Mulch in Moderation

Cocoa mulch

After spreading cocoa mulch, I like to water the area so the tiny hulls will knit together and are less likely to blow around.

I used to disdain people who spread mulch on their flower beds and shrub borders. I thought, “Are they too lazy to weed?” My own flowerbeds were always mulch-free. I did have to spend a lot of time weeding though, especially during May and June.

However, after many years of landscaping for clients throughout northern Vermont, I’ve come to see the benefits of mulch. Yes, it does help prevent weeds, but it’s not 100 percent effective. You still have to watch for weeds. To me, the main benefit of mulch—as long as it’s not spread too thick—is to help the soil retain moisture during dry periods. This is especially clear when you tend gardens for clients who are infrequent weeders.

A couple years ago, I became a convert to cocoa mulch. Oh, it’s expensive at about 10 bucks a bag, but I think it’s worth the price. The mulch of choice around here is shredded hemlock bark. It’s readily available, but getting expensive too: a cubic yard sells for $50 or more. So, even if you only use it in a small area, give cocoa a try. Here’s why:

  • After a year on the bed, it breaks down and improves the soil. You have to apply the cocoa each year, but the soil benefits make it worth the expense. (For even more soil improvement, sprinkle the beds with shredded leaves in the fall.) When that material gets turned into the soil in spring, the improvement is noticeable.
  • Cocoa mulch is easy to spread—especially in jam-packed perennial gardens
  • The fine texture is perfect for perennials and annuals, which are often smothered in coarse mulches, such as shredded bark—good for planters, too!
  • Though it only lasts a week or so, the chocolatey smell is amazing
  • It looks a lot like dirt, so it doesn’t draw attention to itself; the plants are still stars of the border

This garden is filled with small, delicate treasures, such as this hepatica. Because of its fine texture, the cocoa mulch doesn’t smother the delicate perennials.

I still use shredded hemlock around trees and shrubs, which are fine with the more coarse material. However, I always look for a double-ground product, which is finer. And, if I’m lucky, I can find some of the partially composted stuff, which is even better. It breaks down more readily and doesn’t form an impenetrable, water-shedding crust.

For more on mulching, read Mind Your Mulch; for related products, see our Mulch department.

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5 Responses to Mulch in Moderation

  1. A couple notes about cocoa:-Where do you find it? You can get it at the local garden centers. In my area, it comes in bags that hold 2 cubic feet. -Coverage varies, depending on the density of your planting — and how thick you spread it. I like to keep it thin (about 2 inches) and I can cover about 30 square feet with each bag.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’d love to try cocoa mulch, but I hear that it’s bad for dogs 😦

  3. There is indeed information out there about cocoa mulch posing a health risk to dogs. I can’t imagine that eating mulch would be a good thing for any animal, actually. The specific concern with cocoa mulch is that the hulls contain some of the same chemicals that are in chocolate, and some dogs can have severe reactions to eating chocolate.I’ve used cocoa mulch in my own gardens for more than 20 years and have had three different dogs around during that time. None of them ever showed any interest in eating the cocoa mulch. I guess it probably depends on your dog. If you think there’s a chance he/she would eat the mulch, you probably want to avoid any risk.(A couple years ago, my current dog discovered and then ate an entire Valentine’s Day gift box of 5 dark chocolate truffles. We called the vet and kept an eye on her, but she never showed signs of anything but pure pleasure and a craving for more!)Kathy LaLiberte

  4. There has been a story moving around the internet about a dog that supposedly died from cocoa mulch. The facts are hard to come by, but in general, pet experts recommend against using cocoa mulch with unsupervised dogs. However, I’ve used it for years dogs are frequently in our garden. No problems. If you have concerns, well-researched information can be found. The American Veterinary Medical Association has published an article here:, you can download the abstract from the American Society for Protection of Cruelty. Just go to and search using the term “cocoa bean”.-David Grist, Online Content Coordinator

  5. magchap says:

    I, too, am a cocoa convert — love it and have used it for 3 years now. (By the way, I have 2 dogs and they are never left unsupervised in that yard and there have never been any problems with my best hairy babies) The only downside to cocoa mulch is that it does tend to mold in the hot, humid summer climate. Vinegar and water spray works nicely and doesn’t harm the plants, so … where there is a tad more work to maintain the mulch for the season, it is absolutely worth the elevated costs. My yard is primarily clay and horrible to work with. With the use of the cocoa mulch, the soil has vastly improved and I can now easily plant delicate annuals in the soil where before I would need a chizzle to establish a hole!

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