15 Cheap Mulch Ideas to Save Money

If you're gardening on a budget, there are several areas where you can save money, including sourcing mulch. Kevin Espiritu lists 15 of his favorite ideas for finding cheap (or free) mulch.

Mulch Ideas to Save Money


Mulch is a must-have in the garden, providing a long list of benefits from moisture retention to weed control. But purchasing mulch every time you need it can get expensive, especially if you have a large area to cover.

Whenever possible, I like to keep my gardening activities low-cost. Luckily, with so many cheap mulch sources, there’s no reason to buy at the garden center. Try any of these cheap mulch ideas (some are even free) to garden effectively on a budget.

Before you start, keep in mind that the materials you use to mulch have an impact on soil health and nutrient content. While choosing a cheap mulch, consider how it will impact the specific plants you’re growing before use.

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Lawn Cuttings

Two large black garbage bags full of grass clippings in a back yard, next to a red lawn mower.
Use grass clippings to save on garden waste.

Lawn cuttings are a classic and free source of mulch that reuses your garden waste efficiently. If you use them, avoid spreading them too thickly, as they might heat up while they break down (creating a mini-compost pile). They help keep weeds down, as long as your clippings don’t contain any weed seeds.

Neighbor’s Grass Clippings

A green wheelbarrow in a yard full of grass clippings.
Gather up your neighbors grass clippings if you don’t have enough to fill your garden beds.

If you need to mulch a large area, clippings from your own lawn are probably not enough. Instead, ask around the neighborhood for bags of grass clippings. If they’ve been left out, your neighbors will appreciate you clearing them. And if your neighbors are particularly friendly, you can always ask them to drop the clippings off in your garden.

Unfinished Compost

A man's boot stepping on the top of a shovel, scooping up some mulch from a pile of dirt in a garden.
You don’t have to wait for your compost to break down before you use it.

Compost is a wonderful resource in the garden, but it does require patience. It takes several months or even longer, depending on your structure, for the compost to break down completely. If you have extra compost that isn’t quite finished, put it to good use by spreading it across your beds as cheap mulch.

This option is best suited for beds that aren’t for aesthetic appeal. Also, note that certain food scraps can be intense for more sensitive plants.

Wood Chips

Man's gloved hands holding a pile of wood chips form a pile of mulch made from wood chips.
Grab some free wood chips from any trees that may have been recently cut down.

Why buy wood chips at the garden center when you can get them for free from so many different places? Ask around at local companies that frequently cut down trees for any offcuts to turn into free wood chips.

Christmas Trees

A man's hands holding a bushel of christmas tree branches, laying them down in a raised garden bed.
Instead of bulk trash, cut your old Christmas tree up to use as mulch around your yard.

The holiday season is a great time to pick up a lot of cheap mulch. Chop up your own Christmas tree to turn into mulch and offer to take your neighbors too. Or, instead of going to individual homeowners, go to the companies that offer free tree shredding and see if they’ll give you some of their waste.

Allow the tree to cure for some time before spreading in your garden. You may unintentionally propagate a new tree if you spread too soon.


Close up of a pile of shredded newspaper clippings.
Put your paper shredder to good use and shred up some cheap mulch for your garden.

If you don’t already have a paper shredder, you’re missing out on a lot of free mulch. Every gardener should have one in their home, instantly turning junk mail and newspapers into something useful: cheap mulch. You can also wet old newspaper without shredding it and lay it down on your beds. Although it will decompose quickly, it’s a good weed suppressant.

This option is best for beds that aren’t growing food plants.

Straw Bales

Small hay bail sitting next to a plater area, lining a fence.
Bales of straw are cheap once the fall is over and can be a great source of mulch to keep your garden warm in the winter.

Straw bales are a fantastic mulch, as long as the straw is safe for garden usage. During fall, local businesses will often advertise using straw bales. After the fall season ends, they’ll likely give them to you for free if you just ask. Buying straw bales from suppliers is also relatively cheap out of the fall season.

