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I have too big an area to mulch with bark. Is there a cheap mulch or free mulch?

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Question: I have too big an area to mulch with bark. Is there a cheap mulch or free mulch?
A couple of organic materials available in your own yard can be regarded as sources of cheap mulch or even free mulch: lawn grass clippings and the leaves you rake up in fall. For optimal use as mulch, however, each should be "prepared" ahead of time (see below). For those as much in need of saving time as saving money, black plastic and poly tarps are good quick-fix "mulches." You can cover a lot of ground with them quickly, and, if you shop around, they're relatively cheap....
Answer:

When you have large areas of the landscape to cover with mulch, mulching can get expensive and labor-intensive. Colored bark mulches (red, black, etc.) are attractive and very popular, but they're suitable only for covering small spaces if you're landscaping on a budget.

What's the solution? Consider alternatives to conventional mulches, including not only cheap mulches, but even some free mulches. The following alternatives will be inappropriate in some situations, but a lifesaver in others:

Labor-Saving Cheap Mulches: Poly Tarps, Black Plastic

  • Black plastic is a widely-used landscape mulch in the nursery business. While not attractive, it's at least neutral in color and might not be unacceptable in a backyard. It's cheaper and easier to cover a large area with black plastic mulch than with the more expensive bark mulches.

  • Like black plastic mulch, poly tarps provide a cheaper and easier alternative to bark mulches for covering large areas. An advantage poly tarps have over black plastic mulch is that they're sturdier. However, the color of poly tarps (commonly blue) is often more obtrusive. But in a pinch, use poly tarps as a temporary mulch; then go back afterwards and cover them with something more attractive -- perhaps one of the free mulches I discuss below:

Free Mulches

  • Leaves
  • Grass clippings

For a free mulch, save the leaves you rake in fall. For a full article on using this readily available free mulch, please consult, "Rake Leaves and Make Compost and Mulch." Another source of free mulch is the grass clippings that are left over after you mow the lawn. But both of these free mulches should be "prepared" prior to use:

  • Leaves should be shredded first.
  • Grass clippings should be allowed to "cool off."

Not only will leaves look better as a mulch if shredded first, but they will also function better. Matted leaves form a barrier that prevents air and moisture from getting to the soil below -- not a desirable quality in a mulch. If you don't own a wood chipper-shredder, simply spread the leaves out and run the lawn mower over them to shred them (preferably with the bag attachment in place on your mower).

Fresh grass clippings are too hot to be used as mulch and may burn your plants. Spread them out first, to dry.

In garden areas, "living mulches", the subject of the next FAQ, are another option worth considering.

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