13 Cheap Mulch Ideas to Keep Your Garden Healthy

Buying mulch at a traditional garden center or nursery can quickly get expensive, especially if you have a large garden or multiple flower beds to maintain. You usually apply mulch once or twice a year, but you may have to apply it more if you plant new shrubs or get a lot of rainfall that does a number on your first application. On the bright side, cheap mulch is easy to come by. You can make cheap mulch from things around the house. 

Before we dive into several easy ways to make cheap mulch, we’ll outline what mulch is and what it does for your plants. This way, if you’re not using it now, you may just want to start incorporating it into your gardening routine. 

Defining Mulch

Any mulch, whether it is cheap mulch or expensive mulch, all performs the same basic function. In the most basic sense, mulch is a material that you lay or spread on the soil’s surface to act like a protective layer and covering. Cheap mulch helps you keep moisture in the soil long after you water, lowers the soil’s temperature, suppresses weeds, and it increases your garden’s aesthetic. If you have organic mulch, it helps to boost your soil’s nutrient density as it starts to decompose. 

Mulch 1 Types of Mulch
The richer your mulch is, the more it’ll improve the soil. You should have a darker coloring, depending on the cheap mulch you use. 

There is organic mulch and synthetic mulch. Once you lay down organic mulch, it’ll start to decompose and release nutrients into the soil. However, this also means that you’ll have to replace it as it breaks down. The woodier and dryer your cheap mulch is, the slower it’ll decompose. You want to know where your organic mulch comes from because it can contain weed seedlings. You don’t want to spread your mulch and have weeds grow in it. There are several types of organic mulch, including: 

  • Bark
  • Composted Manure 
  • Compost
  • Straw
  • Grass Clippings
  • Newspaper 
  • Shredded Leaves

The second type of cheap mulch you can get is inorganic or synthetic mulch. If you want mulch that won’t decompose and require you to reapply it, this is the way to go. However, this type of mulch also doesn’t add nutrients to your soil because it doesn’t break down or contain organic matter. They’re good for hassle-free landscaping, and common types of synthetic or inorganic mulches include: 

  • Stone or Gravel
  • Black Plastic 
  • Landscape Fabric 

13 Cheap Mulch Ideas to Keep Your Garden Healthy 

No matter if you want organic or inorganic mulch, there are several different types you can try. A lot you can get for free – no need to buy from the garden center. Some may work out better for you than others. Mulching can get expensive, so experiment a little and see which cheap mulches become your new go-to cheap mulch ideas. 

Shredded or Chipped Bark 

Shredded or chipped bark isn’t cheap mulch, but it comes in a variety of colors that include red, black, and more. You’d be likely to use this type of mulch around shrubs, trees, or in your flower beds where you won’t do a lot of work. Think foundation plantings for front walkways. The bark won’t mix into the soil very well, so you have to make a point to shift it to the side every time you want to add new plants. 

Bark is nice if you want something that is still an organic mulch but that will outlast most other types or organic mulches. If you want cheap mulch, you can usually pick up plain brown shredded or chipped bark from any local companies that deal with tree removals, or you can check your electric and phone companies because they routinely trim and shred tree branches to keep power lines clear. 

Mulch 2 Wood Chips
Bark or wood chips are very popular mulch items because they require less maintenance and can last more then one growing season.

Straw or Hay 

If you have a large or small vegetable garden or even a container garden, straw or hay are examples of cheap mulch ideas you can consider if you don’t mind how it looks. Stray and hay work wonderfully to keep soil-borne diseases and the soil itself from splashing up on your plant’s lower leaves. Additionally, they help to reduce the mud that you’ll drag into the house on your boots. 

Straw and hay are other examples of organic mulch that decomposes very slowly. With one application, it can easily last the whole season. This mulch also provides a nice home for beneficial insects and spiders who will help control the harmful bugs who may try to take over your vegetable garden. When it’s time to close out your vegetable garden for the season or add new plants, stray and hay are easy to either work into the soil or rake up and replace. Your local farm will most likely have straw or hay bales for sale. 

Mulch 3 Straw or Hay
Many farmers will offer cheap or free stray or hay bales in the fall months because they don’t need them anymore. 

Compost or Composted Manure 

You can use composted manure and compost anywhere. The trick is to make sure it doesn’t have any weeds and that it’s well composted. How you make this cheap mulch will depend on what you want to do. For regular compost, you can include things like egg shells, food scraps, newspaper, grass clippings, fish water, and other organic matter. 

If you want composted manure, you could buy it, but there is a cheaper way to get it. If you go to any farm or stable in your area, they’re more than likely happy to let you have as much manure as you want. Just bring a few five-gallon buckets with you. To use either type of cheap mulch, you can apply it as a coating like you would any other mulch. Or, you can mix it into the soil and dress your plants with it during the growing season. This will give them a nutrient boost. 

Mulch 4 Compost
Even if you choose to use a different cheap mulch, applying a layer of compost is great for adding nutrients back to your soil.