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Stable Sweepings

A wheelbarrow full of hay and other barn debris with a large pitch fork resting on top.
Find a local farm and see if you can pick up a truck load of stable sweepings for some free mulch.

If you live near stables (or have one yourself), you can use the sweepings as a cheap mulch. Contact a stable owner to check whether they’d be happy for you to pick them up if they’re not being used. If there is fresh manure in the sweepings, let that compost over the course of a couple of months before spreading on a garden bed with plants growing in it.

Pine needles

Close up of a garden bed with dried pine needles coating the ground.
Pine needles help prevent weeds and keep your plants moist.

If you live in an area with pine trees, it’s time to go foraging. Pine needles are abundant and a fantastic cheap mulch, preventing weeds, conserving moisture, and decreasing erosion. Their waxy coating makes them slow to break down, so you only have to apply them once per year.

Paper Bags

Close up of a pile of shredded, brown, paper bags.
Shred up some old paper bags and use just like your newspaper clippings.

Most home improvement or grocery stores have a bunch of broken bags or grocery debris that go to waste. If you ask, they’d likely be happy for you to take them off their hands. This type of mulch works much like wet newspaper, though it is a bit more durable. Like newspaper, unless you know the bags don’t contain toxins or inks, use them on non-food beds.

Fall Leaves

Close up of cron crops with piles of dried leaves at the base of the crops being used as mulch.
Spread your fall leaves around your plants to double has mulch for extra warmth in the winter.

Most gardeners will toss fall leaves into their compost piles after raking. However, with the abundance of leaves available, you should consider setting a bag or two aside to use as mulch. If you don’t have a shredder, run your lawn mower over the leaves to break them up before applying them to your beds.

Landscaping Debris

Gloved hands picking up a pile of yard debris, such as grass clippings, hay and dried leaves.
Mix together different debris from around your yard to double as mulch and cut down on yard waste.

Build a relationship with a local landscaping company, preferably a truck driver. Ask them to drop off their landscaping debris at your place after a job. You’ll instantly have enough mulch to last at least a full season. Avoid spreading in an area where you don’t want extra germinating weeds, though.

Local Tree Services

A silver and red wheelbarrow full of tree clippings, sitting in a garden area full of dirt.
Tree trimmings are a great way to fill up space in your raised garden beds.

Much like landscaping companies, tree services are in the business of cutting and breaking down organic matter. And they’re often overjoyed to have somewhere to dump it. Contact them and build a relationship for free wood chips and tree trimmings.

Cardboard Sheets

Garden are in a large yard, covered in a layer of flat sheets of cardboard.
If you have an excess of boxes laying around, break them down and spread them around like you would mulch.

If you’re an online shopping junkie like me, you probably have a wealth of cardboard boxes ready to be recycled. Break them down and spread them as cheap mulch in the garden. Cardboard lasts far longer than shredded newspaper or paper bags too. Remove any staples, tape, or stickers, and only use non-toxic carboards in and around beds where you are growing food.

Make Your Own Straw

Close up of a tall green crop with a cluster of tiny, light yellow, buds at the top of a tall thick stem.
If time allows, plant some sorghum, its fast growing and makes great, cheap, mulch.

I’ve saved the most time-consuming (but coolest) solution for last: making your own straw. You can do this by planting fast-growing sorghum and letting it grow. Then, chop it all down and you have tons of straw for mulching. Chop it before the seeds develop to prevent tons of little sorghum plants from popping up.

Final Thoughts

If you’re gardening on a budget, there are several areas where you can save money, and mulching is one of the easiest ones. Try any of these cheap mulch ideas to avoid buying your mulch from the store again.

Close-up of growing garlic plants in a bed with pine needle mulch. Garlic plant consists of long, lance-shaped leaves that emerge from a central stem, forming a clump. The mulch consists of long, slender needles that form a loose and airy layer when spread over soil. The color of pine needle mulch varies from light green to golden brown.


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