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There are two main components of the soilscape in any healthy garden: topsoil and mulch. Topsoil is dirt that is nutrient-rich. Mulch sits on top of your topsoil to preserve its shelf life and lock in moisture. Eventually, mulch can decompose into topsoil, but it’s not topsoil in and of itself.
It’s always kind of weird to pay for naturally occuring gardening products. After all, landscapers and arborists are removing and chipping up trees and other yard waste everyday. Wouldn’t it be great if you could just convince them to give it to you? For like zero dollars?
As it turns out, you totally can, and it doesn’t require much convincing. Giving you free mulch saves them on dump fees and gas, but it does come with a few potential downsides.
Here are six ways to find free mulch near you, though with all the tentative headaches involved, you may just find yourself springing for a bag at Home Depot or Lowe’s.
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1. Look for municipal or county free mulch programs.
A lot of municipalities and counties offer free mulch programs. For example, here in Pittsburgh, we have a Christmas tree recycling program. People turn in their trees after the holidays, and then in early April, you can claim free wood chip mulch from the program.
Many of these programs are available in the spring, but if you miss the window, you can also check with your local dump or recycling center. These places usually have a dedicated section for mulch, but you’ll have to bring your own transport to get it home.
2. Call local arborists and landscapers.
Wondering how the heck there got to be so much mulch in your local dump in the first place?
Arborists and landscapers are the primary mulch dumpers. And they usually have to pay fees to dump it at your local disposal or recycling center.
You can save them the dump fees and yourself the nightmare of arranging transportation by calling local arborists and landscapers directly. If they’ve got excess mulch, they’ll probably be more than happy that you’re willing to take it off their hands.
And here’s another tip: you’ll most likely to have success with tree care companies, but landscapers do have free mulch available on a slightly less frequent basis.
Related: You can also find free dirt near you.
3. There may be free mulch near you at your electricity utility.
Know who else deals heavily in trees and tree disposal? Your local electricity utility.
If you’ve got above-the-ground power lines in your area, they’re always dealing with growth and damage from storms. Call them up to see if they have a free mulch program. You may or may not have to transport the mulch yourself if you use this method.
4. Get free mulch delivered through Chip Drop.
Don’t wanna call up every last arborist in your area? You could opt to use a service like Chip Drop. You send Chip Drop your name and address where you’d like the mulch dumped, and the next time an arborist or landscaper has a job near you with excess mulch, they’ll drop it off.
The downside of using a service like this is that you never know when the delivery is going to arrive. It could be in a few hours. Maybe in seven weeks. Or quite frankly, it could never happen. The timing is a gamble you’re asked to take on in exchange for the freeness.
Chip Drop is also very honest that these dumps are not always 100% pure wood chips. Sometimes you’ll get leaves, grass, or other organic matter in your mulch dump. Other times, there might even be some plastic litter mixed in. This is also a problem you might have with dumps from local companies even if you don’t use Chip Drop.
You may get more mulch than you need, and that’s a similar problem you might have when you contact local companies directly. The issue is, you can’t just take half a truck load. They usually make you take the whole thing. Be prepared to share with your neighbors!
Chip Drop does guarantee that aside from the occasional litter, the wood itself is 100% organic. You won’t get any chipped up pallets or plywood that’s been processed. That’s a good thing because you want the nutrients in the wood to actually nourish your plants and garden.
TIP: Don’t want all the potential drama of free mulch? You can get reliable, wood chip-only mulch for a fairly low premium, especially if you’re just doing a small project. Here’s how to save money on mulch.
5. Shred leaves from your yard.
You don’t necessarily have to use wood chips for mulch! True story. You can also use materials like shredded leaves.
Depending on where you live, you can probably find leaves around your yard every fall. Luckily, shredding them is wayyyy easier than shredding wood chips. All you need is your lawnmower. Ideally, you’ll have a bag attached to the back to catch all your dry leaf mulch. But if you don’t, you can just rake up the shredded leaves afterwards for storage until the spring.
6. Use pine needles as mulch, but only for plants that like acidic soil.
Pine needles can be a great free mulch product, but you’ll need to be a little more careful with them. Unlike leaves from deciduous trees, pine needles can make the soil a bit acidic.
Some plants love acidic soil and actually thrive in it. Examples include:
- Blueberry shrubs
- Dogwood shrubs
- Magnolia trees
Plants that do not heart acidic soil include:
- Forsythia bushes
TIP: Sometimes your soil needs to be a little more acidic. If your soil tests fairly high on a pH test, you might want to actively seek out pine needles as a free mulch product rather than avoiding them.