Guest Rant: Rubber Mulch: I’ve been Converted


Please welcome Katie Elzer-Peters, who, in addition to her love of Civil War battlefields, runs a business writing and marketing company for garden businesses called Garden of Words.  She's also recently taken charge of Great Garden Speakers, our ever-growing horticultural speakers bureau. Here's Katie:

I used to be an across-the-board hater of rubber mulch. No way, no how, no where could there be an appropriate use of that "junk." I didn't care how many tires it kept out of the landfill. In my mind, there were absolutely no applications for it. Then I visited the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania Battlefields Memorial near Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia.

Pre-Conversion History

Part 1: As a young child, I read every historical fiction novel about The Civil War that I could get my hands on. I will watch the History Channel or, even, the Military Channel on television, so the names of the places where major Civil War battles occured are etched in my mind. After driving past Fredericksburg for 10+ years (first, while making every-other-week drives to see my boyfriend), then when driving to a reunion and conference this summer, I finally decided to stop and see what was there.

Part 2: My hate-hate relationship with all landscape things plastic began when I was a summer seasonal at The Indianapolis Zoo. Cleaning out garden beds that had become infested with weeds on top of landscape fabric, trying to plant inside the landscape fabric, and ripping out the landscape fabric cured me of any industry brainwashing about the benefits of plastic mulch-like materials.

The "AHA!" Moment
After days and days of walking around on concrete paths in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Washington, D.C., my feet were feeling it. I'd also had enough of people and cars and yammering. Turns out that Spotsylvania is a good place to go if you're tired of people, because there are NO PEOPLE THERE. Signs in the battlefield park describe Spotsylvania Court House as a small, unknown  community prior to the battles that took place there. There's about as much going on now as there was in April 1864 (before the May battles took place). There's no visitor center at the battlefield. No running water. No structures. No park police. Just a few signs and acres and acres of earthworks and fields.


How do you keep people off of earthworks, from running all over a national monument? Well, you have to rely on common courtesy (another rant, another day), but paths help, especially across fields that look the same as far as the eye can see for untrained eyes. At Spotsylvania, there are seven miles of foot paths and a road that takes visitors through most of the monument. I parked near the Bloody Angle and got out to walk for a while.

Three steps in, I looked down. "What IS this stuff?" I wondered. It looked like regular mulch. I bent over to look closer. IT WAS RUBBER MULCH. Now it is possible that rubber mulch is being used everywhere for these types of paths and I just didn't know about it, but to me it was a revelation. It's springy! It lasts! It doesn't wash away! It needs no maintenance! (or very little)


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I'm still no rubber mulch advocate for the home landscape. I think it is tacky. But for municipal parks, monuments, and battlefields, if rubber mulch means the difference between paths and no paths, preservation and no preservation, parks or no parks, I say "Go for it!" I'd rather see these remote monuments and historical sites remain open to the public than insist on chopped wood mulch. I'd hate to see these battlefields paved and turned into theme parks. It's hard to convey the remoteness of Spotsylvania along the highly-traveled I-95 corridor. It's in the sticks. There's no way that someone can get out there and rake 7 miles of pathways every time a thunderstorm washes through the rolling fields. Rubber mulch can also be easily picked up (these looked like pieces of mats)

This doesn't sound too fire and brimstone, but for me, admitting that rubber mulch has its positive attributes is tantamount to a vegetarian cultivating a taste for NY Strip steaks. I thought rubber mulch was vile. Turns out, it's not.

How about you?




  1. I agree with you that rubber would be a good alternative for pathways. The only place I’ve seen it used is as a base for swing sets in playgrounds. There, too, I think it is a good idea.

  2. I think it has no place in contact with any soil where you may one day wish to harvest food. On a path at a national park…have at. Keep it out of your home landscapes and veggie gardens!

  3. I wonder how long it lasts before it has to be cleaned out and/or replaced? I’m betting the dust would blow into it and it would get weedy and muddy in a year.

