I’m often asked if there is a difference between a shredded hardwood mulch and "regular" mulch. Given how the term “shredded hardwood” is used in practice in our area, it likely doesn’t mean much by itself—it can be a good mulch but it isn’t worth paying more for it.
We covered the benefits of mulch as well as the criteria for a good mulch in earlier blogs posts. The benefits and criteria outlined create a potential tradeoff: long lasting soil protection (from compaction, weeds, and heat) vs breakdown for nutrients.
In natural wood mulches, this can play out in the wood classification because there are only two types: hardwood and softwood. Hardwood trees are, not surprisingly, harder (denser) than softwood, take longer to grow, and take longer to break down as a mulch. In contrast, softwood trees are relatively soft (less dense), grow more quickly, and break down more quickly in your garden.
Logic follows that hardwood mulches should last longer than softwood on a garden and so don’t need to be replaced as frequently (less labor needed!). Because most people don’t know that mulches can and should contribute nutrients to your soil over time, companies frequently price hardwood mulches higher than “regular” mulches in the greater-Manassas, VA area.
Practically, however, spending additional money for a “shredded hardwood” mulch doesn’t make sense to me.
First, “shredded hardwood” can be a misleading term. Some companies sell a mix of hard and soft wood as a “shredded hardwood” mulch; others do sell a pure hard wood mulch. For most of us, there isn’t a great way to tell the difference—I’m always amazed by how many specific types of wood some of our operations team members can identify in a finished mulch.
Second, I’m not sure there is a need to spend more money: I haven’t yet come across research that isolates a performance difference between a pure hardwood mulch and hard/soft wood mulch mix.
Lastly, hard wood is sourced from wood mills—a by-product that has to be shipped a long distance to Manassas, VA—or local construction projects (see our dyed mulch post for why this is bad for gardens!). A potentially healthy and sustainable option could come from local land clearing companies—they could separate tree types into different containers—but I haven’t seen this done in practice yet.
If well-made, hardwood trees can make a great mulch. However, given that I haven't come across research regarding the performance difference and it's hard to truly get a pure hardwood mulch, I don't think it's worth spending additional money for it.
In contrast, a regular, well-made mulch is great option. It's frequently sourced from (local) land clearing or, as in our case, from fallen or pruned branches, and is a mix of hard and soft woods. This makes it a little cheaper, balances the pros and cons of wood classifications, and is sustainably sourced.