I was walking back from the playground with my kids when I saw my neighbor raking up the remnants of last fall from his yard.
“Hey, are those leaves?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, loading up the yard waste bag.
“Can I have them? I’m putting in a woodland garden next to my garage, and they’d be perfect as mulch for my plants. Old leaves are really good for that.”
About an hour later, he delivered two big bags full of leaves and poured them out in my garden. I was happy to have good organic matter for my plants. My neighbor got rid of his leaves without having to pay the city to pick them up.
I never turn down a chance to score free mulch, because I use so much of it in my gardens to keep down the weeds. For optimal weed control, gardening experts suggest a layer at least one or two inches thick. I’d spend a fortune on bags of wood chips if I bought all my mulch from the stacks piled outside the local Jewel-Osco grocery store, the hardware store, gas station, or Home Depot every spring.
There are many free sources of mulch for gardeners. While not all of them will conform to the suburban ideals of a spotless yard, most are reasonably attractive. And all will look just fine under the dense plantings needed when gardening for wildlife.
Leaves decompose quickly but add organic matter to the soil as they do. Shredding them with a lawn mower before spreading them on flower beds speeds decomposition but reduces the odds that winds will blow them where they aren’t wanted. Leaves are especially well-suited for shade gardens, because many plants grown in the shade are native to woodland habitats.
During the summer, when leaves are unavailable, grass clippings are useful as garden mulch. These quickly turn brown, and they break down faster than the shredded leaves. Many homeowners, however, prefer to mulch grass clippings and leave them on the lawn. Be careful not to use grass clippings from a chemically treated lawn on a vegetable garden.
Many tree services will deliver wood chips to homeowners at no charge. In suburban Chicago, for example, Dawson’s Tree Service will deliver to a home. The wood chips will be less uniform than those bought at a store. They will also be un-dyed and may be mixed with leaves or twigs. Most tree services require that homeowners accept a very large quantity, usually a truckload. If you do not have large gardens, plan to share a load with the neighbors.
Straw, available in rural areas and in the fall at supermarkets in suburban Chicago, is a popular choice for vegetable gardens.
Catriona Tudor, in The Frugal Gardener, recommends several unconventional sources of free or inexpensive mulch. Newspapers may be shredded and thrown in the garden, she says. She also suggests homeowners try old carpeting or rugs. These materials may decompose more slowly than natural sources, and homeowners will probably want to cover them with more attractive mulch for the sake of aesthetics.