Free Mulch By the Truckload? It May Be As Close As Your Local Landfill !
In a world where middle-men thrive and everyone seems to get a piece of the pie, it's rare to get anything good for FREE anymore.
Many gardeners are unaware that mulch, which usually goes for $4 to $10 a bag at a store, may be obtained free - right in their own community. Further yet, you may be able to load up your entire truck bed -- and come back for more tomorrow!
How is this possible? Well, many landfills provide the service of disposing peoples brush, which piles up quickly on their lots. As a courtesy, they shred these piles of discarded vegetation, and offer you - the resident - the opportunity to use this recycled matter as mulch.
Is free mulch available where I live?
Whether or not your landfill offers mulch depends on many factors such as whether the landfill is located in a urban or rural location, or if there's enough vegetation in your region to make this courtesy feasible. Usually, the availability of landfill mulch falls under one of three options:
Mulch is not offered at all.
It is offered, but in limited quantities.
The mulch is offered FREE, or at some cost.
Either way, you can check for availability by visiting your local landfill, calling your local government office for information, or checking on the internet -- many jurisdictions offer all the information you need on their website.
If mulch IS offered at your local landfill, keep in mind the following:
There may be a daily or weekly limit (although I wonder who really pays attention).
It may be offered for local citizens only (with proof of residency required).
Availability may be limited or seasonal - on a first come, first served basis.
Though some landfills will load your pickup truck for you - usually for a fee, most offer the option of manually loading the mulch by yourself. Of course you'll need to come properly equipped. For best results, you should show up with the following:
High boots to help move around the mulch pile more efficiently and prevent mulch chips from getting inside your shoes.
A nice, large pitchfork. You can use a shovel but trust me, nothing picks up mulch better than a pitchfork.
A truck with an open bed, or if you're picking up smaller quantities -- large containers (such as garbage bins), or large durable plastic bags ("durable" the key word here).
What type of mulch can I expect?
The type of mulch offered may vary widely from region-to-region depending on local vegetation types, and the time of the season.
For example, in areas where a lot of pine trees grow, the mulch may be more pine-based, whereas Florida residents may have more chopped-up palm trees in their mix.
Also, certain times of the year may yield different variety, such as in Fall or Spring when people prune & "tidy-up" more often.
Here on the east coast, the mulch is a pretty good mix of everything - and the quality is fairly consistent no matter what time of year I visit.
What's the quality like?
If you're expecting "fine," colored or specialty mulch like those found at your hardware store, you will be disappointed. This mulch is not that.
Based upon my personal experience at my local landfill, the free mulch I get is somewhat dull and light brown in color and, overall, the wood chips are slightly bigger, and more irregularly shaped than store-bought versions.
Because it's free, authorities utilize less manpower, money & attention to the entire process.
Commercial shredding operations may check for inconsistencies (such as plastic among the wood, and larger chucks), and may run their wood chips through a shredder several times to create better consistency.
The mulch at landfills, on the other hand, is usually shredded just once and not checked for inconsistencies.
Many residents are just lazy and rather than separating their brush from regular trash, some will throw everything in the brush pile. Therefore, amongst the wood chips, you'll occasionally find bits of "whatever else" - which you'll have to manually discard. This is usually not a big problem, but only a minor inconvenience.
Well you knew there has to be a catch. You know the old saying, "if it sounds to good to be true, then..."
Free mulch also comes with the 'unknown factor.' There is no way of telling whether your mulch comes from brush that's been previously tainted, treated or killed with harmful chemicals, or to which degree? Over time, when this mulch decomposes into the ground, will it have a harmful effect on your vegetation?
Added (7/28): As pointed out by WDCGardener on Twitter, Poison Ivy (or oak) is often discarded and mixed-in with the mulch. Therefore, although you should use them anyway - gloves are an absolute necessity when handling this mulch and of course don't allow it to come in contact with other parts of your skin.
Personally, I have used this mulch for years and all my vegetation appears to be growing without any noticeable problems (nor have I been infected with poison ivy - and yes, I am allergic to it).
With its somewhat dull hue & inconsistent appearance, free landfill mulch may be best suited for backyard use, or in places where it can't be easily seen by the public.
As a money saver, I like to use this mulch in combination with quality, colored commercial mulch. Placing your free mulch underneath the good mulch can add up to big savings. For example, 3 inches of free mulch covered by 2 inches of good mulch, saves your wallet 60%.
Courtesy should be practiced and applied when transporting your free mulch. If you load a pickup, or otherwise are transporting an open load, please cover your mulch with a tarp (or other similar material) to help prevent debris from flying all over the place. Depending on your jurisdiction, it may be unlawful to do otherwise.