Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Benefit of Wood Playground Mulch Over Rubber Mulch

At JK Enterprises, we pride ourselves on our top-quality materials, and never more than with our playground mulch. Unlike landscaping mulches, playground mulches are meant to be played on and around, so it’s crucial that it is clean, free from debris and splinter resistant. Additionally, to be labelled “playground” mulch, it is required to be a “certified safety surface” which means, among other things, that it is firm underfoot (so as to be ADA accessible and not cause tumbles) and that it be cushiony enough for landing on if a fearless youngster should fall from the monkey bars. We’ve explained a bit more about playground mulches in another blog post.

But what about the other popular “certified safety surface” for playgrounds? That’s rubber mulch. Rubber mulch is popular for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s “recycling”. It’s made from the millions of tires that wear out every year and that tire companies would have to pay big bucks to dispose of. The very thing that makes it hard to dispose of is what schools and playgrounds like about it -- it doesn’t decompose. That means you never have to top it up as you have to periodically with wood mulches, which break down over time.

Now, we understand that not everyone wants to top up their wood mulch every year or two, but if that’s the case, try pea gravel. We don’t like rubber mulches and here’s why.

The Side Effects of Rubber Mulch

Let’s start with the least-scary reason; the environment. Rubber doesn’t really decompose. It’s kind of like plastic. It just sits there, getting weathered away like so many bottle caps. If the playground ever stops being a playground, the rubber “crumbs” will most likely get turned under the soil. That’s not recycling. That’s polluting. And they’re selling you the pollutants.

The other reason is much more scary. According to some, rubber mulch is not as inert as the marketing materials claim. Although the EPA okayed its use, the very limited study that they did (only two playgrounds) merely tested the risk of lead contamination. However, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station reported “under relatively mild conditions of temperature and leaching solvent, components of crumb rubber produced from tires (i) volatilize into the vapor phase and (ii) are leached into water in contact with the crumbs.” (source)

Environment and Human Health, a Connecticut-based non-profit research agency, released a report saying, in part, “It is clear that the recycled rubber crumbs are not inert, nor is a high-temperature or severe solvent extraction needed to release metals, volatile organic compounds, or semi-volatile organic compounds. The release of airborne chemicals and dust is well established by the current information...Health endpoints of concern are numerous, including acute irritation of the lungs, skin, and eyes, and chronic irritation of the lung, skin, and eyes. Knowledge is somewhat limited about the effects of semi-volatile chemicals on the kidney, endocrine system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, developmental effects and the potential to induce cancers,” and that rubber mulch “may not be appropriate for playgrounds with open layers of recycled tire crumbs.”


There are so many ways to use stone in your landscaping design that we can’t hope to cover it all in this short article. The best option is really to look through a lot of designs and magazines and do a lot of dreaming out in your yard. There are so many things to do it will take you a fair bit of time to just work out all the options in your mind. But we’ve put together a few ideas to get you started on your quest.

Mix Mediums
You wouldn’t plant all your flowers in one color, would you? So why would you feel constrained to one type of stone? Mixing types or stone, or even mixing in gravel or concrete, is a great way to add interest in a subtle way. You can experiment with patterns, textures, or both! Hardscape is an enduring investment, so you won’t want to feel bored with it after a few years.

Connect With the Landscape
Nearly every yard will have some element of the landscape that you can play up. Maybe it’s a stunning view, a slightly rolling lawn, or numerous shady nooks. Whatever feature defines your landscape, be sure to highlight it, and design to show it off to its best potential, whether that’s paths, walls, raised beds or anything else.

Create Cozy Enclosures
A garden without a place to sit might as well be a hallway — there’s no reason to linger. One of the best places to use stone and other hardscape materials is to pave or otherwise create cozy little nooks that contain a bench or a bistro table. You could just leave these to grass, but then they become a real pain to maintain, what with all those tight corners.

Solve Drainage Problems
One of the perennial issues in Virginia is managing the sheer volume of rain. Gutters and downspouts are a start, but many a gardener has been dismayed to see a flower bed nearly drowned after a week of rainy weather, or a trench gouged out by a torrent. Many types of stone, from pea gravel right up to river stones, can be used to channel water, without becoming soggy and unattractive doing so. You can even dig a deep pit to fill with stones that will function as a catchment and slowly release moisture into your yard on hot days.
One of our favorite ideas is that of a “dry creek bed.” Using stones of different sizes, over weedproof underlayment, use the lay of your land to create a “stream” leading somewhere safe. This feature is equally attractive dry as it is wet, and your yard will never again suffer from lack of drainage.
Be sure to stop by JK Enterprises for a catalog or two to prime the pump of your imagination. And when the time comes, we’ll be happy to help make your dream a reality.


Though many of us long for a simpler, less chaotic life, closer to nature and its rhythms, the fact remains that most of us are not farmers. So while you might know the difference between clay and sand, it’s no shame that you don’t know the difference between topsoil and garden soil. That is, no doubt, why you’re reading this article.

Soil Isn’t Just Dirt
Soil is not the same as dirt. “Dirt” is just tiny particles of rock. You get “dirt” when you excavate a basement. Soil has microorganisms and organic matter and is able to sustain many kinds of plant life. Dirt is pretty much sterile. A few weeds will grow in it; that’s all.
The difference between topsoil and garden soil is an even finer distinction than the difference between soil and dirt, and it has to do with the amount of organic matter, and to a lesser extent, the types of trace minerals and the ratio of clay, sand and silt. Garden soil is a category of topsoil.
Topsoil is general purpose, and if there’s no other extenuating factors, is usually installed in bulk quantities in new construction or landscaping. We’re talking tens or hundreds of cubic yards. That’s because after construction the soil has either been stripped or compacted and basically needs replacing. Generic topsoil is just that — generic, so it’s not meant to be amalgamated with old soil. It’s just added on top in enough quantity to support whatever will be seeded on it.
If you want garden soil, however, that usually means you have a little plot somewhere that you want to enrich. For that to work properly, you want to know what type of soil you have.
How to Use Garden Soil
In your existing garden site, you’ll want to determine what kind of soil you have. If it’s sand, the particles will be rather big and the soil is pretty easy to work, but you have trouble tamping it down. If you have clay soil, the particles are very fine, and you’ll notice that the soil tends to harden to a brick-like consistency. What you will want is soil halfway between the two, which is known as loam.
Loam has a good mixture of particle sizes, and it is also a bit fluffy due to the presence of humus, or organic matter (which is usually decomposed leaves and grass). Loam is what you’re going for, so if you have clay soil, you’ll want to order a garden soil that’s mostly sand — if it includes a portion of compost, all the better, as that will take care of the humus part of the good soil equation. If you have sandy soil, do the opposite. And if you have loam already, a mixture with equal parts sand-clay-compost will work. Strictly speaking, you don’t have to have compost, but it’s nature’s fertilizer, so you might as well.
If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have, take it into our offices at JK Enterprises, and we’ll have a look at it and advise you about the best type of garden soil to order.