In the fight against weeds, erosion, fluctuating soil temperatures, and moisture loss, mulch is the ally every gardener needs. But, spending anywhere from $20 to $60 per cubic yard (and an additional $25 to $70 per cubic yard for professional installation) can add up fast. Pardon the pun, but that’s a bit mulch — especially when places are giving it away for free. Let’s take a look at where to find free mulch for your landscape.
9 way to find free mulch
Whether it’s grass clippings in the summertime or dead leaves and pine straw in the fall, there are plenty of prime spots to collect free mulch in your own backyard, around your home, or in your city for the easy home improvement project.
1. Fallen leaves
There are a lot of things you would rather be doing than raking leaves. Luckily, you can turn your fallen leaves into mulch. Shred them with your lawnmower while collecting them with the attached bag for grass clippings. Spread the leaves in your garden beds for a fast, effective mulch layer.
Be sure to cover your landscape areas with around 3 to 4 inches of mulch and never use whole leaves. Whole leaves can become soggy, attracting dangerous mold. Leaves are also high in carbon, so it is also important to balance them with a nitrogen-rich material like grass clippings or compost to speed up their decomposition. Overall, using shredded leaves as mulch provides many benefits, including:
- Moisture retention
- Weed suppression
- Improved soil fertility
- Erosion control
2. Grass clippings
Most homeowners leave grass clippings on their lawns to provide the same benefits as a layer of mulch for their turfgrass. The grass clippings route is similar to shredded leaves.
While mowing your lawn, collect the clippings in the bag. Make sure the clippings have dried completely before using them as mulch — wait one to two days. Wet clippings are too heavy and can block oxygen and water from reaching the soil.
Unlike leaves, mulching with grass clippings requires thin layers, no more than 1 to 2 inches thick, to prevent matting and odor. Grass clippings are high in nitrogen, which is particularly beneficial to vegetable gardens. Consider mixing grass clippings with shredded leaves (high in carbon) to create a balanced mulch.
Pro tip: If you have recently used an herbicide to kill weeds in your grass, do not mulch with the clippings, as it can cause other plants to die. Also, don’t mulch with diseased grass clippings.
3. Pine needles
Pine straw (what becomes of pine needles after they’ve fallen and dried on the ground) is lightweight and easily spreadable. It is a visually appealing option that can insulate and protect your flower beds. Spread 2 to 3 inches across your landscape areas but avoid piling it up too tightly around plant stems and trunks to prevent rot and pest issues.
Additionally, there’s a common myth going around that pine needles cause acidic soil pH that harms plants. This is not true. Yes, pine needles are acidic. However, unless they are worked into the soil, they do not affect soil pH in a meaningful way.
Pro tip: Add a new layer of pine straw to your flower beds halfway through the year. Rake, fluff, and replace your pine straw annually.
Is your backyard a picturesque farm? Straw from wheat, cereal, or other grain crops makes great mulch. Like pine straw, grain straw is spreadable and lightweight. It is also easy to work with, helps retain moisture, and adds nutrients to the soil.
Spread a layer, 4 to 6 inches thick, around your plants and garden beds. Straw will help prevent soil compaction, weeds, and soil-based diseases. However, it is highly flammable and needs to be replaced regularly.
Pro tip: Don’t swap hay for straw. Hay contains more seeds that will germinate, sprout, and compete with your landscape plants.
Compost is free and rich in nutrients. What more could you ask for? How about an effective mulch? Toss all of your yard waste into a compost bin, and use the mixture as mulch for your garden beds. Compost is especially great for vegetable gardens, and the process is DIY-friendly.
Everyday compostable items include:
- Grass clippings
- Leaves and yard debris
- Coffee grounds
- Unbleached used coffee filters
- Stapleless tea bags
- Shredded newspaper or cardboard
- Wood chips and sawdust
If you’re a newspaper subscriber, using old issues as mulch is a great way to recycle. Shred them and mix them into your compost bin or leave them whole. Lay down a layer of two to four sheets in your garden beds. Once you have placed the layers, water the paper lightly so it sticks to the ground. Cover your newspaper with a layer of compost or topsoil.
Pro tip: Newspaper is cost-effective but not the most aesthetically pleasing mulch option. Cover your layers of newspapers with a different type of mulch like wood chips or pine straw to increase your landscape’s curb appeal.
Have a lot of boxes lying around from all those Amazon deliveries? Well, repurpose that cardboard and attract earthworms to your garden. The decomposing wood fibers in cardboard attract these beneficial crawlers, creating natural fertilizer in your soil. You can use cardboard as mulch in two ways: sheet mulch or standard, spreadable mulch.
Create sheet mulch by overlapping clean cardboard sheets on top of the soil in your garden. After laying the cardboard, water it to help kick off the decomposition process. Then, cover the cardboard with compost or topsoil.
You also can shred your cardboard and spread it around your plants like traditional mulch. Shredded cardboard also makes a great addition to compost piles.
Pro tip: Recycle further by mixing your shredded cardboard with newspaper or other recycled paper from around your home.
8. A local tree service
Millions of trees are lost in the U.S. each year because of storm damage, disease, or removal, potentially sending a lot of wood to the landfill if it’s not disposed of in another way. Many local tree care companies are embracing sustainability by offering wood chips to homeowners and commercial gardeners for free.
Call a local arborist or tree service near you to ask if they offer free wood chip mulch. You can also sign up for an online service like ChipDrop that connects arborists with gardeners for free mulch delivery. Just make sure to designate a location for the company to drop your mulch before they arrive.
Free mulch from tree services often includes small twigs, leaf debris, or insect larvae. Some services also set a maximum amount they will deliver, and special requests may not be honored. Mulch installation isn’t usually part of the deal, either.
If you go this route, double-check that the tree service isn’t using mulch from trees that were cut down because of disease. You don’t want to risk transferring that problem into your yard.
9. Your city
Many cities offer free mulch programs. Public works, public use areas, landfills, and environmental services departments often offer free mulch for pickup. The mulch typically comes from countywide leaf collection, tree trimmings, removals, and other yard waste pickups. Similarly, around the start of the new year, discarded Christmas trees are often recycled into mulch, as well.
Google services in your area to find a free pickup site. Be prepared to bring your own shovel and move your mulch. Additionally, consider bringing along the following gear:
- Contractor-grade garbage bags
- Containers or clean garbage cans
- Cart or wheelbarrow
- Protective eyewear
Pro tip: Check the hours of the pickup location before you head out — some are only open through the fall, while others are open year-round.
FAQ about where to find free mulch
Does mulch attract pests?
No. However, it can provide favorable conditions for pests if it is not managed properly. If pests are a concern in your area, opt for cedar or cypress organic mulch or inorganic options like rocks or rubber mulch.
Does mulch cause mold?
Sometimes. Mulch retains beneficial moisture in your soil. However, too much of a good thing is actually bad. If your mulch layers are too thick or laid in an area with inadequate drainage, it can create conditions favorable for mold growth.
Do I need to add topsoil to my mulch?
No. It is not common to add topsoil to mulch. If you need to improve your soil quality, add amendments and topsoil before laying your mulch.
Don’t have time to mulch yourself?
There are several ways to find free mulch. However, not everyone has the time or patience to pick it up and lay it down. If you would rather have your mulch professionally installed, let Lawn Love connect you with a landscaping expert. They’ll clean up and haul away your yard debris, edge your garden beds, and lay down just the right amount of mulch for thriving plants.
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