The Magic of Mulch

Mulch has so many benefits and is a vital input for every healthy garden. Mulch plays many roles besides framing your plants and making your garden attractive. Mulches inhibit weed growth, minimise erosion and retain precious moisture just to name a few. But how do you mulch your garden for free?

How to Mulch Your Garden for Free

It depends on the mulch you want. There are two types of mulch – organic or inorganic. Let’s take a quick look at them both with their pros and cons.

Organic Mulch

This mulch type is either a dead plant material you apply over the soil surface or a living species you grow to cover and protect it. Organic mulches are biodegradable and decompose over time – some fast; others over a period of years. This depends on the material and your climate. Here in the subtropics, organic mulches break down quite quickly with high moisture and humidity.

These types of organic mulches add value to your soil health and quality. They are a way of layering organic matter on top of the soil to build humus and encourage worms. Organic mulches like leaves, hay, shrub prunings and lawn clippings improve drainage and aeration. They also add nutrients and hold water; create habitat for soil microorganisms; improve fertility and soil structure. However, buying these types of mulches, especially in bulk can be costly. You also need to reapply them over time. This is one of the key reasons to learn how to mulch your garden for free!

Inorganic Mulch

Inorganic mulches are non-living or made from synthetic materials like weed mat. They typically don’t decompose, are low-maintenance and long-lasting but are usually more expensive to purchase. However, they don’t need replacing over time as organic mulches do. Decorative inorganic mulches include pebbles, rocks and gravel. It’s worth considering the environmental impact and one-off cost of these inputs. Pebbles and rocks can help prevent erosion and can be suited to windy gardens. They don’t however, feed the soil in any way.

There is a place for both types of mulches in many gardens. You can go to your landscape yard, nursery or hardware to buy bags of mulch in small quantities or get it delivered in bulk.

However, if you want to save money, why not consider all the potential materials you could use as mulch from your garden or neighbourhood? Here are a few sustainable ways to source your mulch at no cost. Dig in!

Organic free mulch materials - Top Left: Dead leaves | Top Right: Nut shells | Bottom Right: Corn Husks | Bottom Left: Pine cones and needles

These are a few of my favourite organic mulch materials – Top Left: Dead leaves | Top Right: Nut shells | Bottom Right: Corn Husks | Bottom Left: Pine cones and needles

How to Mulch Your Garden for Free

“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” ― Arthur Ashe

We all have access to different resources. You may have to think creatively about what materials you can source from your own garden, family and friends, neighbours or within your local community. Don’t give up! Even starting with one of these free mulch ideas can help save you money. Aim to be as sustainable as you can.

1. Reuse ‘Waste’ Plant Materials

Grasscycling Lawn Clippings.

There are several ways to use nitrogen-rich, fresh green lawn clippings or when they are carbon-rich, brown, dry and aged.

  1. Firstly, if you have a catcher on your lawnmower, dry the grass clippings out in the sun to prevent them from clumping. Sprinkle lightly around pots or garden beds as mulch.
  2. Avoid applying a thick layer of grass clippings all in one spot as they can form a mat. This can prevent moisture from getting through to the soil.
  3. Instead of using a catcher, allow the clippings to self-mulch on the lawn as you mow. This prevents weeds, adds moisture and feeds the soil and thatch with nutrients. Healthier weed-free lawn too.
  4. Lastly, add clippings to your compost when fresh as a nitrogen (green) ingredient. Or dry out and use as a carbon (brown) input in the composting process. Compost can also be used as a feeding mulch under a more durable layer like bark chip.
How to mulch your garden for free: Pile of pruned branches and leaves for mulch from our garden

A pile of pruned branches and leaves I used as mulch for our garden

Prunings from hedges and garden maintenance.

Whenever I prune our shrubs and tidy up hedges, there are always plenty of pruned branches and leafy cuttings as a free resource.

  • If they’re soft and not too woody, mow over twigs and leaves to shred and reuse as mulch.
  • Toss the smaller pruned branches or vines under the shrubs or hedges, so they self-mulch.
  • If you have a chipper, shred larger branches into bark chip mulch for woody herbs, shrubs and trees.

Dead blooms from cut flowers or fallen blossoms.

  • Never waste a bunch of flowers even when they’re past their prime! Petals and snipped stems from cut flowers are ideal for a soft mulch around vegetables or herbs.
  • Rake up excess fallen blossoms under trees, shrubs or on pathways. Reuse them on garden beds or container plants. They’re pretty and often fragrant too.
How to mulch your garden for free: I use colourful blossoms as soft attractive mulch in pots

I used colourful tipuana blossoms as soft attractive mulch in these dianthus flower pots

Vegetable stems and leaves.

  • Annual crops are often a great source of free mulch materials when they complete their life cycle.
  • Instead of composting the woody spent stems of plants like basil, eggplant, tomato or cosmos flowers, I chop them up into shorter pieces with secateurs. They make great mulch for pot plants and recycle valuable nutrients.
  • In the kitchen, instead of throwing all your food ‘waste’ into your compost, consider separating suitable organic matter for mulch. Tea leaves are ideal around pots or indoor plants. Herb and vegetable stems or corn husks break down quickly and add a source of nutrients and moisture to the soil. They can be covered with a more durable mulch like hay, sugarcane or bark chip.

Cardboard and paper.

