Simple ways to make cheap mulch (with tools that you have)

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In these trying times it makes good sense to make as much stuff that you can from what you already have available to you. This means anything to do with the garden, and by default, the materials that can make great mulch. We approach this mulch article with a self-sufficient mindset so take this into consideration.

It used to be easy to just throw the green cuttings and lawn clipping into the trash, and get on with the day. These days, we know better. The plants that we trim can make good mulch, and we go into this below.

Can you Save Money by making Mulch?

Yes, money can be saved by making your own mulch at home.

However, anytime you make something at home that could be bought from a store has more than the immediate financial comparison to consider.

In the case of mulch, if you need to cover a garden and would normally go and get a few hay bales or a bag or two of wood chip, there is the money you spend at the store.

Then there is also the vehicle that is needed to go and get it. Consider the possibility that a trailer might be required. It may have to be delivered. All of these come with some cost, and will affect you in some way.

The process of making mulch with things you have already has to be cheaper if seen through the list of potential costs above.

Reasons for making your own mulch.

The idea of making mulch is based in the idea of recycling something and subsequently gaining a secondary benefit from that item.

As we noted above, the cost of buying mulch can be expensive, and while many people won’t be able to replace all store bought mulches, every bit that can stay on your property is a benefit to your pocket and to your soil in the end.

It you are cleaning up a patch of garden that has become a little wild and are considering throwing the weeds and pruning’s in the trash, you might want to rethink this step.

We actually have a few trees that are weedy and not really any use to us other than we pull the branches off it as mulch every few months or so. It continues to grow fresh shoots, and we keep harvesting it. This is a very useful tree when you look at the harvest over time.

These bits of plant material are a valuable source of nutrients that you already have in hand, they just need to be unlocked. This unlocking can take place at the soil/mulch intersection zone. If you get this right, the return in harvest quantity can be huge, if the garden is food based like ours is. This post “growing lots of ginger, is this the best mulch?” shows what good mulch can do for you when the soil/mulch intersection is optimum.

Many items that go to landfill are able to be reused in the garden. Newspapers, if you still buy them, can be used as a good mulch, although they don’t last long as mulch. This shouldn’t be a reason to dump them though. Cardboard boxes are similar to the papers, and they last a bit longer.

Materials for making mulch you may have already.

The main material you probably have is green waste. We started using all green plant matter as mulch and as a compost ingredient about 7 years ago now.

What we did was offer to take away the tree pruning’s that neighbors were ready to take to the tip. We ended up with trailer loads.

We also had a lot of our own because we were in the early stages of turning the yard into a permaculture designed property and many trees were just wrong for what we needed.

They were in the wrong spots, and they offered little in the way of benefits as a food source or as a beneficial plant that supported other systems in the yard.

We took out several and mulched the smaller parts and then laid the limbs and larger truck sections on the ground under the main food trees as a solid heavy mulch. This has worked well because we are in a tropical climate where fungus is the primary process of rotting logs.

You can use most of the tree trimmings if you have some larger equipment that we can get into below a bit.

Another source of mulch is cardboard boxes and the only message we want to share with this is to punch a lot of holes in the cardboard sheet as you place it down because not doing so may stop water from reaching your plants.

Lawn clipping are a good source of green material to consider as a mulch, but be warned, this product is not the best in some situations. Lawn clippings can, in certain circumstances, prevent water from getting to the soil if they are placed down in a mat.

The grass can create what is called a hydrophobic layer that rejects water and can harm your plants through a lack of moisture. Grass clippings are best placed in a compost pile or tub and processed into a good compost.

It can be used on the garden if you mix it with larger materials like leaves and small branches. Just don’t lay it all in one sheet.

Can a lawn mower be used as a chipper to make mulch?

Yes, using the mower to make mulch is a great way to save a trip to the tip, or from filling the waste bin but only if the blades are sharp and the branches are not large.

It works with small twigs up to about 1/4 inch thick and depending on your mower it can do a great job for you.

lawn mower being used as a mulch maker over weeds
A mix of trimmed plants, hay, and dry leaves being mulched by lawn mower

It is not as effective as a dedicated chipper can be, but many people don’t see the need to have one of these laying about for most of the time. Even so, some of these struggle with woody waste.

Once the trimmings have been chopped up, they can be spread over existing mulch to top it up. Take care with your legs because sometimes a bit of wood will be thrown out from the blades. This can be painful!

Tools that can be used to make mulch.

These are simple tools that you will likely already have if you mulch your garden. A good pair of cutters or secateurs is a must. These are used as you go about trimming small branches and twigs that crowd a pathway.

Chop the twigs into inch long bits and drop them on the existing mulch as you go. There is no need for a rubbish bin, and it takes care of the mulch top up. It can be a laborious task to work on a large area with this method, and the hands do get tired.

When we are using this method, we remind ourselves of the alternative costs of buying mulch from the store or garden center

As we mentioned in the section above, lawn mowers can be used on light trimmings instead of secateurs. The larger branches can be cut into smaller pieces with a hatchet, a machete, or a bowsaw.

Those who have access to a chainsaw can use this to break down the largest of the wooden blocks into smaller chunks that can then be split with an axe or log-splitter. Don’t discount the wood as too big. It makes mulch that can last a damn long time and that is gold.

Garden chippers are a far better way to undertake a challenging large patch. We have a gas (petrol) powered machine that can handle small branches up to 1/2 inch wet and 3/4 dry wood. It has paid for itself in mulch savings over the years.

A simple thing like a garden rake is all that you need to get the fallen leaves onto the gardens where they can be used as a natural layer of mulch. We have a neighbor who rakes up the leaves and puts them in the rubbish.

Things to avoid when making mulch.

When using chippers and lawn mowers, keep an eye open for bits of wire and nails/screws that could have been left in the tree. Kids will use anything to build a treehouse, and sometimes the steel just isn’t seen in time.

Rope and string can also be a trap for the unwary. If this gets wrapped around the chipper blades or the mower cutters it can be a handful getting it off without swearing a heap.

If you are using cardboard, many times there are metal staples that hold the box together. These should be removed before placing in the garden as mulch. They may just rust down and probably will, but if you stand on one after it has started rusting the wound can be nasty.

Green mulch placed too thick can and often does cause issues especially when close to plants. We go into a bit more detail about it in “What can be used as garden mulch“.

Conclusions.

Making mulch on site is one step towards becoming a little more self-sufficient in your life, and in these crazy times every bit helps.

You can find all posts on making and using mulch by using the search icon at the top of the page and entering “mulch”.

Article by Tim Blanch for TheTropicalHomestead.com. He is a qualified Permaculture designer.