Free and Extremely Cheap Sources of Mulch for Your Yard and Garden

by Josh Medlin
Free and cheap Sources of Mulch photo

Before overpaying for those bags of mulch at your local garden center, take advantage of these extremely cheap and free sources of mulch.

The benefits of mulch are well-known to most gardeners and can be easily observed in more purely natural settings, as old plant material dies and falls to cover, enrich, and protect the earth.

A thick layer of mulch helps retain moisture by decreasing evaporation while moderating temperatures, a benefit that can lengthen the growing season for both warm and cool-season crops. It protects the soil from erosion by wind and rain and scorching by the sun. At varying degrees and rates, all organic (biodegradable) mulches also provide nutrients as they break down.

Mulch can even be used to slowly create new beds when placed over grass or other vegetation that it will eventually smother. Non-organic material, such as tarps, can also be used for this.

However, many gardeners may not have considered the free or extremely cheap sources of mulch available in both town and country. Many of these materials can also be used to make compost, which can be used as an enriching mulch.

Hay

Hay is a very balanced, nutritious food for many livestock, and those same nutrients will nourish garden soil. Spoiled hay cannot be fed to livestock, but it will make excellent mulch.

Finding this may be easier for those people who live in rural or small-town areas and are more likely to know farmers personally.

For those who don’t know anyone with hay and would be interested in a large quantity, posting a want ad in the local paper would be a relatively inexpensive investment (alternatively, there are free online advertising opportunities).

Leaves and Grass Clippings

Leaves make excellent mulch and provide a slow release of nutrients. There is plenty available by the curb in the fall, often already conveniently packaged in large bags. You could also create a place on the property for people from your community to drop off leaves. Perhaps place signs on a nearby busy street or road or simply rely on “word of mouth.”

Grass clippings can also be utilized and found in similar ways; however, caution should be taken to ensure that the clippings have not been contaminated from the application of lawn chemicals.

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Cardboard and Newspaper

Cardboard and newspaper may not be visually appealing, but they provide an excellent bottom layer of weed suppression and are very readily available. Most households will consume a large volume of these materials, so simply saving packaging and old newspapers may supply enough.

However, there is plenty to be found for those who need more—driving through town a day or two before trash pick-up can be a good opportunity, as many people leave large pieces of cardboard by the curb. Recycling centers and, for the adventuresome, dumpsters can provide heavy yields of paper and cardboard, and many other materials. You will be recycling the cardboard much more efficiently than the industrial process it would go through otherwise.

Wood Chips and Saw Dust

Many landscapers and gardeners purchase wood chips for mulch, at least in part, for their decorative effect. Most towns and cities regularly send wood-chipping crews around the community, picking up brush left on the curb by residents and pulling stumps.

If you have access to a truck, wood chips would probably also be available for pickup wherever they are typically dumped in your community. However, in my experience, these crews are willing to dump their truckload of wood chips wherever you want (they have to go someplace!). By asking them to unload the wood chips in or near a garden, you will sidestep the need for a truck and save time and physical exertion, freely receiving what will probably be a substantial volume of material.

For those with trucks, sawdust is also often freely available at mills.

Environmentally-Friendly Mulch

If you have a wood chipper or limb shredder and want to make environmentally-friendly mulch, use the waste you already have. When trimming branches off the trees, run them through the shredder and add them to your compost pile. Add leaves, grass clippings – everything except live weeds and their seeds.

Get a mixture of wet materials (high in Nitrogen) and dry materials (high in Carbon), wet them down until they are about the moisture content of a damp but not soaking sponge, and let it compost for a while. Most kitchen waste is wet, or “green” materials, and newspaper can be torn into pieces for dry or “brown” materials.

If you turn it often, a few times a day, and keep it at the correct moisture level, it will compost faster, and you will soon have good smelling, nice-looking mulch, which shouldn’t introduce weeds into the landscape. Of course, you can always just run branches through the shredder and directly mulch with these.

There are more possible free and cheap mulch resources for those with an active eye. A simple willingness to ask about the material is key in many cases.

Someone may think you’re strange, but your garden will be delighted.

Reviewed March 2022

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