  • Plain shredded paper without plastic, GMO soy inks or shiny coloured sheets is another option. Paper strips absorb water and break down fast so cover with a longer-lasting mulch.
  • Sheet mulch by recycling cardboard boxes. Lay cardboard sheets over your grass or weeds to kill them and then start a garden bed on top. Strip off any tape and staples, then lay the cardboard out flat, overlapping the edges to block sunlight. Hose the cardboard well to moisten it. Sheet mulching is used to convert lawn or weedy areas into garden beds without the need to remove either! Cover the cardboard with moist compost, nutrients and a top layer of mulch. This Permaculture technique saves time and energy in starting a new raised bed. I’ve used this method successfully many times over the years. By the time the cardboard decomposes, adding carbon to the soil, the weeds and grass have died and converted their nutrients into plant food. No more weeding or mowing!
How to mulch your garden for free: Wet cardboard can be used to sheet mulch in between plants to suppress weeds

Wet cardboard can also be used to sheet mulch in between plants to suppress weeds in small spaces

2. Grow Your Own Mulch

Why buy mulch when you can grow plants as free mulch instead?

  • Live in a warm climate? Grow peanuts and use the crushed shells as mulch. They hold moisture well and break down quickly.
  • Grow ‘Chop and Drop’ plants. Species that are high in moisture, nutrients and leaf/stem biomass are good mulch candidates. Many plants have beneficial characteristics that suit their role as soil improvers. Ideal plants are fast-growing, drought tolerant, nitrogen-fixing, decompose quickly and don’t self-seed or take over a garden bed. ‘Chop and drop’ plants don’t have thorns or spiky foliage and are pruned easily with secateurs, run over with a hand mower or put through a mulcher. A few options include:
    • Queensland Arrowroot (Canna edulis) is a fast-growing edible perennial with juicy stems and large lush leaves.
    • Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a deep-rooted dynamic accumulator with large leaves and it’s rich in nutrients drawn up from deep in the sub-soil.
    • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) and Vetiver Grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) are perennial dense clumping species with long thin leaves.
    • Heliconias, galangal, canna lilies, native grasses and false cardamom are a few other species that have suitable biomass for chopping and dropping. There are many more!
  • Grow Groundcovers as Living Mulches. These species cover the soil with their leaves and stems, but can also be harvested. e.g. Pumpkin, Nasturtium, Sweet potato and Clover (grow in full sun) or Native violet (in a moist, shady position).
How to mulch your garden for free: Native violets make a living ground cover mulch under shrubs and trees in a semi shaded spot

Native violets make a living groundcover mulch under shrubs and trees in a semi-shaded spot

3. Embrace Trees that Gift You Free Mulch

  • Twigs, fallen branches and seed pods are all sources of carbon-rich mulch that attract beneficial fungi and grow your soil microbe community.
  • Dead leaves. Deciduous trees self-mulch during autumn/fall, naturally enriching the soil. Follow nature’s example and gather them where you can.
  • Pine tree species often drop pine needles and cones which are ideal decorative mulch materials.
  • Use the shells from nut trees like macadamias and pecans as mulch.
  • If you’re having a mature tree professionally lopped, retain the mulch onsite. If you’re paying for a service, reap the benefits!
How to mulch your garden for free: Save money with arborist mulch dropped off for free by local tree loppers

We’ve often had arborist mulch dropped off for free by local tree loppers wanting to avoid tip fees

4. Look for Opportunities

With a little creative thinking and by being observant in your local community, it’s likely someone else’s ‘problem’ could be your solution to free mulch! Here are a few ideas to consider.

  • Verge Trees. Are there any trees in your street that are dropping leaves but are not being managed by the residents or council? Approach your neighbours and see if you can help collect them. Take a rake and recycle bags or a trailer if you have one. You’ll not only clean up the neighbourhood, but you might also make new friends and get a great source of free mulch at the same time.
  • New Estates. Developers are always clearing trees and shrubs to develop land for housing. There may be an opportunity to source mulch this way. If you live nearby, they may be happy to dump it for free or a small delivery fee.
  • Arborists and Landscapers. Contact a few in your area and let them know you are happy to take delivery for free when they are next doing a job nearby. We’ve done this many times and given the delivery driver an appropriate thank you especially for bulk mulch. This saves them tip fees.
  • Lawn Mowing Services. If your neighbours use a contractor who takes their plant material away and dumps it, you could possibly ask them to leave it with you instead. Grass clippings, prunings and leaves may be free for the taking! You just need to ask. It’s best to check if they use chemicals too to avoid accidentally bringing herbicides into your garden.
  • Nearby Neighbours. Residents who are not gardeners often don’t appreciate the value of plant material and put it straight in their kerbside bin collection. Rather than ending up as ‘green waste’, you may be able to ask if you can empty the contents at your place and put them to good use.
How to mulch your garden for free: Green waste bins can be a source of prunings and garden organic matter suitable for mulch and compost

Green waste bins can be a source of free prunings and garden organic matter suitable for mulch and compost

5 Tips for Mulching

  1. Ideally, remove or use any edible weeds before you apply your mulch (unless you are sheet mulching).
  2. If you can, water the soil before and after adding mulch.
  3. It’s preferable to time your mulching after rain when the soil is already moist or when it is forecast to settle it in.
  4. Where possible, add compost, aged manure or organic fertiliser to the wet soil before applying your mulch layer. Water in to activate these nutrients unless you expect rain.
  5. When using ‘chop and drop’ mulch, consider the moon phase and season. During the warmer months of spring, summer and early autumn, many plants you can use for mulch are in their prime growth phase seasonally. However, you can also time cutting them back or prune them in harmony with the new moon phase. This encourages new regrowth to occur soon after pruning. Learn how to get your timing right and watch this video below to see how pruning at the ideal time of the month can make a massive difference to plant growth.

Feeling excited and inspired by the possibilities? I hope these sustainable practices help minimise the need to buy your mulch supplies to build healthy soil. If you gathered a few ideas to try in your garden, let me know in the comments or please share this article.

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