How to Use Free Mulch in Your Garden


Free Mulch

“Free” is a deviously effective marketing tool. We all know in our brains that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” But we also know that “the best things in life are free”. Because I absolutely know that both of these statements are true, whenever I see the word “free” I have to stop and check it out. How can these truisms be reconciled? The answer is free mulch.

There are plenty of sources of free mulch: municipal composting facilities, construction sites, tree services, Christmas tree disposal programs, etc. None of them include a magic wand to  screen, decompose, deliver and spread it for you. You can, however, get one or more of these included in the deal, but there are even more important factors to consider when you see the “free mulch” posting.

What will the free mulch be used for?

Mulch that will come in contact with plants (including roots) must be aged for several months…minimum. The early stages of decomposition generate lots of heat and quickly use up nitrogen. A layer of un-aged mulch may rob plants of nitrogen, and will damage roots. Free mulch from a composting facility is often usable immediately. If it is obtained from other sources, it may be best to leave it in a pile for six months before spreading it. If the mulch is to be used on a path or other un-planted area, fresh is fine.

Also, don’t expect the free mulch from construction sites or tree services to be immediately suitable for walkways and play areas. Often the chips are very irregular, some quite large and some branches not chipped at all. This material will require quite a bit of handling before it is useful for even “rustic” applications. If you don’t mind the extra work, free mulch can do the job.

How much free mulch do you need?

If you want your mulch delivered for free, the best way to obtain it is from a tree service that is working in your area. You may have to call the company’s office to get your name added to a contact list for crews working in your area. Sometimes you can stop by a job site, talk to the foreman and arrange it on the spot. The first catch with this setup is that you will get the whole load. This can be enough free mulch to cover several thousand square feet. It’s a lot of wood chips! The second catch is that it can only be dumped where the driver is 100% sure that he will not get the truck stuck and there are no overhead power lines or trees that will be damaged by the dump truck when the bed is raised. This can mean that the pile will be dumped in a rather inconvenient location, or may even prevent the load from being dumped at all. The third catch is that this big pile of mulch will need to age for six months or more before it is usable around plants. If these issues provide no barrier for you, congratulations! There is a source for all of the free mulch you want (just not necessarily when you want it.)

Can and should you go get it?

If you own or have access to a truck or trailer, you have the flexibility to get free mulch from a variety of sources. Be careful when driving to pick-up locations. There are two very realistic possibilities that could turn the free mulch into an expensive hassle: flat tires and getting stuck. Any time you have to drive off the road you should scout the situation for hazards first…this is especially true of demolition or construction sites. Keep in mind that your vehicle will ride much lower and sink into soft ground much deeper when fully loaded with mulch, compared with the empty drive in. It’s always a good idea to take someone along for the ride to help load, unload, and deal with the unexpected.

Beware of contaminants.

Free mulch is just as likely as not to have all sorts of things you don’t want included. Poison ivy grows into the trees and when the trees are chipped up the poison ivy vines go with it. If you have more than a mild sensitivity to poisonous plants, you may want to avoid tree service and construction site mulch. Insect pests may also be included with this material. Composting facilities and Christmas tree disposal facilities have a much lower risk of these sorts of unwanted hitchhikers.

Forewarned is forearmed.

Knowing the risks ahead of time can help you avoid disappointment and disaster. Consider the options and choose the best for your situation. For me, free mulch has been one of the best things for the life of my garden and landscape; helping to build the soil, protecting plants from heat, cold and drought, and providing an effective weed-deterring groundcover for garden paths…at only the cost of my physical exertion (which would have been exerted on something anyway). The effort expended in collecting, perfecting, and allocating the “free mulch” proves both axioms true. Happy gardening.


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