Landscaping On the Cheap (or Free)

When we moved in to the Boxy Colonial last May, the yard was in really rough shape. The bank that owned it had managed to acquire two liens on it in the few months since they’d foreclosed, one of them for never, ever mowing the lawn. It was a complete jungle in the backyard, and, we found out later, it would have been even worse except that neighbors had been taking turns mowing it every once in awhile. The bank was supposed to have the lawn mowed before closing, but they couldn’t even get things together enough to do THAT, so they wound up giving us a $250 credit instead. Which seemed like a win for us until Dave actually had to spend hours in the sun mowing that mess. Β A riding lawnmower was one our first new house investments.

So for the first summer, we mostly just tried to keep things more under control than Bank of America had managed to (should I not mention the name of the neglectful, incompetent bank? Well, I did. It was Bank of America. Everyone already hates Bank of America anyway, right?)

We did make a token effort at dealing with big, weedy area right in front of the house. I’ve already confessed that we didn’t actually trim the bushes or anything, but we did weed and buy a whole bunch of mulch from Home Depot to put down. It turns out, though, that what seemsΒ like a whole lot of mulch doesn’t go very far once you start putting it down. Before long, you’ve spent your life savings on mulch and you STILL haven’t covered up more than half of the big area in front of your house. So you give up and try not to look at it any more. If you are us. This is why they sell mulch by the truckload.

Fast forward to this spring. That damn weedy area was STILL sitting there right in front of my house! Action was required. Last year my friend Kristi had a truckload of free wood chips delivered to her house by a tree company, so I spent the winter thinking, “I really need to do that, too!” But it wasn’t until the weeds started reappearing in the spring that I was motivated enough to actually take steps toward getting my free mulch.

The idea is that when tree companies cut down trees and turn the trees into wood chips, they need a place to unload them, so if you’re in the right place at the right time, they’re yours for the asking. First I searched Craigslist for “free mulch delivered” and “free wood chips delivered.” (It appears that the line between wood chips and mulch is pretty arbitrary). I signed up online for one service that’s supposed to match tree companies needing to unload wood chips with people who want them. They have not yet called. I filled out an online form with a tree company that claimed (on Craigslist) to be working in our area. They have also not called.

Then Kristi, source of all information tree-related, told me that tree guys were at her house taking trees down RIGHT THAT SECOND and that she could send them over with some mulch for me (she lives just a couple of minutes away, one of the many things that made this particular house so appealing). So she did, and we wound up with this in front of our house:

That’s a lot of mulch.

Here is what things looked like before we started mulching:

So, after all the hedge trimming that went on a couple of weeks ago, and after those flowers bloomed, but, as you can see, there are many weeds. And the remnants of past attempts at mulching.

First we dug out the bushes that were not so much alive anymore:

The other way, aside from the mulch, that we kept the cost of this project to $0 was by using whatever stuff we had sitting around to put down under the mulch as a weed blocker:

We had one roll of the landscaping fabric you see there left over from last year’s abandoned mulching project, but mostly we used newspaper and broken down cardboard boxes. Bonus: recycling!

Many wheelbarrow loads of mulch later….

We had this!

(In pretty much any picture of the front of our house, you can spot a dog looking out the window at us. This one is no exception).

And this much mulch still:

Wow. That’s an awful lot of mulch. But we have to do the other side of the front porch and then Dave wants to do the whole side of the house. And around the garden bed. And, hell, maybe just our whole front yard. Maybe THAT will kill the dandelions. I’m kidding.

(Nothing will kill dandelions)

Okay, so I’m not going to pretend that our free mulch is just as pretty as the fancy not-free mulch that they dye to look all beautiful and stuff. Ours is just….wood colored. And kind of twiggy:

But I priced that fancy mulch at around $400 a truckload. And I can think of an awful lot of things I’d rather spend $400 on. I think ours looks passably good, and there are no weeds, and that’s good enough for me!

At some point I’ll post about my future hopes and dreams for that area…which involve a sort of cottage-y look with attractive edibles tucked in (and also me learning how to garden). But I’m good with our free mulch for the moment.

Finding Free Mulch.....and other tips for landscaping on the cheap (or free!)

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Landscaping On the Cheap (or Free) — 53 Comments

  1. Looks great! Free mulch is always a good thing. We usually spend about $200 once or twice a year on mulch. This doesn’t include mulching the backyard because no one is supposed to look there. LOL

  2. Hi,
    I just saw your blog. Finished reading your profile and your house tour. You are amazing, and your pics are too good but the font and the background color of your blog looks a little less appealing, both are in grey tones and many of us reader loves simple black/white with Times New Roman/Arial font……just my two cents.

    • Thanks Anon–I’d forgotten I even had the text set to gray–I guess I’m so used to it I don’t notice. I went and changed it to black; hope that makes it a little easier to read….I’d like to do a more elaborate redesign at some point, but haven’t found the time yet!

  3. The mulch made a big difference. When we lived in the country our neighbour used to hunt down the town tree guys to get them to drop off some “free mulch”. They usually were happy to drop it off in exchange for a cold drink. πŸ™‚

  4. It looks SO good! You guys really did a great job. I love a nicely landscaped yard… but I absolutely hate to work on my own. If we won the lottery, or suddenly had loads of extra money every month, I’d spend a goodly sum to pay someone else to make it all look good.

    Sorry about the twigs.

    • Yes, I would not mind a lawn service taking care of everything, I have to say. I don’t mind the twigs, either…now we’ll always have kindling for the fire pit πŸ˜‰

  5. Okay this is weird. I have ALSO been in touch with the free craigslist mulch guy. Probably the same guy, don’t you think?? He said he’d deliver soon, and we’ve been waiting to weed and replant the yard until he shows up with our magical free mulch but it never came. I feel strung along. Finally today I started weeding. I have given up hope on free craigslist mulch guy. Jerk.

