Free Mulch! How to Make It and Where to Get More

, written by gb flag

Collecting grass clippings for mulching vegetable beds

The value of mulching is one of the most important things I’ve ever learned as a gardener. Simply adding organic matter to the soil surface can suppress weeds, help retain soil moisture, insulate roots from extremes of hot and cold, feed plants, and improve soil structure. Best of all, mulch can be made – for free! – in your own garden.

Read on to find out what kinds of mulches you can make at home, how to get more when you run out, and how to use them for maximum benefit.

Rich and Reliable Compost

Well-rotted homemade compost is wonderful stuff – sweet-smelling, crumbly and packed with nutrients. When laid on the soil surface 5-10cm (2-4in) thick it does a great job of suppressing annual weeds. Most plants will thrive with a mulch of compost.

Compost is always in short supply, so use it where it’s needed most

It’s precious stuff though, so it’s wise to reserve it for your hungriest or most treasured plants – there’s simply never enough! To make most effective use of your compost, use it for mulching in spring to prime to the soil ready for the year’s plants, around autumn-planted vegetables like garlic, or in potting mixes.

Summer Grass Clipping Mulch

For many gardeners, figuring out what to do with grass clippings can be a headache. But the answer is right there in your garden! Grass clippings make excellent mulch at a time when other mulching materials may be in short supply.

Mulch thinly with grass clippings every week or two throughout the summer. Grass clippings are readily taken down into the soil by earthworms and other soil fauna, and also add a small supplement of nitrogen to the soil.

Thin layers of glass clippings make excellent mulch

It’s important to add grass clippings thinly – aim for no more than an inch (3cm) deep. Any thicker and it will quickly turn into a sour, vinegary smelling sludge. The best solution, if you have enough room in a sheltered spot, is to spread out the clippings on a hard surface and dry them out for a few days. They can then be added more thickly to the soil if you wish.

If you’re unable to do this, do be aware that fresh grass clippings may root into the soil and contain grass seeds. I find the benefits outweigh the drawbacks however – a weekly hoeing before adding more mulch helps keep it under control.

It’s essential to make sure that no weedkiller has been used on the grass, as any residues may harm your crops. About once a month, take off your mower’s grass bag or insert your mulching attachment and leave the clippings on the grass. They’ll feed the lawn, ensuring it keeps producing more healthy growth for you to cut and use.

Wood-derived Mulches

Wood products such as sawdust, wood chips, bark chips and pine needles (pine straw) have a bad reputation. When dug in, they are said to ‘rob’ nitrogen from the soil as they rot down. Using them to mulch around established fruit trees and bushes or perennial vegetables is usually fine however. They will help suppress weeds and contribute to a well-structured soil once they’ve rotted down.

Shredded prunings are great for mulching and path surfaces

Most gardens containing shrubs or trees produce lots of small prunings every year. It could be worth investing in a small shredder. Spread over many seasons, the initial purchase becomes very low indeed. I was lucky enough to nab one second-hand a few years ago, and it reduces mountains of branches and twigs to useful mulch every spring and autumn. Branches that are too thick for the machine can go on your fire if you have one, or be used to make bug habitats.

To source more, it could be worth making friends with local tree surgeons, sawmill operators, landscapers or professional gardeners. They're often happy to let you have waste products such as sawdust for free to avoid having to pay to dispose of them.

Sawdust should be used with care, as if used fresh it can mat together and make it hard for water to permeate. It makes a great path surface if replenished annually, but if using it on beds let it rot down first.

Vary the kind of mulch you use depending on the time of year and what's available in the garden

Free and Easy Leaves and Leafmold

The aforementioned tree surgeons, landscapers and gardeners may also be willing to drop you off a few loads of leaves in the autumn. If leaves have been gathered from roadsides or anywhere else where they're likely to affected by pollutants, store them until they’ve rotted down into leafmold before using.

Of course, if you have any trees in or near your garden you may find that you have a ready supply. Raking leaves can be welcome warm work on a chilly autumn day. Neighbours might also let you rake up their leaves, or may even be glad to deliver them to your garden just to be rid of them!

Leaves can be used as a thick, insulating blanket over empty beds or around overwintering plants, but as they’re loose and light they usually need to be weighed down with netting or lengths of wood laid across the bed at intervals. Chopping the leaves up with a few passes of the lawn mower makes them less likely to blow around and lets rain pass through more easily.

Leafmold mulch contributes to a healthier garden

Leafmold (rotted leaves from deciduous trees) is similar to compost, but is less rich in nutrients. It can take two years or even longer for leaves to rot down enough to be considered leafmold. Once added to the soil, leafmold becomes incorporated relatively quickly and needs topped up regularly. It has a beneficial effect on soil life, which results in better plants, so is a very desirable addition to the vegetable garden and to potting mixes.

These mulches may be free but their value to gardeners is inestimable! They help reduce the arduous tasks of weeding and watering in summer, protect your beds over winter, and improve the soil all year round. Consider them an additional ‘harvest’ that will contribute to your garden’s overall productivity. Your plants will thank you!

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Show Comments


"what can i use to die the mulch around my house black"
glen on Monday 25 November 2019
"here are lots of tree over the par near me, lots of leaves on the ground, couldI rake em up, black bag them and put them in my compost bin ? How long would it take for them to rot down ? Do I add water (leave the lid off and let rain water in ?) Just using grass cuttings at the moment"
Derrick on Saturday 15 August 2020
"Derrick, leaves typically take a couple of years to rot down but may be faster or slower depending on type. If you wish you can mix the leaves with your grass clippings and this should speed things up a little. You can empty the bags into your compost bin or just corral the leaves in a cage of chicken wire. Use the search box at the top of the page to search for 'leaf mould' - you'll find several articles on the subject of making leaf mould from leaves. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 21 August 2020
"Haven't had to cut my 5 lawns for many weeks so no grass clippings. Have already used up all the compost and leafmould from previous years. No sign of last year's leaves (Oak) rotting down at all. I need to find some free mulch.. I didn't know that adding grass clippings speeds up rotting a bit so will do that in future, should my lawns ever recover. Rather a waste giving them the usual 3 in one treatment this year."
Lorna on Wednesday 17 August 2022
"Hi Lorna. The grass has been growing very slowly here too, and I've missed my grass clipping mulches! I'd be very wary of using clippings from lawns that have been treated with any chemicals, whether in compost, leafmould, or as a mulch, because the herbicides may have an adverse affect on the plants you grow in it. It might be safer to avoid using the clippings this year. I'd recommend checking with the manufacturer of the product about how long the herbicide persists and whether they consider it safe to use, especially around edible plants."
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 19 August 2022

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