The benefits of mulch are well-known to most gardeners and can be easily observed in more purely natural settings, as old plant material dies and falls to cover, enrich, and protect the earth. A thick layer of mulch helps retain moisture by decreasing evaporation, while moderating temperatures, a benefit that can lengthen the growing season for both warm and cool season crops. It protects the soil from erosion by wind and rain and scorching by the sun. At varying degrees and rates, all organic (biodegradable) mulches also provide nutrients as they break down. Mulch can even be used to slowly create new beds when placed over grass or other vegetation that it will eventually smother. Non-organic material, such as tarps, can also be used for this.
However, many gardeners may not have considered the free or extremely cheap sources of mulch available in both town and country. Many of these materials can also be used in making compost, which in turn can be used as an enriching mulch.
Hay is very balanced, nutritious food for many livestock, and those same nutrients will nourish garden soil. Spoiled hay cannot be fed to livestock, but it will make excellent mulch. Finding this may be easier for those people who live in rural or small-town areas and are more likely to personally know farmers. For those who don't know anyone with hay and would interested in a large quantity, posting a want ad in the local paper would be a relatively inexpensive investment (alternatively, there are free online advertising opportunities).
Leaves make excellent mulch and provide a slow release of nutrients. In the fall, there is plenty available by the curb, often already conveniently packaged in large paper bags. You could also create a place on the property for people from your community to drop off leaves. Perhaps, place signs on a nearby busy street or road or simply rely on "word of mouth." Grass clippings can also be utilized and found in similar ways; however, caution should be taken to ensure that the clippings have not been contaminated from application of lawn chemicals.
Many landscapers and gardeners purchase wood chips for mulch, at least in part, for their ornamental effect. Most towns and cities send wood-chipping crews around the community on a regular basis, picking up brush left on the curb by residents and pulling stumps. If you have access to a truck, wood chips would probably also be available for pickup wherever they are typically dumped in your community. However, in my experience, these crews are willing to dump their truckload of wood chips wherever you want (they have to go someplace!). By asking them to unload the wood chips in or near a garden, you will sidestep the need for a truck and save time and physical exertion, freely receiving what will probably be a very large volume of material. For those with trucks, sawdust is also often freely available at mills.
Cardboard and newspaper may not be very attractive, but they provide a good bottom layer of weed-suppression and are very readily available. Most households will themselves consume a large volume of these materials, and so simply saving packaging and old newspapers may supply enough. However, for those who need more, there is plenty to be found. Driving through town a day or two before trash pick-up can be a good opportunity, as many people leave large pieces of cardboard by the curb. Recycling centers and, for the adventuresome, dumpsters can provide heavy yields of paper and cardboard, as well many other materials. You will be recycling the cardboard much more efficiently than the industrial process it would go through otherwise.
For those with an active eye, there are surely more possible resources for free and cheap mulch. As evident throughout this article, a simple willingness to ask about the material is key in many cases. Someone may think you're strange, but your garden will be delighted.Take the Next Step:
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