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Calculating Mulch, Free Sources and Wood Chippers

Mulch it!

We’ve looked at the pros and cons, costs and variables, of wood chippers versus buying loads of mulch. We cover free sources for mulch, a mulch calculator and more here, including what to beware of, especially when importing mulch loads from elsewhere.

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 needs and 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 year round and we always get it for free.

Since we first wrote this article with ideas for finding free mulch, we’ve learned of a new (to us) service that coordinates free chip delivery. It’s perfect!

You can sign up for the next available free load to your area, and before they deliver it they check to confirm you still want it. When you need more you just submit another request.

This Free Mulch and Wood Chip Drop is called GetChipDrop.

Not Fancy but Perfectly Functional and Healthier

Sure, it’s not the fancy mulch used in ornamental landscaping, some processed with dyes, but it’s perfectly adequate for gardens.

In fact the free mulch from your local tree trimmers is typically a better quality for garden mulching. The free mulch is a smorgasbord blend of trees, leaves, sap and vitality from the trees.

So not only is it good enough for many yard and garden beds, but you can often get it for free or uber cheap. There are some things to be wary of which we cover later in this article.

Free mulch chipped from felled trees and branches mimics Mother Nature. It covers, beautifies and nurtures your soil and plants.

Other Sources of Free Mulch

Your Local Tree Services

We have a professional tree trimmer we call on for trimming, limbing and felling trees. 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.

Can’t Find Tree Trimmers for Free Mulch?

Wherever there are trees there are tree trimmers. But if you can’t find a local guy to deliver for free, or maybe you don’t need a full truckload, you can consider making your own.

If you have mostly lawn with some plant beds, then you don’t need as much as a full garden and lots of landscaped areas. You could make your own by cleaning up your yard of limbs, leaves and debris and turning it to mulch.

Before we knew about more of the free mulch resources we first researched whether it was more economical to buy a mulcher or to buy mulch.

Calculating Mulch – Is it Cheaper to Make it 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. (And 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. In order to decide which way to go, it’s a good idea to break out a mulch calculator to compare cost factors.

When to Buy a Mulcher

  • When you have lots of leaves
  • For turning leaves into compost mulch
  • If you have small to medium sized tree debris: small branches and twigs
  • For turning yard debris into mulch for landscaped areas

Ways to Make Garden Mulch

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.

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

Mulch Calculator

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

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

For a Garden Soil calculator, visit

When we first started our garden we didn’t know about mulch calculators or free mulch, so we paid for our first few loads. For our first load of garden mulch a few years ago, we bought a single axle dump truck load of wood chip mulch. 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.

We figured it would last us until the next season, but it didn’t. Fortunately, by then we figured out how to get free mulch because we ended up needing two more loads.

If we’d had to pay for mulch each time, we would’ve spent close to $300 on mulch in our first year of gardening this area. Naturally, each year we’re expecting to need less as we’ll just be adding for maintenance mode rather than full coverage.

Home wood chippers range from between $100 – $3,300.

Do the Home Wood 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 to 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 Wood 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 chipper 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. Not only that but we also collect our twigs and limbs to use for kindling for our fireplace and burn piles and burn barrel in the garden.

But even if you don’t have a fireplace or burn piles in need of twigs and kindling, keep that in mind, that with small wood chippers, you’ll be doing a lot of feeding to get enough mulch to cover a garden, especially in the first year.

PROS to Wood Chippers

  • Recycles yard debris into functional landscape mulch
  • Easy way to keep a yard cleaned up
  • For small and periodic mulch needs where free truckloads would be too much

CONS to Wood Chippers

  • It’s a lot of work for a little mulch
  • You’ll need ample space to store the big machine out of the weather
  • It may be too noisy for some neighborhoods
  • Takes time manually loading debris bit by bit

Wood Chipper Cost

You can 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 all. You’ll need new mulch each year for your beds but not as much in subsequent years as you build up residual mulch in pathways.

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.

These smallest chippers 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.

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

Or, you 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 of we had to buy mulch per load.

With a ready supply of mulch by having a chipper, all garden and landscaped areas and walkways will always look better, and not just the vegetable garden.

Benefits of Wood Mulch

  • Wood mulch enriches the soil
  • Mulch keeps your beds warmer when it’s cold and cooler when it’s hot
  • Use of mulch helps better moisture retention
  • Looks better than grass or dirt for garden pathways
  • Is easier, cleaning and nicer for landscape areas than pine straw
  • Helps keep weeds away

Our recommendation is to make friends with an arborist tree trimmer who has an industrial wood chipper. Or, as indicated earlier, sign up for a wood chip drop service.

When our neighbors were having tree work done we stopped by to ask the tree trimmers to drop their wood chip load off at our place if the homeowner didn’t want it. They were delighted because it meant they didn’t have a long haul drive for a place to dump it.

We also ended up hiring them to do our trees because it was clear that they were a professional and skilled team. They were big on safety, had a nice sized team and had all the equipment, including a industrial wood chipper machine.

We even filmed some of their work and answers to our questions.

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 wood chipper, 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.

Beware Wood Chip Deliveries

When importing wood chip mulch by the truckload, (as opposed to a store bought bags), check the mulch on the truck if you can before accepting the delivery. GardensAll and Planting for Retirement Facebook community member, Laura LaChance Stubbs said they got a load that was FULL of black ants.

We’ve received lots of free truckloads of mulch from local tree cutters and also from ChipDrop, and haven’t yet had any imported ants issues. However we did have one batch with a problem.

We didn’t know it until our son, Nikolai, ended up with a bad case of poison ivy. Apparently the wood chips included some poison ivy vines. YIKES!

You can ask your delivery company the source of wood, however there’s really no way to know for sure everything you’re getting. But so far for us… knock on wood, 😉 the benefits have far exceeded the negatives. Now, we know to be more careful when handling it, just in case there’s poison ivy lurking.

There are many differing opinions on which mulch constitutes the best kind of mulching, how much to use, and whether to use it.

Wishing you great gardens and happy harvests!


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