Some Silicon Valley homeowners spruce up their yards and gardens in spring and summer with tanbark or mulch. While this is a very common practice, and often encouraged as a drought-friendly gardening option, it can be a bad idea if it is too close to the structure, especially the home’s foundation.

Tanbark is simply small bits of wood, and most common mulch is often no more than shredded wood. Why is that bad? Wood is food for termites and piles of tanbark or mulch can invite and hide them as well!


Tanbark or Mulch?

Beware Tanbark or Mulch by the foundation!Mulch is the more widely used term and it can cover a broad scope of materials, but the most common type you will find in stores (and in Bay Area gardens) is the woodchip mulch. If you ask for mulch at a hardware store, this is most likely what they will show you. In the local vernacular, we often refer to mulch as the fine, thin, or decomposed stuff – we have a different name for the larger bark and wood chips.

I learned only recently that tanbark is something of a local term that people from other parts of the state or country may not be familiar with. Here in the Bay Area we call the stuff you commonly see underfoot at playgrounds or piled thick on the planted berms around a shopping mall parking lot by the name of tanbark. Some people may reserve the name for the large chunky bark chips while others will call just about any wood chip substrate by that name. So tanbark is, in fact, a mulch.

Homeowners and sellers wanting their home to make a good first impression are often tempted to apply mulch or tanbark in otherwise bare patches around their yard, but you can wind up with far bigger (and more costly) problems if it’s too close to the foundation!

What Was That About Termites & tanbark or mulch?

Bare wood that touches the exterior of your home, especially dampwood termites if that bare wood connects to soil or earth, can quickly become a highway for termites. Thick piles of tanbark or wood mulch along your foundation can easily become that bridge. While it’s uncommon to find in this kind of environment, it is possible, especially if you have a thick layer of mulch. More likely the wood chips will be an invitation for the dreaded subterranean termite which will happily make a home in the damp earth, emerging to take a bite of the mulch and the wood in your home.

For starters, if you have tanbark or wood mulch close to your house now, it’s suggested that you scrape it back away from the house a foot or so. (Check for the mud tubes when you do so.) Otherwise you are inviting dampwood and subterranean termites to have a feast!

Tanbark or mulch in front of a San Jose home

Consider the Alternatives to tanbark or mulch

Alright, so you don’t want termites invading your foundation, but what are the alternatives? Subterranean termites live in damp earth, so whatever you do keep it dry and airy near the house!

You could certainly leave it as bare dirt (many people do), but many home owners and sellers may want to make a small investment to give their house and garden that special touch, which can help improve a home’s selling price, and there are many options for safe, good-looking groundcovers around the foundation! Ask a landscape expert what you might use in lieu of these products in your garden, and consider some of the alternatives listed below.

Something as simple and affordable as laying down fresh topsoil around the bare patches of earth can improve your home’s curb appeal. Other options from the local garden center could include peat moss, pine straw, and mushroom compost. And there are plenty of non-organic mulches that can be used beside a foundation. River rocks, gravel, and shell are long-lasting investments with a clean look. Less popular but readily available and extremely long-lasting are rubber mulches, often shredded recycled tires, and plastic mulches, which are usually sold in sheets.

Looking for low maintenance useable space? To expand patio space or around high-traffic areas, such as by garden spigots, consider pavers or stepping stones.

Plants are another option, and some tropical plants thrive beside a home with the additional warmth and protection from winter. Planting beside the foundation or under the eaves of a house should be done with extreme care to protect yourself and your home, but as this is an article about mulch and tanbark I won’t go into the details of that here. However, if you’re careful about your planting choices (remember keep the house dry and airy) this can be one of the most pleasant ways to spruce up your homes exterior.

Home buyer concerns

When yards are landscaped today, low water use plants are often installed along with some kind of gravel, woodchip, gorilla hair mulch, etc. to keep the ground moist and the need for water low.

Sometimes, though, front and back yards may be somewhat “let go” and to gussy it up, home sellers put down large quantities of woodchip or something similar without first removing the weeds, putting down a weed screen, or doing anything to prevent future problems. That nice looking wood product or mulch could be just a quick cover up, so it’s a good idea to check one of the mapping programs street view to see what it looked like, and to ask the sellers about what’s under the tanbark or mulch.

In Conclusion

While wood mulch may be more conducive to termites, remember that subterranean termites can live under any of these groundcovers, mulches, substrates, and even bare dirt if the soil is moist. No matter what alternative you choose, remember to keep the area surrounding the foundation dry and airy!

Interested in Selling Your Silicon Valley Home?

Please get in touch! I am always happy to meet prospective clients. You can find my contact information and a bit more about me and my qualifications under the About & Contact tab in the top menu bar. You may be interested in some of these other posts with seller tips:
Sell Your Home in 2021
Preparing Your Silicon Valley Home to Sell and Return on Investment
How to quickly get your Silicon Valley home ready to sell
Home selling? Small fixes that make a big, positive difference.
Looking for more home improvement related articles? I’ve got more posts on my Live in Los Gatos Blog on that topic and many more!