Last Modified: April 3, 2024

How to Lay Bark Chippings

A Comprehensive How-To DIY Guide

Saplings with bark chipping mulch

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist

Overview

Bark chippings offer a refreshing and natural look to your garden's landscape. From creating paths to mulching your gardens and plants, these organic materials not only enhance aesthetics but also deliver practical benefits. While it is an easy DIY project for people of all levels, just like all landscaping endeavours, laying bark chippings requires a systematic approach in order to get the best results. For easy reference, you can use the jump links below, to skip to the relevant section you need at any time.

Gardening tools and equipment

This guide provides a comprehensive, step-by-step approach on how to lay wood chips in garden settings, from choosing the right bark for your project to applying the finishing touches. We break down the process, step-by-step, into an easy to follow method for laying bark in garden borders and for other features.

Also, don't miss our 'Pebble Picker' tool in the sidebar or menu. With our new tool, you can choose browse aggregates by colour and type with ease.

Laying pine mulch around plants in a garden border

Key Takeaways

  • Selection: Opt for bark types based on purpose, decomposition needs and your desired aesthetics.
  • Tools: Check our list to make sure you have the required tools you will need for a smooth installation.
  • Calculate: Use our online calculator to estimate the right amount of bark chippings for your project needs.
  • Depth: Find out how to choose the appropriate depth to suit the purpose of your project.
How to lay bark chippings close up

Pros and Cons of Using Decorative Bark Mulch

Laying bark chippings can rejuvenate a garden, creating a visually appealing space while offering many benefits that are practical in nature, such as suppressing weed growth, protecting plant roots, regulating soil temperature and moisture retention.

Next, we cover the pros and cons of mulching with bark, and then we move on to our step-by-step 'how-to' guide about how to lay garden bark chippings.

Durability and Decomposition Rate

While bark mulch may be less durable than wood chips or inorganic alternatives, such as slate chippings or rubber mulch, bark is the most suitable for soil improving out of all the mulches. This is because, like all organic mulches, bark decomposes slowly over time, adding valuable nutrients to the soil and plant life along the way. This, in turn, encourages healthy micro-organisms, as they devour the organic matter. Therefore, the decomposition rate of bark chippings influences both its longevity and soil health.

Composted bark disintegrates faster, enriching the soil with nutrients, making it an ideal garden mulch if soil rejuvenation is your primary concern. However, raw bark chips are more durable than composted bark fines. They also remain visually appealing for longer and don't need topping up as often, but their contribution to the soil will be fewer nutrients, over a longer time frame.

Landscaping bark around palms

Suppress Weeds and Retain Moisture

When you lay bark chips garden maintenance becomes far easier. That's because bark mulch is great for depriving weeds of the sunlight they need to germinate, making the management of borders easier, from a maintenance perspective. Add to that the way that it can regulate soil temperature, slowing the evaporation of water and helping the soil retain moisture, and you really have a low-maintenance ground cover.

Plant Roots, Drainage and Erosion

Bark chips or shredded bark mulch, are also an amazing way to protect plant roots from the scorching sun of summer, and the freezing frost of winter. While bark mulch does form a physical barrier against weeds, it also allows rainwater to effectively permeate through the organic matter, improving drainage and run-off issues. The way that the bark will naturally decompose adds to the soil structure, and mycelium growth, improving the soil dramatically, and effectively fighting erosion issues.

Shredded wood around spring bulbs

Caution: Young Plants and Breathing Space for Trees

Young plants, still establishing their roots, require ample breathing space and unobstructed access to nutrients and water. Encasing them with bark can stifle their growth or worse. That's why it's advisable to leave a clear circle around the base of young plants, or avoid it completely if the type of plant is known to be incompatible with bark when a seedling. Mulch can also 'sour', forming toxic compounds which can be extremely harmful to your plants.

It's worth noting that even trees and established plants need breathing space. Direct contact between bark mulch and plant stems can trap moisture, leading to rot, fungal diseases, and potential gnawing rodent issues.

Now that we have covered the important considerations of using bark as a ground cover, including the pros and cons, we are now ready to move onto the process for choosing the optimal bark chipping for your specific feature.

Need to work out how many bark chippings your project needs? Try our free bark and wood chip calculator.

How to Lay Bark Chippings

In the next section, we take it step-by-step on how to lay bark chippings, beginning with how to choose the optimal bark chippings for your goals, followed by the tools and equipment you will need to complete the job. Then, we move onto measuring up, excavation before finishing with laying your bark chips. Are you ready to renovate your outdoor space?!

