Last Modified: December 17, 2023

Laying Rubber Mulch

A Step-By-Step DIY Guide With Calculator

A pile of rubber mulch

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist

Overview

In a rapidly evolving landscaping sector, loose fill rubber mulch has emerged as an efficient alternative to traditional materials, particularly for children's play area surfacing. Made from recycled tyres, it offers longevity and a safety element which is unmatched. The good news is that installation of rubber mulch is very DIY-friendly, and we have the plan you need.

Let’s look at everything that is involved, and the step-by-step guide on how to install rubber mulch for playground surfaces.

Key Takeaways

  • Benefits: Long-lasting, safety & low-maintenance are key benefits.
  • All-Weather: Resistant to water, they prevent pooling and add traction.
  • Health Concerns: There are some issues about the degradation of recycled rubber.
  • DIY Guide: Here's our step-by-step guide to install rubber mulch loose fill surfaces.
Outdoor play area with children climbing

What is Rubber Mulch?

Rubber mulch is a product manufactured from shredded tyres. These shreds can be used as a safety surface, or to replace organic mulches like wood chips or leaves. The appearance often mimics traditional mulch, or other colours, to make it visually appealing while offering several extra benefits.

Benefits of Rubber Mulch

Rubber mulch has many advantages. It is hard-wearing due to it's resistance to rot and decay. On the safety front, its shock-absorbing qualities make it a very effective surface choice for playgrounds. Moreover, it can play role in backyard weed prevention, by acting as a barrier that impedes sunlight.

Safety Performance

Rubber mulch is known for its exceptional safety performance. Unlike other mulching materials, rubber provides excellent shock absorption. This means in places like playgrounds, the likelihood of injury from falls is significantly reduced.

Weed Growth

An often-overlooked side of rubber mulch is it's ability to deters weeds, making it a low maintenance weed control solution. It can act as a barrier, blocking sunlight, which deters growth of weeds.

Brown mulch chippings used around plants and a rockery

Performance in Weather Conditions

Rubber mulch is consistent in all weather conditions. It can get hot under direct sunlight, but its permeability ensures water doesn't accumulate, preventing mold growth and degradation. As a material it can create a structure that helps to prevent pooling of water after rain, increasing traction in high traffic areas.

Prevent Dirt and Muddy Footprints

Unlike organic mulches, rocks or bare soil, rubber mulch significantly reduces the amount of dirt and muddy footprints carried into homes or onto play equipment. Especially after a rain, rubber mulch dries quickly, ensuring a cleaner environment.

Durable

The hard-wearing nature of rubber mulch is a key benefit. Made from recycled tyres, its lifespan is extended significantly compared to traditional mulches. This longevity ensures that landscapes remain aesthetically pleasing and functional for extended periods without the need for frequent top-ups.

Loose fill rubber mulch chippings close up

Common Applications

Playground Surface

Rubber mulch is becoming increasingly popular as a playground surface. Thanks to its cushioning properties, it offers a safer environment for children, reducing the severity of injuries from falls. It's also relatively low-maintenance, making it handy for public and private playgrounds alike.

Slippery slide exits are high-impact areas in playgrounds. Rubber mulch, with its shock-absorbing qualities and thickness, is perfect for such zones edges, reducing the chance of injuries when children zoom down slides. Keep in mind that it may become uncomfortably hot under direct sunlight.

An outdoor play area with loose fill rubber surface

Drainage System

Given its permeability, rubber mulch can be integrated into a drainage system. It 's permeability can help ensure that water doesn't stagnate, reducing the potential for mould or mildew growth. However, the use of a high-quality membrane is vital to ensure the drainage system does not fail with a clogged membrane.

Gardens

In gardens and around trees, rubber mulch can provide an aesthetically pleasing and low-maintenance mulching solution. Beyond the usual benefits of moisture retention and weed prevention, it also acts as a deterrent to most pests, which can be ideal for some gardeners.

However, the marketing claims about how eco-friendly it is, have some major question marks over them, which we cover, next.

