Back when I was first married, I had dreams of turning our backyard into a sprawling white garden à l Vita Sackville-West on one side, and a French pottager garden full of vegetables and herbs on the other.
That first year, tilling, improving the soil and buying plants cost so much that I didn’t have any money left for mulch, no matter how cheap. We got maybe a few dozen bouquets and two tomatoes out of it.
Now, it probably didn’t help that I had never even grown a houseplant before, so I knew nothing about gardening. Since those were the early days of the internet and Google was only a few months old (yes, I’m ancient), I had to learn through trial and error.
Lesson number one: we needed mulch, preferably cheap or for free because the previous year’s disappointments still stung.
The Importance of Mulching
Mulch is a layer of material applied to the soil surface that helps you use less water while keeping your garden lush. Living in the Midwest, our growing season goes from mild temperatures and routine rain showers to brutally hot and dry.
That’s hard on plants, but great for weeds. (We had plenty of those.) Mulch helps keep weeds in check by helping plants thrive while keeping weeds from taking root in the soil.
Maximizing Mulch Benefits
The woman who ran our local plant nursery explained we needed a 2-3” layer of mulch to retain moisture and prevent weeds. For the vegetable side of my garden, she said, we also needed to make sure it was pesticide-free.
So, I gave her our garden measurements and asked how much it would cost to bring in enough mulch for the job. I won’t repeat here what I said when she rattled off the total, but let’s just say it was more than our mortgage payment. And that’s when I set out to find places where I could get free or low-cost mulch.
Sources of Free or Cheap Mulch
I’ve been gardening for over 25 years now, though as I’ve grown busier each year my garden has grown smaller. My desire to save a buck while gardening has not, though.
So, at one time or another I’ve obtained mulch from all these different places. Check online for similar spots in your area and see if you can score free mulch from them, too.
1. Local tree services
Tree trimming companies often have an excess of wood chips from their work that they have to pay to take to the landfill or brush site. More than one company I’ve contacted has been happy to drop off wood chips at my home so I can use them as mulch. Sometimes they’ll even bring free firewood.
2. Community yard waste programs
Many towns and cities run recycling programs that turn yard waste into mulch which they offer to residents for free or a nominal cost. Ours doesn’t charge, but you’ve got to pick it up yourself. Since I don’t have a pickup truck, I rent a U-haul trailer for $19 and bring home at least one load of mulch, sometimes two. That beats buying a measly 3 bags for the same price!
3. Paper shredding centers
In early Spring, many businesses offer free shredding services for people getting rod of old documents while they’re Spring Cleaning. One year, I found some local companies would thoroughly mix up all the shredded bits and give them for free to people who wanted to use it for packing or compost.
It’s not a great mulch on its own, but I’ve stirred it together with straw and grass clippings to keep it from compacting and used that mix to mulch containers.
4. Plant stores at the season’s end
If you’re into gardening, you already know the value of being friendly with the people at your favorite plant nursery. Ours helps me pick out great plants and are a great resource for almost free mulch when they’re ready to close for winter.
Since they don’t want to keep excess bags around that might grow mold, they practically give them away. Last year, I got 6 bags for the price of 1, which is a fantastic deal.
Did you know that mulch can reduce water evaporation from soil by up to 25%?
5. DIY mulch from your yard
Don’t overlook making your own mulch from things in your backyard like grass clippings, fallen leaves, and straw. Just ensure that grass clippings haven’t been treated with pesticides, and allow them to dry to prevent mold. If you use leaves, consider shredding them first to speed up decomposition.
6. Crowdsourcing woodchip sites
A couple years ago, someone told me about a website called ChipDrop which connect gardeners with local arborists looking to unload wood chips you can use as free mulch. There weren’t any in our area (which is why I started calling tree companies directly) but maybe you’ll have better luck.
7. Construction sites
When we bought our current home about 20 years ago, there weren’t many other subdivisions around. That soon changed as developers cleared away hundreds of trees so they could build homes on bare ground then plop one scrawny sapling in the center of each front yard.
Such an infuriating practice, but it meant I scored free wood chips from the construction sites to use as mulch. Be sure to ask for permission before helping yourself to a pile of wood chips or brush, even on a construction site. (Don’t ask how I know.)
8. Online marketplaces and free groups
Check websites like Freecycle, Craigslist, your local Buy Nothing group or Facebook Marketplace for free or cheap mulch in your area. Don’t overlook listings for firewood, either: you can rent a chipper inexpensively to turn free firewood into mulch. And if you don’t find a listing, make your own asking if anyone has some available.
9. Farms and stables
I live in a semi-rural area with plenty of nearby farms. They create an endless supply of straw and manure and most are thrilled when someone wants to take some off their hands.
I’ve found manure as well as bean and cornstalks left after harvest make excellent, nutrient-rich mulch options if composted correctly.
Just remember, if you’re using fresh manure on your a vegetable garden, you need to apply it at least four months before harvest to avoid bacterial contamination of edible food. And never use human manure on edible crops.
10. Coffee shops
In my early gardening days, I spent many mornings at a nearby coffee shop reading the latest issue of my favorite gardening magazine. (I told you this was a long time ago.)
The owner noticed and asked if I’d like some coffee grounds to turn my hydrangea blooms blue. It didn’t work, but with a little trial and error, I learned you can combine coffee grounds with other organic material to make a fantastic mulch that also smells amazing.
So, see if you can source free mulch from your favorite barista and that daily macchiato will start paying for itself.