Are There Any Cheap or Free Mulches?

Remember This Question When You Rake Leaves Next Fall

Fall leaves (image) are colorful but I don't like raking them. It's necessary, though.
Raking fallen leaves in autumn is not fun, but the fact that you can use them as a free mulch takes some of the sting out of it. David Beaulieu

Do you have an area in the yard that is too big to cover with a bark mulch? Having a large load of that stuff delivered can, after all, get pretty expensive. So you may wonder, "Is there a cheap or free mulch?"

A couple of organic materials available in your own yard can be regarded as sources of cheap or even free mulch: lawn grass clippings and the leaves you rake up in fall. For optimal use as mulch, however, each should be "prepared" ahead of time (see below).

For those as much in need of saving time as saving money, black plastic and poly tarps are good quick-fix "mulches." You can cover a lot of ground with them quickly, and, if you shop around, they are relatively cheap.

"Bark Mulch Is Nice but Expensive, So What Are My Other Options?"

When you have large areas of the landscape to cover with mulch, mulching can get expensive and labor-intensive. Colored bark mulches (red, black, etc.) are attractive and very popular, but they are suitable only for covering small spaces if you are landscaping on a budget.

What is the solution? Consider alternatives to conventional mulches, including not only cheap mulches, but even some free mulches. The following alternatives will be inappropriate in some situations but a lifesaver in others:

Labor-Saving Cheap Mulches: Poly Tarps, Black Plastic

  • Black plastic is a widely-used landscape mulch in the nursery business. While not attractive, it is at least neutral in color and might not be unacceptable in a backyard. It is cheaper and easier to cover a large area with black plastic mulch than with the more expensive bark mulches.
  • Like black plastic mulch, poly tarps provide a cheaper and easier alternative to bark mulches for covering large areas. An advantage poly tarps have over black plastic mulch is that they are sturdier. However, the color of poly tarps (commonly blue) is often more obtrusive. But in a pinch, use poly tarps as a temporary mulch; then go back afterwards and cover them with something more attractive -- perhaps one of the free mulches I discuss below:

    Free Mulches

    • Leaves
    • Grass clippings

    For a free mulch, save the leaves you rake in fall. For a full article on using this readily available free mulch, please consult, "Rake Leaves and Make Compost and Mulch." Another source of free mulch is the grass clippings that are left over after you mow the lawn. But both of these free mulches should be "prepared" prior to use:

    • Leaves should be shredded first.
    • Grass clippings should be allowed to "cool off."

    Not only will leaves look better as a mulch if shredded first, but they will also function better. Matted leaves form a barrier that prevents air and moisture from getting to the soil below -- not a desirable quality in a mulch. If you do not own a wood chipper-shredder, simply spread the leaves out and run the lawn mower over them to shred them (preferably with the bag attachment in place on your mower, so that the leaves are all collected in one place, making it easier to transport them).

    Fresh grass clippings are too hot to be used as mulch and may burn your plants. That heat is great if you wish to use them to make compost, but you will want to let them cool off if you plan to use them as a mulch. When fresh, grass clippings contain a lot of moisture; if you rake them into a big pile, you can sometimes actually see steam rising from them!

    To prepare them for use as a mulch, simply spread them out first, to dry. As they dry, their initially hot, steamy quality will dissipate, making them safe to apply around plants.

    In garden areas, "living mulches" are another option worth considering.