    • I think there are probably multiple free mulch guys. One of the ones I contacted was all, “we’re working in Roswell, so if you live in that area, now’s the time for your free mulch!” And I AM in Roswell. But still…no free mulch. I think waiting until you see someone cutting down trees nearby and chasing them down to ask for mulch is the way to go. Don’t give up!

  6. We have also gone the free route before. Saves tons of money of you have a big yard and lots of flower beds like we do. If you don’t really care for the rough look of the free stuff, just a thin layer of the bought mulch pretties it up and no one has to know that all that nice “free” mulch is underneath.

  7. Also, check saw mills (if there are any close to you). We get mulch for $35 a truckload from the sawmill (pick it up and haul yourself).

  8. Depending on where you live, call your village about mulch. A lot of townships do their own tree trimming and removal, they will give the mulch away for free as long as you pick it up. That is how we got free mulch for our house.

  9. I have 3 hills of mulch in my front yard. Our electric company was cutting the trees on easements getting ready for icy weather and I asked for all the mulch they got from my trees and part of the neighbor’s. They very gladly dropped 3 truckloads into my yard and now I have all I need for all my mulching needs. All the neighbors did the same thing when they found out that the electric company would do this for free. I’ve put mulch around all my trees, bushes, flowerbeds and still have plenty left for the huge flowerbeds out front. I used to pay big prices for mulch also, buy why do that when it’s free for the asking? Good article and good idea.

    • We made it through two seasons before we used up all of our giant mountain…now I’ll have to track down another one for the spring :). But, yes, I can’t see myself ever paying for mulch again! Thanks so much for stopping by πŸ™‚

  10. How about termites? I’ve heard that if you use wood mulch next to the foundation that it’s a concern. Is that not accurate?

    • You know, this had never occurred to me as a potential problem until someone left a comment on pinterest about it. So I looked into it; there seems to be some debate about it, but most people seem to say that as long as you keep the mulch to a thin layer (no more than 2 inches), it should be fine. So I hope that’s right!

  11. Our city has a free mulch program- you should call your city and see if they have the same! We just bring our water bill and borrow a truck from a friend, they load the truck bed full of free mulch, and we are off. The great thing about it is that you can get a free truck load EVERY month AND you can use other people’s water bills if you need more than one load- as long as someone shows a water bill, they could care less where the mulch is actually going! (Ex: You could use 2 friends’ water bills + your own= 3 trucks worth of mulch for that huge yard of your!)

    • Someone else mentioned a program like that, too–I’ll have to look into it….we’re finally out of mulch and need more!

  12. Though not about mulch, there is a product you can buy at any big box store called PREEN. It’s granular and once you have no weeds, you throw it down and it eliminates weeds for 6 mos. this is good for smaller areas where you might not have mulch, a garden walk way, for instance.

    • I know! I’m always so conflicted about the dandelions…..I’m afraid if I don’t try to get rid of at least some of them there’ll be nothing else in our yard eventually πŸ™‚

  13. Omg!!! I have NEVER been so excited about anything on Pinterest!!!! This is SO informative and SO logical!!!! I am researching free mulch now!!! Thank you!!!!

  14. Be careful with this. Had neighbors that went the free mulch route, 2 years later they were infested with termites and bugs.

    The mulch you buy is treated for this reason, this is not, treat it or use it with a light hand and you might be fine. Like the guy that built his own home and stuffed the holes in the block foundation with sawdust for “added insulation” (another horror story you really don’t want to hear about).

    • Thanks for the head’s up. We’re two years in now and so far all seems well, but we’ll keep an eye on it (and we do put it down in a pretty thin layer).

  15. First, the landscaping looks much better. Second, my parents ALWAYS got free mulch! They just keep their eyes open for arborists in the neighborhood and offered them a place to dump their load! πŸ™‚

  16. Great story!! Thanks!! Down in south GA we have too many termites to make this attractive for us. But I collect all the free mulch I can use by cutting grass with a bagger on the lawn mower. That bagged grass, leaf, and pine straw mixture is PERFECT as mulch!!! It decomposes in the flower beds and makes fantastic, rich soil over time!!!! Try that also!!

  17. Sorry to be negative, but I came here to read this hoping to get new ideas. But you just re-stated all the problems I ran into this year in not being able to find free mulch and didn’t provide any solutions other than your friend happened to have some tree work done and called YOU to ask if you wanted it. Sorry, but this is not very helpful. Good for you that you got the wood chips; I think that’s great. But what now??

    • Sorry you didn’t find it helpful. I guess my takeaway from our free mulch experience is that you have to be vigilant and proactive. Keep an eye out for trucks in your area; ask your neighbors if they’re planning on having any tree work done. Tree services DO need to get rid of their mulch, but they’re not going to go out of their way too much to get to you specifically. I’ve also heard of parks in my area where residents can pick up free mulch if they bring their own truck and get it themselves.

  18. It’s such a good idea and I admire the visuals, however, the bugs scare me. I’ve noticed bugs in wood chips/mulch a lot over the years, but I love the no weeds part.

    • We had this down for 2 seasons and didn’t notice any bug issues (we raked it all up after that, so we would have seen the evidence of any major infestation)….a lot of people have mentioned concerns about that, though. Maybe we just got lucky πŸ™‚

  19. Also, some large cities offer free mulch from their Christmas tree pickups and from their park trimmings, however, that mulch sometimes has bits and pieces of trash, but if your good with picking it out, (like silver gum wrappers, candy wrappers and pieces of plastic), shoot it’s free!

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