Person handling fresh chipped wood

1. Choose the Optimal Bark

Picking the right type of garden bark can be integral to the success of your landscaping project, because different bark types suit different requirements and settings. Thus, it’s essential to understand the different types, and their traits, in order to match the suitability to your specific goals. We can do this by posing some questions, following a simple process:

  1. 1
    What is the purpose of the installation?
  2. 2
    What is the desired aesthetic?
  3. 3
    Are there any allergies to consider?
  4. 4
    Choose the appropriate type of bark chip to meet your needs.

Determining the purpose is one of the best guides to making the right choice. For instance, a children's play surface demands play grade, play bark chips which have been tested to provide critical fall height protection for minimising injuries from falls. On the other hand, garden borders and spaces around trees are primarily for aesthetic purposes, making decorative bark mulch a more logical choice.

Woodchip play area image by lisa burch from

Aesthetics matter, especially when the goal is to enhance garden appeal. Decorative bark mulch comes in various shades and textures. Some are rich and dark, adding depth to garden beds, while others have a more natural wood color, blending seamlessly into natural surroundings. Select the type that complements your garden’s overall theme.

Consider the primary function of the feature, and/or, the type of contrast or highlight you are trying to create, when choosing the type of bark you think is best suited for your needs. Next, we list the tools and equipment you will require for the task.

Child walking in a forest

2. Required Tools and Equipment

  1. 1
    Measuring tape
  2. 2
    Garden rake or flattening tool (optional)
  3. 3
    Shovel or spade
  4. 4
    Wheelbarrow
  5. 5
    Garden gloves
  6. 6
    Stakes or spray paint
  1. 7
    Sharp scissors or utility knife
  2. 8
    Garden pegs or staples
  3. 9
    Watering can or hose
  4. 10
    Tarpaulin or plastic sheet
  5. 11
    Spirit level (optional)
  6. 12
    Calculator or smartphone
Gardening tools lying in a wheelbarrow

3. Measure Up and Calculate

Ensuring you have the right amount of bark for your project avoids interruptions and can help to ensure consistency in the quality and appearance. Here are the steps for estimating your requirements:

  1. 1
    Measure the proposed area.
  2. 2
    Draw up a skeleton plan.
  3. 3
    Choose the appropriate depth.
  4. 4
    Use our online bark calculator to get an accurate estimation.
Measuring an area for garden renovation

With a tape measure, measure and note down the length and width of the space to cover. For irregularly shaped areas, break them down into smaller rectangles or squares and measure separately, then sum the areas up within your skeleton plan. A skeleton plan is just a sketch you draw up to help you visualise the shape and make important notes about things like the dimensions of the area, proposed plantings or any landmarks to consider.

The appropriate depth will vary according to the purpose. Mulches laid too thin may not suppress weeds effectively, while a very thick layer is necessary when laying bark for play area surfaces. For mulching, typically, a depth of 5-10 cm (2-4 inches) is recommended.

Estimating the correct amount of material you need is easy when you use an online bark calculator. With our tool, just by entering the dimensions of the area and desired depth, you can quickly get an estimate of the quantity required, including by the bulk bag. It can be further customised as well, but always factor in a little extra to account for settling and future top-ups.

1planing a garden project

4. Prepare the Surface

Laying bark mulch on well-prepared ground helps it settle evenly and remain in place. Here’s how to achieve an ideal base:

  1. 1
    Clear the ground.
  2. 2
    Mark the area.
  3. 3
    Test the suitability.

For longevity and lowest maintenance, it's useful to start with a plant-free soil surface by removing weeds or runners, which can potentially grow through the bark. To dig out precisely where needed, define the boundaries using stakes, string, or eco-friendly spray paint. Once marked out, walk through it or try to visualise it to try to make certain you are satisfied with the area prior to digging.

1marking out an area

5. Excavation

Excavation is required to establish the base at a proper depth for achieving your projects purpose. A well established base will help the bark and wood chippings remain in place and drain optimally.

  1. 1
    Cut out the edges.
  2. 2
    Dig to the depth required.
  3. 3
    Level out the base.

Begin by cutting out the edges by following the boundaries previously marked out. Skim the top layer to remove grass and other vegetation. Using a spade or a garden fork, make sure you get any stubborn plant roots to prevent regrowth.

Dig to just below the desired depth, unless you are adding a extra level of sub base, which you will need to account for. E.g. if you've opted for a 10cm layer, excavate out approximately 10cm of soil. This way, the bark will remain level with the surrounding ground, if that is your preference.

After digging, it's important to make the ground level as it prevents rain water from pooling in certain sections. Use a rake or flattening tool to even out the area, employing a spirit level if desired. You may also need to clear out stones, gravel, and roots.