  4. better rubber mulch than tires painted white and used as planters. my great aunt had them everywhere!!!!

  5. With all due respect – NO WAY. We’ve had a few folks give rubber mulch (shredded tires)a try with disastrous results.

    When it gets hot (I’m talking TX hot – not PA hot)it off-gases, making everything smell like a petroleum refinery. Then, when it gets out of bounds, as it always does, it’s in the soil FOREVER.

    I’m all for re-purposing materials and I know there are a lot of old tires out there but this was just a bad idea.

    What’s hard on the feet might be a better long-term choice for the environment.

  6. I still don’t want to see it on playgrounds. And I don’t want it in my backyard.

    It makes sense to use recycled rubber in field and track applications.

    Not sure how I feel about it in greenspaces. What is it shedding into the soil/watertable.

  7. I have never tried the rubber mulch in my yard. My daughter tried it this year in her flower bed and it doesn’t look good. She wanted something that she wouldn’t have to keep replacing, like wood shavings. But after reading your comments I don’t think that rubber mulch is a good idea.

  8. Well, most of us are driving cars, and going through who knows how many sets of tires in our driving lifetimes, so I’m glad somebody somewhere is thinking about useful things to do with them in their “afterlife”. Does anyone else remember the leather sandals with rubber tire soles that were hot in the 70’s (and mostly made in Mexico I think)? Those soles wore like iron, and they were pretty comfortable too.

  9. I think pressed into sheets that can be gathered and trashed at the end of their useful life, rather than pieces that can end up scattered into the soil, is a better way to use old tires, though I have no idea if sheets instead of pieces is even possible.

    The local playground has a rubbery surface, and its quite bouncy and fun, though I don’t think it is made from old tires.

  10. Hey everyone–these appeared to be sheets. The other thing that I meant to put in the post, but forgot, is that it would be fairly easy to pick them up for archaeological digging, as opposed to dealing with concrete paths.

  11. My biggest concern with the shredded rubber mulch is that it seems inevitable that it will get worked into the nearby soil, even with landscape fabric underneath it. Mulch never stays neatly in its place. And who wants their soil laced with rubber bits? The sheets may be a slight improvement, but I would imagine that over time, they break down and shred too.

  12. I love it on children’s playground.

    I can even admit – I have it in my backyard. It comes in 12″x10′ rolls and I just roll it down and pin it down. I have a straight line creek where water flows from ne neighbor’s yard, through mine, into the next yard (that has the drain). It was a straight-line mud path. The rubber strip comes with a cloth (like blackcloth) glued to the back. But bad me took the cloth off of some of the lengths and now grass is growing through those (after prob 4 years in the yard). There is no way I could use real mulch there, it all just flowed downstream and clogged up at the fence (the previous owners did that).

  13. Its a great use for things that won’t break down naturally.
    My dad has some rubber mats not the much.. he uses under his tables out doors and little ones for seats. They look great unless you look at the side of them you can see the old erasers and stuff.
    however. i’m all about new uses for old things. I do think it smells funny when it’s really hot out. but I think it’s well worth it.

  14. It’s a great way to reuse tires, but don’t ever use the loose stuff, it’s disastrous. It travels like real mulch but never breaks down.

    The rubber surfacing on playgrounds is made from recycled tires. If you see the stuff that looks like a carpet of little colored bits glued together, there is a thick layer of recycled tire material underneath and a very thin, 1/2″ color topping. The colored topping is not recycled unless it is black.

    There is also a product (probably what is used at the Spotsylvania battlefield) that uses plain shredded material glued together. Such a huge project like this trail might have been mixed and poured like concrete. That’s how they do the playground surfacing too.

    When one considers the benefits of recycling tires and having a surface that doesn’t wash away or get dug out from running/swinging (a safety hazard on playgrounds) you have to also factor in the consequences of using nasty binders and glues to keep them there.

    And if you’re worried about recycled rubber bits traveling, take a look at synthetic turf fields. It’s filled with teeny-tiny rubber bits in between the “grass”

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