Like most things in life you get what you pay for and the rule doesn’t change when it comes to free mulch. For a while, our Shire was offering help-yourself mulch where any ratepayer could come and take their own. Now, they charge for it. We still have to shovel it ourselves – not the most pleasing of tasks – but they also demand $5 for a trailer load. Yet, it hasn’t gotten any better.

In comparison, the local soil companies charge a minimum $40-60+ for a trailer load so, relatively speaking, it’s still free. The difference is that the expensive mulches have usually been packed with composts, organic manures and materials sourced from who-knows-where. They have cute names like “Jungle-Mulch” or “Enviro-Mulch” and you can feel the rich earthiness from each shovelful.

Yet, when it comes to performing the task of a “mulch”, do free mulches function any differently to their more expensive counterparts?

In my experience, having used both, I have noticed one glaring difference. The free mulch that I covered some of my garden beds in 3 seasons ago is still there while the expensive stuff that I bought at the start of this season has almost dissipated. What was the difference? Size.

The free mulch consisted of very loosely chopped twigs, branches and leaves with the odd weed thrown in for good measure. The expensive stuff was so finely shredded that you couldn’t decipher any of the individual ingredients. And while it looked great for the first month it’s now breaking down so quickly that, as a mulch, it has almost become useless as we head into the season where my garden needs it most.

Is this a ploy by the soil companies to get me to keep buying their product? Or, are we blurring the lines of mulches and soil improvers so much that they’re becoming almost as indistinguishable as their individual parts?

Emilycompost.com gives the definition of mulch as;

MULCH – Any loose, usually organic material (can be small pebbles) over the soil as a protective covering or for decorative purposes. Common mulches are ground bark, saw dust, leaves, pine straw or eucalyptus.

while dictionary.com defines mulch as;

1. a covering, as of straw, compost, or plastic sheeting, spread on the ground around plants to prevent excessive evaporation or erosion, enrich the soil, inhibit weed growth, etc.

One says that it’s for soil protection while the other adds an enriching component. Which is it? Or has it just taken on a multifunction like 2-in-1 shampoo/conditioner?

I guess it depends on your own personal view and what you’re trying to achieve in your garden. The feeding mulch that enriches your soil is never going to come for free while the free mulch will never look as stylish as the glam-mulches that eat into your gardening budget.

Where can you get free mulch from?

  • Local waste facilities – most regional centres offer a free, or almost free, mulch. They usually consist of plant material that the local council has removed in their pruning activities and/or have been contributed by residents offloading their green waste.
  • Garden litter – your own prunings, leaf litter or grass clippings can provide great free mulches. You can partially compost them before applying to your garden beds or add them straight away and allow the composting to occur in situ.
  • Tree loppers – unless they already have contracts with soil companies or they sell their own mulches, local tree loppers can be a great resource for free mulch. Many now operate with large shredders cutting the refuse into mulch-able sizes. You may be saving them a trip to the waste facility or even tip fees by getting them to dump it in your front yard.