What’s the Difference Between Wood Chips, Mulch and Fertilizer?

Helping your garden grow and flourish involves nourishing and supporting the soil ecosystem and the plants that grow in it. Wood chips, mulch and fertilizer offer three different ways to nourish and protect your plants. But what are the differences between these 3 garden additives or are they the same?

Wood Chips

Wood chips are small chips made of any type of wood, from hard woods like redwood or cedar to soft woods like pine. They are sourced when trees are cut down or branches removed, and the actual wood is “chipped”or chopped into small pieces. Wood chips can also include chipped or shredded bark from the outer layer of trees. Wood chips can be used for a variety of purposes in landscaping and gardening. They may be used to mulch garden beds and soil, or to lay down garden paths. Some hardwood chips can be hard and take a long time to break down, and some softwood chips can break down and need replacement quickly.


When wood chips are used to protect and nourish garden beds and soil, we call it mulch. However, while wood chips can be mulch, not all mulch is wood chips. Mulch is simply a protective layer of material that’s usually added as a top layer over soil around plants for moisture retention, temperature regulation and weed control. Mulch can be composed of a range of materials, including wood chips, bark, leaves, pebbles, straw or clippings. Some of these are designed to break down and add nutrients to the soil (organic matter) while others are simply for protection and water retention (stones and pebbles). Mulch is essential for most gardens, particularly those is very hot or very cold climates. Mulch can be added to your garden at any time to support plant growth and protection.


Plants need certain chemical elements to grow and thrive, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These elements are frequently measured in packaged fertilizers. While these are also in most soil, fertilizer is designed to directly increase the level of nutrients to support plant growth in soils that may be deficient. Plants that need to grow fast and require a lot of energy, such as crop plants, tend to need fertilizer.

However, because fertilizers increase plant growth, they need to be used with care. Fertilizer may make trees in your yard grow too fast or too big. Over-fertilized plants can also die or be ‘burnt’ by excess fertilizer around them. If you think your soil may be deficient and require fertilization, it’s best to consult with a qualified arborist about the best way to nourish your soil and whether you should apply fertilizer or use mulch for a gentler effect.

Understanding the difference between wood chips, mulch and fertilizer is essential to creating a healthy garden. Talk to an experienced local arborist for more advice about how to choose the right addition to support and nourish your garden.