When it comes to mulch – more is better and cheap is the best. If you want to skip the fluff and jump straight into the cheap mulch options I won’t be insulted. When I say more is better I don’t mean you should pile 6 feet of bark chips on your prize-winning roses. What I do mean is that mulch breaks down and helps to turn poor soil into great soil, so if you can get a lot for cheap – You Should!!!
The problem with adding a lot of mulch (or any organic soil amendment) to your garden is that the more mulch you add the less money you seem to have left in your wallet. Finding low or no cost mulch is the life’s work of many a cash strapped gardener. You could go to any of the popular chain stores and get 30 or 40 bags for 3 or more bucks per bag or you can be a bit more frugal and use what is readily available.
Cheap Mulch Options
Many cities collect and shred garden waste. This is a fantastic resource if your city lets you come and “load your own” for free. The last town that I lived in let you come and you could take as much as you could load away for no charge. They charged something like 50 bucks for a half dump truck if you wanted it to be delivered. Now that’s a lot of mulch for cheap. The town that I currently live in takes your garden waste but doesn’t give it back. How’s that for unfair???
Leaf scavenging is another great way to get some free mulch. You start out in your own yard and kind of work your way out. If you have mature trees just rake’em and shred’em and you’ve got some nice mulch. If your trees just don’t produce all that you need (or want) you have to start getting a little creative, strange, and brave. Just let your neighbors know that you’d be willing to take those leaves that they are planning to send to the dump off their hands. You might get a lot of strange looks but I get those anyway. Few people will say no to you and you’ll have all the mulch that you need. If you end up with too many leaves just put some in the compost pile and some in bags. You can get some fantastic leaf mold from damp bagged leaves with little effort.
If you’re not using a mulching lawn mower one of the best things to do with grass clippings is to use them as mulch. Grass clippings can be a little tricky because you don’t want to pile a bunch of them up. You need to let them dry before you have to large a layer of your garden beds. I used a mulching mower for awhile but decided that I liked my flowers more than the grass so started bagging and using my grass clippings on the beds instead of the lawn. I don’t have any grass now but I gotta lot of leaves and that’s a fair trade-off.
Follow that tree trimmer. Now don’t be a stalker but if there is a tree trimmer working the area just ask them what they are planning to do with the chips. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to just get them to dump the end of the day’s work in your yard. They don’t normally use them but send them off somewhere. You’ll get more refusals here than with the neighborhood leaf hunt. You can get massive amounts of free wood chips with this method.
Cardboard boxes are a good weed barrier for a bed that is not yet planted. If your garden bed is planned out but not yet executed just start flattening and stacking a few layers of cardboard where you know you’ll be planting in a year or so. Cardboard will normally break down in 1 or 2 years. I wouldn’t suggest buying boxes for this because you can get them (sometimes) for free at many stores. Just ask the stockers if they’d mind if you took a few of their boxes. As long as they are generic “throw away boxes” the stocker will appreciate not having to clean up at the end of their project.
Recycle your newspaper. Use the black and white sections of the newspaper as mulch or weed barrier. The only cost you’ll be putting out here is the subscription to the paper which you might get anyway. You can shred or just weight down full sheets to get the job of weed suppression done. This is another place where you can often get more than you bargained for by talking to people. This goes for all types of paper that you get. You can use junk mail and paper sacks from the grocery store also.
Befriend a woodworker. Sawdust makes fine mulch if allowed to age awhile. If you know someone who does a lot of sawing or live near a place that creates sawdust start being neighborly. I don’t put sawdust straight on my beds (unless I have just a small amount) I like to let it age for a bit first. I pile it up for a year and use it then.
Homemade compost can be used too. The problem with homemade compost is that you generally can’t make enough to use it as mulch. If you only have a small amount from your bins it’s best to just add it to the planting holes and use something else for mulch.
The final thing that I want to mention is ground covers. One of the benefits of ground covers is that they are a living mulch. They will protect the soil much the same as organic mulch.
One thread that seems to be running through the cheap mulch options is being willing to put yourself out there and just ASK. There is so much stuff that just goes to the landfill and if you are willing to accept a few odd comments and strange looks you can get all the free stuff you can use. Don’t be shy.