Where To Get Free Mulch For Your Garden

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Don’t spend a fortune on wood chips. Here’s where to find free mulch for your garden and how much you should use.

Gardening is a fun and rewarding hobby. Pulling weeds? Not so much. The key to spending less time weeding is using the right mulch in the right amount. You might even be able to get it for free.

Where to Find Free Mulch

You can, of course, buy mulch at the garden center. Some plant nurseries sell it in bulk and will even deliver it. Bags of wood mulch cost $2 to $7 each, and stone runs twice as much. For a garden of 60 cubic feet, you could wind up spending over $200 on mulch alone. Gardening is already an expensive hobby, though, so finding free mulch is a great way to spend less. (Related: How to Save Money Gardening.)

Where to find free garden mulch

Free Wood Mulch

Early Spring is a great time to find free wood mulch if you know where to look.

A good place to start is your city’s website. Find out if your community holds a spring clean-up drive. (Or check after severe storms have been through the area.) If your town collects trimmed or downed branches, they may mulch them and give those chips away for free. Bring a truck to haul it and a tarp to protect your truck’s bed.

Check with local tree companies, too. Some tree companies have contracts with places that make and sell mulch. Others don’t, and they need a place to get rid of the excess. Call around, and you might find one that’s even willing to deliver wood chips to your driveway in bulk. Place a tarp on your driveway to show where they can dump your free wood mulch. You might be able to pull the loaded tarp to your garden in one trip.

Make your own. Many home improvement stores offer wood chipper rentals. Once you’ve pruned trees in early Spring, you can rent a chipper for as little as $60 per day. Going in on the rental cost with neighbors makes it even more affordable.

Free Straw Mulch

You can buy straw bales for Halloween decorations then use that straw for mulch. But, if you don’t want to pay for it, keep a lookout for neighbors or nearby places that use it. Then offer to take it off their hands after they’re tired of looking at it.

Use Grass Clippings as Mulch

Mowing your yard is a great way to get free mulch. Instead of leaving the clippings in place, bag them. But don’t put them onto your garden beds right away. Green grass clippings can spread mold and fungus, so you want to spread them out and let them dry first. (This also helps kill any weed seeds in the clippings before you use them as mulch.)

Use Fallen Leaves to Mulch

Instead of bagging or burning those fallen leaves in your backyard, let them dry out and use them as mulch. Dried leaves decompose fast, though, so you’ll want to

Shred Paper for Mulch

Subscribing to your local newspaper isn’t the only way to get free paper mulch. Store flyers, old bills, and junk mail can all serve as paper mulch in your garden. Stick with newsprint or regular types of paper, though, not the glossy pages that often use toxic inks. Run them through your household shredder then carry them out to your garden. (Here’s the shredder I use.)

Does Your Garden Need Mulch?

Gloved hand applying straw mulch to bed of lettuce seedlings

Advantages to Mulching

A good layer of mulch benefits most gardens. Since it acts as a barrier, mulch protects your soil from the scorching sun. As a result, you don’t have to water as often. And, with their roots shaded by mulch, your plants are more able to handle hot, sunny days.

Mulch also serves as a weed barrier. A thick layer keeps sunlight from hitting weed seeds lingering in the soil, so they never sprout. It will also stop airborne seeds from taking root. So, you won’t have to weed as much, either.

When Should You Mulch Your Garden?

The best time to apply mulch is mid-Spring, with a top-up in early Fall. You want to give the soil a chance to warm and lose the winter cold. Wait until the rainiest Spring days have passed, so you don’t trap too much moisture beneath the mulch. In my garden (Zone 6), that means mulching in mid- to late April.

Depending on the type of mulch you choose, you may need to add more later in the gardening season. Wood chips, straw, and shredded newspaper will all decompose over time. That process improves your soil, but it means you’ll need to add more mulch before winter. (I add more between late August and mid-September, before the threat of frost.)

What’s the Best Mulch to Use?

Wood mulch, grass clippings, and dry leaves are ideal for flower and vegetable gardens. Over time, these all break down and adds nutrients to your soil. If you have heavy clay soil, this process will lighten it, and help your garden thrive.

Straw mulch is best suited for vegetable gardens, especially raised beds. Make sure the straw does not contain hay, though. Hay contains seeds that turn to weeds in your garden. If in doubt, ask the supplier. If they don’t know, don’t buy it.

Stone mulch is also an option. Popular types include river rock, lava rock, crushed gravel, and brick chips. Stone mulch is most often used in landscaping since it’s more formal looking. It also works well on slopes where its weight helps it stay in place during hard rains.

How Much Mulch Should You Use?

The ideal amount of mulch to use depends on the type you’re using. The faster the mulch decomposes, the more you’ll want to use. You want enough mulch to keep sunlight from hitting weed seeds and causing them to sprout. But, too much mulch will prevent water from reaching your plants’ roots.

  • Stone mulch isn’t going to decompose or get washed away by rain. A 2-3″ layer will block weeds but not rain.
  • Wood mulch decomposes throughout the season but doesn’t usually wash away. (Unless you use it on a slope.) A 2-3″ layer will prevent weeds while helping your soil remain moist.
  • Grass clippings or straw mulch both decompose fast. Since they’re lightweight, strong winds or rains may shift them around, too. You’ll want to use a 3″ layer for both and add more as needed to keep that depth. At the end of the growing season, you can double that amount to protect plants from the cold.
  • Newspaper mulch can mean sheets of newspaper or shreds. To use it between rows in a vegetable or cutting garden, lay 5-6 layers of paper on the soil. Cover these with 1-2 inches of grass clippings or dried leaves. Shredded newspaper mulch around plants is more breathable but will decompose faster. Use a 2-3″ layer and add more as needed.

Remember, mulch works best when applied thick enough to protect plant roots from too much sun, but not so thick that it keeps water from reaching them. You should lay down mulch after the soil has warmed in the Spring, but before hot summer days set in. Recheck it in the fall to make sure the layer is thick enough. And don’t forget to add looking for free mulch to your gardening calendar.

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  1. James Bergman says:

    I think the best way to get mulch is to make it yourself. I don’t think it matters too much whether you use a wood chipper or not. Though, if you have a lot of branches that need to go I would recommend it. I like the newspaper method. My mother-in-law uses this lasagna method to compost and it works really well and she has a beautiful garden every year.

    1. Katie Berry says:

      The lasagna method makes for wonderful garden soil, but the animals in my neighborhood love to dig it up.

  2. Leslie Overby says:

    What is the lasagna method?

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Hi Leslie,
      The “lasagna method” is a low-effort way to get rid of weeds and improve soil. Essentially, you cover weeds with newspaper or cardboard (which both decompose over time) then add a layer of compost followed by a layer of straw. Wet it thoroughly and repeat layering (paper, compost, straw) until you’ve built it up a couple of feet. You may need to add bricks or logs to border it. Add compost and soil to the top layer and plant. Over time, the various layers will decompose to create a nutrient-rich soil.