A landscaped garden bed using brown rubber chips

Toxicity Concerns

Rubber mulch, while advantageous for safety and traction on playgrounds, raises important but often overlooked concerns. Recycled rubber contains excessive zinc from the manufacturing process, which can damage plants and be difficult to deal with. As it degrades, rubber release toxic substances, including heavy metals like aluminum, cadmium, chromium, molybdenum and selenium, along with harmful compounds which can harm both human health and the environment.

Another concern is the leachates impact on aquatic life. Research at Bucknell University revealed that rubber mulch leachate can harm algae, zooplankton, snails, and fish, advising against its use near water bodies. Additionally, rubber mulch emits gases, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), especially when exposed to heat. Its high flammability makes it unsuitable for high fire risk areas.

These concerns underline the need for careful consideration and correct management when using rubber mulch.

How to Install Playground Rubber Mulch

Installing rubber mulch correctly is the key to maximising the major benefits listed previously. Proper ground preparation to ensure a level and clean surface. Drainage must be considered to ensure the mulch doesn't become waterlogged, which can be aided by the use of landscape fabric, which also provides a barrier against weeds. Once these steps are in place, the rubber chips can be spread evenly to complete the job.

Rubber edged path installation

The required tools for laying rubber mulch are:

  • Shovel
  • Rake
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Gloves
  • Mallet or hammer
  • Measuring tape
  • String
  • Wooden stakes or pegs

Need to work out how much rubber mulch your play area or mulching  project needs? Try our free bark calculator.

Laying Rubber Mulch: Our Step by Step Guide

Ground Preparation

The success of any rubber mulch installation starts with proper groundwork. This involves removal of any pre-existing grass, weeds, or major tree roots that could pose a future problem. After the removal and preliminary clean-up, leveling the ground is ideal where possible. This can preventing potential pooling of water and irregularities that could become tripping hazards.

Twin shrubs with a weed membrane surround

Ensuring Proper Drainage

Water stagnation is a real problem for any garden or landscaping feature. While it's non-biodegradable, water accumulating beneath the rubber mulch is very detrimental to plant health, and can lead to mould growth and general deterioration. Thus, sufficient drainage is essential. A site that’s graded well, drains well, and maintains the mulch's lifespan. In some cases, setting a layer of gravel sub base before the membrane may be necessary to further aid in optimising drainage.

The step before spreading the mulch rubber is vital. You will need to lay a landscape fabric, or membrane. This geo-textile material serves two important purposes; stopping weed growth from below, and containing the rubber chippings in a way that allows for drainage.

What to Put Under Rubber Mulch - Landscape Fabric

Lay the membrane with seam overlap - a minimum of 8cm (3 inches) - and ensure that all seams are properly secured with pegs to prevent dirt or other materials from mixing with the rubber chippings. Landscape fabric acts as more than just a weed deterrent. Its semi-permeable quality aids in water drainage while preventing the soil and mulch cover from becoming mixed.

Where there is likely to be heavy traffic, such as on a play surface, the deployment of a heavy duty membrane with a minimum gsm of 125 is recommended. This will provide a far more durable base and require less maintenance (replacing a membrane can be quite a task!).

How to Put Down Rubber Mulch

With the groundwork done, make good sized piles strategically around the area, using a wheelbarrows or tubs. Then, go for an even spread, checking the depth is consistent and tailored to the areas purpose, be it a garden or a play surface. Using the right tools is essential. Tools like rakes, shovels, and mattocks aid in digging, spreading and mixing the mulch. Regularly checking for the depth with a measuring tape or stick can help ensure appropriate coverage for fall safety.

Securing the Boundaries

Rubber mulch's boundaries, especially when installed in areas with a lot of movement or close to playground equipment like slide exits, require extra attention. This ensures the mulch remains secure in place and offers consistent safety.

Installing rubber edging, mats or border materials can provide attractive containment, keeping the mulch in its place but also giving a nice finish to the edge.

