ask the supplier the question before purchasing.
  • Where you see ‘FSC Certified’ or ‘FSC Certified Source’ on wood or bark products this means that supplier has ensured that the wood used to produce them has been approved by the Forest Stewardship Council as being from a certified forest or from post-consumer waste. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international non-profit, multi-stakeholder organisation established in 1993 to promote responsible management of the world's forests. FSC is the only wood certification scheme endorsed by major environmental charities, including WWF, Greenpeace and The Woodland Trust.

 
 
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