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Calculating Mulch and Free Sources for Mulch

Mulch it!

There are many differing opinions on which mulch constitutes the best kind of mulching, how much to use, and whether to use it. We tend to favor using natural mulch of wood chips and leaves because we have a lot of both where we live in the woods. When calculating mulch costs, consider first the free options available to you.

Free Mulch

First and foremost, you can often get mulch for free!

We have a huge mound of mulch that we got for free.

Sure, it’s not the fancy mulch used in ornamental landscaping, but it’s perfectly adequate for gardens. In fact the “rough” mulch from your local tree trimmers is typically a better quality for garden mulching because it’s a blend of trees, leaves, sap and vitality from the trees, not some treated, color thick wood bark. So not only is it good enough for many yard and garden beds, but you can often get it for free or uber cheap, so who’s complaining?!

We have a tree trimmer whom we call on when we need a tree trimmed or cut down. We’re able to we get free mulch from him whenever we need it. But even if you don’t have a relationship yet with a tree trimmer, you can call your nearest local company and just ask them.

The best tree trimmers will be glad to drop a load of chips for you for free. You see, they trim trees all day, most every day, which means that they typically have loads of wood chips that need to be dumped at least several times a week. That’s a lot of wood chips, and many people with ornamental gardens don’t want the “organic mulch mix”… they prefer the pretty stuff.

Call your local tree trimmer for free mulch in exchange for a place to dump their load.

Okay, but what if you don’t have a tree trimmer company nearby? Chances are, if you live around trees or in the woods like you do… well, where there are trees there are tree trimmers. But… what if you can’t find a local guy to deliver for free… or maybe you’d just like to make your own by cleaning up your yard of limbs, leaves and debris and turning it to mulching.

We’ve talked about whether to invest in a mulcher, so here are some thoughts on that.

Is it Cheaper to Make Mulch or Buy it?

There are numerous options for making your own mulch cheaply. Rather than buying lots of mulch, you could buy a mulcher ONCE, and it can pay for itself within the first year in how much you save on buying mulch by the bagful or truckload full. IF you can’t find it for free. Or it may just be that you want a mulcher to help you turn yard debris into garden mulching.

Ways to Make Garden Mulching

Most riding mowers and push mowers have mulcher attachments these days. There’s even a leaf blower/vacuum/mulcher all in one by Black & Decker.

Buy Mulch or Make it?

If you don’t already own a mulcher or mulching attachment, here are some considerations:

Mulch Calculator

Approximately how much for the mulcher you’re looking at versus approximately how much will you spend on mulch this year?

Lowe’s Home Improvement has a mulch calculator that should help you glean your costs. 

For a Garden Soil calculator, visit Gardeners.com.

For our first load of garden mulch a few years ago, we bought a single axle dump truck load of wood chip mulch. That was before we figured out we should call our own tree trimmer to get it for free! That load was $93 for approximately 9 yards of mulch, so rounding it at $10 /yd (for simpler calculations), to cover around 2,700 square feet. This should last us until next season.

UPDATE: But it didn’t. We’ve since had two more loads of the free mulch delivered. SO… if we’d had to pay for mulching each time, that would be close to $300 spent on mulch in our first year of gardening this area. Naturally, each year we’re expecting to need increasingly less as we’ll just be adding for maintenance mode rather than full coverage.

Home chipper-mulchers range from between $100 – $3,300.

Do the Home Chippers Work?

GardensAll Facebook community members have shared that they really love their home versions.

I have a small wood chipper. It can do branches up 3 inches. It cuts them up into small pieces. I like it a lot. Viola McShannon 

I have one also – love it !  Ellie Holmes 

My mom used her small chipper to shred leaves. Helped them compost faster over the winter. Rebecca Maurer-Milota 

Home Chippers are Great for Smaller Gardens

If you mainly have grass and leaves, the smaller versions should suffice, or you can just use your mower attachments. If you have a lot of wood like we do being mostly in the woods, you’ll need a mid-to-high end model.

Our neighbor got a smaller mulcher and they spent the better part of a Saturday and Sunday mulching twigs and very small branches. All that effort ended up with just a small pile that might cover a portion of the average front yard flower bed.

While we love the idea of making our own mulch out of the felled limbs and branches all around us, we just don’t have the time to spend it all making a little mulch. So keep that in mind, that with small mulchers, you’ll be doing a lot of feeding to get enough mulch to cover a garden, especially in the first year.

PRO to owning a mulcher or wood chipper and doing it yourself is that it’s a nice way to keep a yard cleaned up while recycling that debris into productive garden mulch.

CON to doing it yourself, is that it’s a lot of work for a little mulch, AND, it’s a big machine that you’ll need to have a place to store out of the weather.

We could buy a best-selling mid-range mulcher for around $600, and that’s almost an even deal for the truckloads we needed if we’d paid for it. But remember, we needed more the first year, after that you can just add more to it as you go, so each year you need less.

low-end mulcher for around $100, might be enough if you have just a very small garden or raised beds, or need it for your flower beds.

Chippers do a great job chopping up leaves for compost and mulch.

These smallest mulchers might work well for if you have a landscaped front yard with flower beds to mulch, and trees that drop twigs and limbs in the backyard to clean up.

Or, we could buy a mid-to upper range wood chip/leaf mulcher for around $1,000.

Would it last 3-6 seasons? Most likely. If we were buying mulch, that’s about how long it would take us to recoup the cost of the mulcher. But what is certain is that we’d use it for 10 times more mulching than when we have to buy it per load.

With a ready supply of mulch by having a mulcher, all garden and landscaped areas and walkways will always look better, and not just the vegetable garden. Wood mulch on top of the soil (and not tilled in) is very good for the soil and helps to keep your beds warmer when it’s cold and cooler when it’s hot, with better moisture retention.

Our recommendation is to make friends with an arborist tree trimmer who has an industrial wood chipper. Some of them have arrangements with farmers. Others are always looking for places to dump their loads.

But if you don’t have one nearby, if you’ve got woods and plan to do a lot of mulching, consider the return of your investment over time versus your time.

Maybe Rent a Chipper?

You can rent the more commercial sized wood chipper mulchers. The 6″ and 12″ wood and leaf mulchers currently run between $350-$550 for the day, respectively, which is pretty steep.

6″ Chippers cost around $2,300-$10,000 and rent for around $350/day.
12″ Chippers cost between $10,000-$20,000 and rent for around $550/day.

That’s a dramatic price difference that naturally varies dependent on brand, and whether it’s considered more of an industrial chipper or residential. Price is also dependent on horsepower which would affect the speed and efficiency of the machine. There are lots of used machines, so if you’re seriously thinking of investing in a woodchipper, scout around the usual sources—eBay, Craig’s List, etc—for those.

Oh… and remember, those machines, especially the larger ones, take up a lot of space, so you’ll need to make room in storage for your new machine.

We welcome your input and thoughts on what you’re doing, equipment you’re using, and what’s working for you. You can reach us via email or post your comments on the GardensAll Facebook page.

If you want more info on the concept and benefits of natural mulching, you may enjoy these articles on Ruth Stout and on the Eden Garden method.

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