Photos of a cedar forest on the left and a cypress forest on the left.

Cedar vs Cypress Mulch: Which is Better For Your Garden (& the Planet)?

Photos of cedar trees on the left and cypress trees on the right

TABLE OF CONTENTS -

Introduction

For years I have coveted cedar mulch (good looking but pricey) and walked right by cypress mulch (fuzzy on the details but - isn't it bad for the environment?).

Spring's around the corner. With flower beds to replenish and mulch on my mind, I took some time to truly understand the pros and cons of these two ever present evergreen mulches.

I've learned that cypress mulch is a troubling choice if you care about wetlands and wildlife. And cedar has its pros but there are surprising cons - it repels butterflies?? (I now have one less thing to covet).

Sharing is caring! Here's what I now know. I hope it helps you make the best mulch choice for your garden.

Photo of a mulched raised bed with borders made with 2xEDGE staples with text: Easy DIY raised beds.

Benefits of Using Cedar and Cypress Mulches

Both mulches supply all of the benefits of any organic mulch in that they:

  • act as a top dressing that creates a protective layer on the soil surface that aids in water retention and helps to maintain soil moisture;
  • regulate soil temperature by insulating soil from heat and cold;
  • create a weed barrier that can stop weed growth and weed seed germination (apply a 3"-4" layer of mulch and skip the landscape fabric);
  • promote plant growth and healthy plant roots by supplying nutrients to the soil and, so, building soil integrity.

Commonalities Between Cedar and Cypress Mulch

  • Cypress and cedar trees are both coniferous trees.
  • Both cedar and cypress trees are a softwood type of tree. (There's bad info on the interwebs claiming that¬†cedar trees are hardwood trees; they are not.)
  • The mulches produced from both trees are organic mulches that add acidity to your soil as they break down. (This can have negative effects if your soil is already acidic as it could tip the scales and render your garden beds too acidic for many plants.)
  • Both mulches can last years, but that also means it takes a long time for them to break down and provide nutrients to your soil and plants.
  • Each type of mulch is available in the form of woodchips or as shredded mulch. The shredded mulch variety creates a particularly effective layer of protection that stays where you put it.
  • You can easily find cypress and cedar mulches at garden centers and big box stores like Home Depot.

Cedar Mulch Pros and Cons

Western red cedar trees (Thuja plicata)

Pros

  • Unlike cypress trees, cedar trees are plentiful and are not a controversial source of mulch.
  • Cedar wood mulch is a by-product of cedar lumber processing - what could be headed to the landfill is instead turned into a useful product: mulch.
  • Cedar mulches last a long time - 3-5 years - compared to other mulches.
  • Cedar has a distinct fragrance that many people find to be a pleasant aroma.
  • Cedar trees produce oils and chemicals that are a natural bug repellant. Termites, some ants and beetles, roaches, and some moths (think: cedar closets) will avoid areas mulched with cedar. (There's a downside to this. Read on.)
  • From cedar you get a naturally reddish mulch that retains its color longer than other mulches including dyed mulches.

Cons

  • A lot is written about cedar mulch repelling not just insect pests but also beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies, some moths and wasps, and ladybugs. These bugs are pollinators and mortal enemies of bugs we don't want in our gardens such as aphids.
  • Cedar-based mulches are more costly. You can get a lot of the same benefits you get from cedar from other types of mulch with less out of pocket expense.
  • Cedar's fragrance can trigger allergic reactions. If you spread it, proceed with caution.

Cypress Mulch Pros and Cons

Mature cypress trees (taxodium distichum) in Lettuce Lake Park Trail, Tampa, FL, USA.jpg

Pros

  • Cypress mulch lasts in the range of 2-3 years - not as long as cedar but longer than many other mulches.

Cons

Concerns for the environment are real when it comes to cypress mulch:

  • Cypress mulch is less expensive than cedar to purchase at the store. But if you're inclined to include environmental costs in your purchasing decisions then you'll have to up-tick the number on the price tag of a bag of cypress mulch. Read on.
  • Cypress forests serve the larger ecosystems they inhabit by providing a place for floodwaters to collect, and by filtering the water that they live and grow in. Cutting them down to use for mulch eliminates these environmentally beneficial activities.
  • Mature cypress forests provide wildlife habitats and breeding grounds for amphibians, ducks, fish, and raptors such as bald eagles. The practice of cutting down cypress trees for mulch¬†endangers these habitats.
  • Rapid deforestation of cypress tree ecosystems has had negative environmental effects¬†on the areas where these trees live and for the wildlife that inhabit them. Cypress trees grow very slowly, taking about a century to mature. It's not possible to quickly regenerate a cypress forest - or the natural habitats these forests can provide.
  • If you're using cypress mulch because you've heard it has aromatic, pest- and rot-resistant qualities, that's no longer the case. Cypress mulch used to be a by-product of mature cypress lumber processing. Mature trees do have these qualities. But demand increased and producers switched to using immature trees that don't have these qualities. Today, cypress mulch isn't particularly distinct from other wood mulches.
  • Also to note, the cypress mulch available today is typically a cypress mulch blend that incorporates other types of wood, further diluting the qualities that once made cypress mulch highly sought after.

Photo of a hexagon shaped tree surround made with 2xEDGE staples with text: Mulch + 2xEDGE = Your perfect raised bed

Parting Thoughts About Cypress Mulch

It's not clear whether the practices that many environmentalists and scientists have claimed to have caused rapid deforestation of mature (and immature) cypress forests continue today.

I have read that the demand for, and production of, this mulch has decreased over the last decade or so. And there is evidence that cypress forests are making a comeback.

At the same time, the southern US states where the pond cypress trees and bald cypress trees used to create cypress mulch grow are experiencing other threats to cypress forests such as salt water spilling into fresh water habitats that cypress call home. Cypress can't survive in salt water.

Sigh.

There are so many mulch options available to us that are eco-friendly and beneficial for our gardens. Cedar is one (except maybe for the pollinator deterring aspects).

Depending on your use case - landscape beds, vegetable gardens, tree surrounds, paths - other mulches are likely a good option. Alternatives include hardwood mulches, bark chips and shredded bark, pine mulches like pine needles, pine bark mulch, ground-up leaves, grass clippings -- so many different types of mulch to choose from.

A Plea for Cypress Trees

Healthy cypress forest with egret taking flight.

It's heartening to know that cypress forests are on the rise again. Keeping consumer demand for cypress mulch - including cypress mulch blends - low, or null, will help foster the conditions for these trees and the habitats they house to regenerate and thrive.

So, the next time you're exploring your mulch options, maybe skip the cypress mulch, check out the cedar mulch, and definitely consider the many other types of mulches that have only positive environmental impact.

And don't forget: you can get your hands on woodchips for free!


References

Photo of a mulched flower bed with borders made with 2xEDGE staples with text: Contain your mulch, naturally.

Photo Credits

Feature images

Photo #3: Photo by Casey Horner

Photo #4: Photo by The Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Photo #5: Photo by gang coo

Back to blog