Grass Clippings

Another great source of free mulch. When you cut your grass, what do you do with the grass clippings? If you’re like a lot of people, you bag them up and throw them away. However, grass clippings are the perfect cheap mulch material that you can stick in the remote areas of your garden to help prevent weeds from sprouting. Any grass clippings you use will have a high water content and they break down very quickly to release nutrients. However, they also tend to get slimy and smell. This is why you want them away from areas you frequent. 

Running your grass clippings over with a mulching mower will help mix them together and break them down to create your free mulch. If you have weed killers or insecticides on your lawn, you may not want to use them in your garden or around your flowers because they can do more harm than good. Toss any uncontaminated grass in your compost bin, or you can spread it out in larger areas throughout your yard. If you don’t have many grass clippings, ask your neighbors. 

Mulch 5 Grass Clippings
Grass clippings are a plentiful cheap mulch idea that you can get all season long. 

Shredded Leaves or Pine Needles

Shredded leaves and pine needles make excellent cheap mulch. Not only can you get them from your yard or in your local area, but you can use them anywhere. Adding pine needles or shredded leaves to your soil will also attract earthworms. This mulch isn’t suitable for more formal settings because it doesn’t look pretty once you get it layered on, but it does the job for less formal areas of your yard like your vegetable garden. 

If you get your mulch out early in the spring, it usually blends in fairly well within a few short weeks. You can also spread a layer over your vegetable garden in the fall. Doing this will give it all winter to decompose, break down, and inject nutrients into the soil that your vegetables will use next growing season. If you notice your leaves or pine needle mixture looks matted, take a rake and gently fluff them up. Doing this will ensure water penetrates to the soil. 

Mulch 6 Leaves
Shredded leaves make a wonderful natural compost that breaks down quickly and boosts the soil as they do so. 

Shredded or Whole Newspaper 

Fair warning, this cheap mulch will break down very quickly, no matter what environment you have it in. You’ll end up applying a new layer every other week or so, but it works nice as a preventative mulch to stop weed growth. Many people lay newspaper down and cover it up with a second layer of leaf or bark mulch. Ideally, you’ll put your newspaper through the paper shredder before you lay it down to make it easier to handle. 

If you don’t have a lot of newspaper laying around, cardboard works well. Pizza boxes, regular cardboard boxes, and paper grocery bags work well. Many grocery stores have tons of old boxes or broken bags that they’re too happy to let you have for free. You can take them home and apply them to your garden or flower beds. Cardboard will last much longer than a traditional newspaper because it’s thicker, and you can mix it into the soil. 

Mulch 7 Newspaper
Layers of newspaper will prevent weeds from growing through, and you can make it last longer by covering it with another layer of mulch.

Crushed Seashells 

Although crushed seashells are more popular as a driveway material, they also work very well as a mulch material. They may not be cheap mulch per say, but it won’t be too expensive if you have smaller areas to cover. They look nice, and you can get them in a variety of colors. If you live by the ocean, it could be possible to pick up the seashells you need. However, they can be difficult to remove if you change your mind later and want a different mulch. 

Mulch 8 Seashells
Crushed seashells make for a pretty mulch, but the sharp edges make it difficult to move them once you put them down. 

Gravel and Stone 

If you want to go with an inorganic cheap mulch that looks nice and stays in place, gravel or stone is an excellent route to take. This type of mulch does very well in areas that like to have good drainage. The larger stones and gravel will allow more rain to filter through to the soil and drain away from the plants without holding in a lot of moisture. This is particularly good for places that get a lot of rain where traditional mulch would drown the plants. 

Gravel and stone also works to help retain heat. The sun will beam down on the stones and heat them up. They trap the heat close to the plant, and rain gardens or Mediterranean herb gardens would benefit from this. However, stone or gravel are both difficult to remove if you change your mind, so you want to put a lot of thought into it before you put it down. 

Mulch 9 Stone
You can get gravel or stone in different colors to create an eye-catching flower bed. 

Black Plastic or Landscape Fabric 

Landscape fabric or black plastic works very well around trees, shrubs, or other foundation plantings. These types of landscape are very low-maintenance, and you won’t need to worry about working in these areas a lot. It’s very good at smothering the weeds, and many people add gravel or stone on top of the landscape fabric to create a sharp contrast while weighing the fabric or plastic down. 

However, if you live in an area where it gets hot and sunny, the plastic will heat up a lot during the summer. While this is great for killing the weeds, it’s not so great if it kills the plant roots. You want to make sure you cut adequate holes in the fabric or plastic to allow water to pass through and heat to escape. If you see standing water on your plastic, you don’t have enough drainage holes. The good news is, you can buy large rolls of this cheap mulch online. 

Mulch 10 Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is more breathable than plastic, but you’ll have to tear up the plastic as it won’t break down.

The Benefits of Cheap Mulch 

Now that you know the different types of popular organic and inorganic cheap mulch, we’ll talk about why you’d want to put it down in the first place. After all, it’s just another expense, right? Wrong. There are several benefits of having a layer or two of mulch, and we’ll outline them below. 