A rubber edging border around a bed of rubber mulch

Maintenance

One you install rubber mulch it doesn't translate "low maintenance " to "no maintenance". High traffic areas, such as playgrounds or pathways, require more frequent inspections. Over time, the mulch may become unevenly distributed, necessitating redistribution or additional mulch.

For a high traffic areas, such as a playground surface or play area, regular inspections can ensure the rubber chippings remain at the optimal safety depth. Over time, there might be areas that need a bit of a top-up. Also, while weed growth is minimal, the occasional sprout might need addressing.

Rubber chippings mulch close up

Rubber Mulch vs. Other Materials

Especially where critical fall heights are involved, rubber mulch stands tall when compared not just with organic mulches but also against harder surfaces of concrete.

Wood Chips

Compared to wood chips, rubber mulch has the edge in terms of longevity and maintenance. Wood, being organic, decomposes over time, needs more frequent replenishment. However, safety compliant wood, such as EWF, has none of the toxic residues which may be of concern to some parents.

Rubber mulch, once laid, offers many years of service without significant degradation. The longevity, combined with its fall safety features, makes it a worthy alternative to wood and stone chippings.

Wood chippings held in a hand

Engineered Wood Fibre (EWF)

Engineered wood fibre is a popular choice for playground surfacing in the United States, with approximately 75% of American playgrounds opting for it. Its appeal lies in its excellent impact absorption and slip resistance when installed correctly, making it suitable for both public and home play areas.

EWF is a cost-effective alternative to rubber chippings and offers accessibility that pea gravel and sand surfaces cannot. Moreover, it provides peace of mind as certified EWF doesn't pose a risk of harmful chemical leaching, ensuring the safety of children and the environment.

An outdoor play area with engineered wood fibre

Hard Surfaces

When comparing with surfaces like concrete or asphalt, rubber mulch's cushioning makes the safety from critical fall heights a stand out. Hard surfaces, albeit long-lasting, lack the shock-absorbing qualities of rubber mulch. Especially in playgrounds, the risk of injuries on falls is significantly reduced when you use rubber mulch for playgrounds.

Comparison to Bonded Rubber Mulch

Laying loose fill rubber mulch differs from installing bonded rubber mulch for playgrounds, in terms of the structure, level of expertise and maintenance. Bonded rubber mulch is a solid surface made from shredded rubber pieces and bonded with a resin. While it offers greater safety and longevity, it may require professional installation and repair if damaged. Loose fill rubber mulch is easier to install as a DIY project, and top-up, making it a more cost-effective option.

Rubber bonded mulch surfaces next to each other

Summary

Rubber mulch’s attributes make it an enticing option for varied landscaping needs. A loose fill, rubber mulch playground installation, while straightforward, requires attention to detail to achieve a professional finish. There are safety concerns about the chemical leachate from the materials gradual degradation which should also be carefully weighed up. However, when done right, it can yield many years of fall safety for your play area, or low maintenance weed control for your borders.

A raised bed of flowers and a small child with a watering can

FAQs

How deep should rubber mulch be for playground?

Minimum depths range from 10cm up to 30cm, depending on the highest fall possible from playground equipment. For more, see here.

Do you put anything under rubber mulch?

Yes, a top layer made of landscape fabric is a material typically placed beneath rubber mulch. It serves as a barrier against weeds and ensures the longevity of the mulch.

How do you prepare the ground for rubber chippings?

Clear the ground of grass, weeds, and other debris. Proper drainage is also paramount to ensure the longevity and functionality of the rubber chippings.

What do you put under rubber chippings?

Landscape fabric or geo-textile membrane is highly recommended beneath all rubber chippings. It acts as a barrier against weed infiltration and helps the chippings remain contained.

Should I put gravel under rubber mulch?

Incorporating sand and gravel can be beneficial for drainage. Packing it flat will help achieve a level surface and increase it's longevity.

There are many other DIY project guides available from Outdoor Aggregates. Why not 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.