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Best mulches for toddlers/small kids

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Location: SF Bay Area, California
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Hi all, been a lurker for a while but finally here to ask a question.
I have a shady area under oaks that I want to turn into a little kids garden. I have a toddler (17 months old) who still puts things in her mouth.
What's the best mulch that will be comfortable for bare feet and safe if chewed?
I have a lot of wood chips that I use elsewhere but am worried about splinters.
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Hi Ruth

Welcome to permies!

I can't think of a good mulch for toddlers other than a nice layer of sand, straw/hay or a living mulch like creeping thyme or moss, just make sure it is edible.
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One problem with woodchips, especially those delivered from tree trimmers, is that they can develop some pretty bad mold spores (Aspergillus), especially if fresh and layered thick. I'd let my kids play in a big pile of dry, decomposing woodchips before I knew better, and they started getting lung problems! Here's a study: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00000772.htm


David Denning, of the University of Manchester, said that while Aspergillus itself could be found in many gardens, it would generally be dangerous only if disturbed in large quantities and the resulting dust inhaled.

He said: "This should not be a problem for your average small-scale gardener who is using small quantities of compost at one time.

"However, if you are moving it in very large amounts, then perhaps wearing a face-mask would be advisable."

I'd use sand (if you don't have cats) or, like Anne said, a low-growing ground cover like grass, moss, thyme. Grass is non-toxic, and I'm not so sure about eating moss, so perhaps that wouldn't be a good option for a little one who sticks things in her mouth. There's quite a few edible groundcovers though, and you could grow one or many of them. The ones that first come to mind: chives (can be mowed like grass), pansies, clover, chamomile (don't want to eat large quantities, though), mint (might take over, which may or may not be a good thing), lemon balm, thyme, oregano, dandelions (very edible and fun!), parsley, and self-heal.
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You need something called "Clean Chips" which are pretty common here, but kind of tough to get in bulk.

To explain, a person has to understand the different types of mulch. There are several different kinds, from sawdust which comes directly off the saw and is small and fine in nature. Another kind is bark mulch and depending on what type of wood can be stringy, or just chunks of bark (think cedar on the former and Hemlock on the latter). Biomass is a type of mulch that is destined for electricity generation, or burned in boilers...or comes from the people that trim trees for powerlines. The kind coming from the tree trimmers does not go into making electricity, but is still a biomass or mulch. This is the easiest to get, but NOT what you want. Because it is all limby tops, tends to be stringy and messy and can even have thorns in it.

Now clean chips are chips designed to make paper. They have a very low bark content, lower then 10% from a debarker drum knocking off the bark before it goes into the chipper. They also have to have a uniform size to the chip. What makes them ideal to make paper is what makes them ideal for kids to play on. Unfortunately it is hard to get in bulk. Not because loggers do not produce enough of it, but rather because there is no way to dump the truck! At the paper mill the whole truck is tilted up and the chips dump out, but that is pretty hard to do at a persons house.

If you can find a logging company making clean chips you might be able to clean up the chips around the chipper by shoveling them into a pickup truck, but that is kind of doubtful. They can fill a tractor trailer truck in 45 minutes at $1600 a truck, so fussing with a homeowner is not really worth it to them.

Tick check! Okay, I guess that was just an itch. Oh wait! Just a tiny ad:
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