1digging out an area of garden

6. Membrane: Laying a Permeable Weed Membrane

While not absolutely necessary, laying a permeable weed landscaping fabric can reduce maintenance and extend the longevity of your bark surface. As a physical barrier, it helps to suppress weeds while allowing water and nutrients to penetrate the soil, without harming the health of your prized plants.

NOTE: It may be better to use a heavy duty membrane where there is likely to be foot traffic, such as in play areas, or you are dealing with a significant weed problem.

Here are the steps for installation:

  1. 1
    Lay the membrane over the area.
  2. 2
    Cut to size.
  3. 3
    Secure with pegs or staples.

Lay the membrane on the levelled area, smoothing out wrinkles. Cut the weed membrane with scissors or a utility knife, leaving extra length for coverage. Overlap segments to prevent weed growth. Cut slits for any plantings. Secure the membrane with garden pegs or staples, especially at overlaps and edges, to prevent movement.

1laying heavy duty weed membrane

7. Installing Edging (optional)

Edging can play an integral part in building any low-maintenance garden feature. Not only does it give structure and help keep your bark contained (which can be prone to movement), but it can also add a beautiful symmetry, improving the feature's overall attractiveness. The edging should be installed so that it's flush with the surrounding ground, preventing spillover.

After cutting the edgings to size (where necessary), place them into the step already cut to hold the border and tamp soil around it for support. When you install simple edgings, minor reinforcement will be needed. To create edgings with form reinforcement, support the form with wooden stakes and nails or self-tapping timber screws. Fill in the backside of the trench and stand the edging of your choice against the form. Tamp soil around the edging for added stability.

To learn more about it, check out our articles How to Make Edging For a Garden, Edging For Gravel and Cheap Garden Edging Ideas.

1timber edging around a garden path

8. Add Your Bark Layer to Finish!

You're now in the home stretch. This is where you learn how to lay bark mulch on your soil surface effectively. If you are planting any shrubs or plants, you should do this before adding the bark.

  1. 1
    Make piles of bark around the area.
  2. 2
    Rake the surface even.
  3. 3
    Water lightly.
1wood mulch garden with shrubs

Starting at one end of your prepared area, move the shredded bark by making piles throughout the area using a wheelbarrow. Once you've distributed all the bark chippings, take a rake and gently spread them across the area, ensuring you cover any visible patches of the membrane. As you spread the bark, regularly check to ensure you're maintaining the bark products the desired depth.

After laying the chippings, a light sprinkling of water will help them settle. It helps bind the wood chips together slightly and adds weight, which can limit them from being displaced by wind or foot traffic.

1raking bark chips path

Other Considerations

Consider Your Plants and Shrubs

As we have learned, mulches can benefit plants in many ways. However, it’s crucial not to pile wood chips or mulch directly on plant stems or tree trunks, as this can cause rot. Always leave 7-10 cm (3-4 inches) clearance around plants roots, allowing them to breathe and absorb water freely.

How to Make a Bark Play Area

Our article, wood chips for play area, is all about creating play areas with play bark and play hardwood chips. It was written to be supplemented by this 'how-to' article on laying bark play area mulch.

Summary

Ground covers using decorative aggregates can transform the look and feel of any outdoor space, while offering both aesthetic and functional benefits. By following the steps outlined above, whether it's how to lay wood chippings or bark chippings, any DIYer can successfully complete this type of project. Just remember to choose your bark wisely and use an online calculator to estimate your needs accurately.

1landscaped garden with decorative pine nuggets

FAQs

How do you prepare the ground for bark chippings?

Start by clearing the ground of any weeds, stones, gravel, or debris. Mark the area you want to cover, and then excavate the area based on the depth required. Consider the plants and shrubs while doing so, ensuring you leave space around roots and stems for healthy plant growth.

Do I need membrane under bark chippings?

Not necessarily, but by laying a permeable weed membrane, you can suppress weeds more effectively while allowing water, sunlight and air to reach and protect the soil underneath.

Can you put bark straight onto soil?

You can, but for prolonged durability and efficiency, it's advisable to lay a weed membrane below the mulch surface before planting, as it also suppresses weed growth and helps maintain soil moisture.

How much bark do I need for play area surfacing?

As a general rule, you will need a minimum depth of 15-30 cm (6-12 inches) play bark to achieve critical fall height safety protection. We cover this in great detail here.

How do you put bark down on grass?

To put bark down on grass, first remove the grass layer, prepare the ground by levelling it, lay a permeable landscaping fabric (optional), and then evenly spread the bark chippings to the desired depth.

There are many wonderful types of wood chippings products available for your play area or mulching needs. Check them out!

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.