Helps Retain Moisture 

One of the most obvious benefits of cheap mulch is that it helps lock moisture into the soil. Additionally, good mulching will help keep the temperature consistent for your plant’s roots throughout the summer months. Peppers, tomatoes, squash, and other common vegetables grow better with the increased moisture content and the nutrients the mulch injects into the soil. 

The richer the soil is, the better your vegetables will get and the bigger crop you’ll get each harvest. Tomatoes love a higher amount of moisture, and they also like the additional warmth you’ll give them to help them survive a cold snap. If you plant tropical plants, they’ll do better with a higher moisture content and a warmer temperature. 

Mulch 12 Moisture
When the soil retains moisture, your plants have fewer chances of drying out and it reduces how much you have to water. 

Forms a Protective Barrier 

During the cooler fall or winter months, a thick layer of cheap mulch will form a protective barrier between your plant’s roots and the environment. Winter temperatures can and do fall below the freezing point around the United States, and these temperatures can damage your plants. When it rains or snows before the temperature plummets, it increases the chances of the roots freezing and dying. Mulch will keep the snow out while providing warmth. 

When you pick the cheap mulch you need to form your protective barrier, you want to consider what your plants need and the environment where you live. Plastic or burlap bags overlaid with a thick layer of stray will prevent the ground from freezing. Bark or wood chips are great for warm weather plants. Apply your layer of mulch before the first frost. If you live in an area that gets snow or a heavy freeze, add additional mulch layers. 

Mulch 11 Barrier
Protective barriers help to keep your plants alive season after season. 

Prevents Weeds

If your plants or vegetables are overcome with weeds, the weeds can steal valuable nutrients from your plants and prevent them from growing as big as they possibly can. You should weed the area before you introduce your plants. Once you get your plants in, apply your mulch. Mulch blocks out the light, and this prevents any new weeds from springing up. 

Along with clearing out the weeds before you apply your mulch to the area, you want to avoid using grass clippings that you cut in the spring months. At this time, the grass clippings will have a lot of seeds. These seeds can mix with the mulch and sprout, causing weeds and grass to grow through it. 

Mulch 13 Weeds
Weeds can choke out your plants and prevent them from growing as big as they could. 

Saves Time 

One of the most time-consuming parts of having flower beds, shrubbery, or vegetable gardens is the maintenance like weeding, watering, and controlling pests. Mulch is great in this aspect because it helps to eliminate many of these problems or greatly reduce the time you spend performing them. 

Mulch traps moisture in, as we talked about above. This reduces the need for you to water as much, and you save water in the process. Mulch can be a pest deterrent as well. Finally, mulch makes it very difficult for weeds to pop through the soil and compete with the plants for nutrients and water. In turn, all of these things will save you time, and you won’t have to constantly check on your flowers or vegetables. 

Mulch 14 Save Time
You’ll have more time to spend on other things you have to do because the cheap mulch will reduce your maintenance needs. 

How to Make Cheap Mulch 

If you want to create a compost-like mulch, it’s relatively easy to do. You can make cheap mulch at home to feed the soil and help your plants or flowers thrive. You’ll get compost when you combine water and air with dead vegetation. Since it’s already decomposed before you apply it, it’ll amend your soil and make it healthy for your plants to thrive. 

To start, you’ll need to decide if you’re going to have a free-standing compost pile or if you want a compost bin. Whichever one you choose, you’ll want it to go over well-draining soil in a sunny spot. Ideally, you’ll create a five foot square pile or find a bin around the same size. If you want to go small, try a three foot square pile. Try to put your bin or compost pile near your kitchen and your garden. 

Mulch 15 Make Your Own Compost
Compost is time-consuming to make, but you can make it year-round and feed you indoor plants. 

Next, you’ll start to gather your ingredients. Making this mulch involves mixing dry and wet organic materials. Your dry organic materials include straw, leaves, or hay. The wet organic materials should have almost anything that was alive at one point, excluding animal remains. Good examples or wet materials include corn cobs, fruit or vegetable peelings, eggshells, spoiled or leftover vegetables, branch purnings, leaves, hedge trimmings, and crass trimmings. Finally, you’ll need garden soil or manure. 

You’ll take all of these ingredients and start creating your cheap mulch, and you’ll do it layer by layer. The ground layer should be 12 inches deep, and this will consist of your dry organic materials. Once you get this in, add a two-inch layer of manure or soil. Next comes 12 inches of your wet organic material. Create these layers over and over until you get a five-foot compost pile. 

Creating layers like this helps to ensure air can circulate through each layer. Between each layer, wet it and tamp it down. If you want it to decompose rapidly, you’ll have to have equal amounts of vegetable peelings or green refuse and straw or fibrous refuse. 

You’ll water your compost pile bi-monthly, and this will cause it to shrink to about ⅓ of the original five-foot size. Every six weeks, you want to give your compost pile a good stir. Compost rots fastest on the inner layers, so stirring it will ensure it all decomposes at an even rate. Cover the pile or bin to prevent rain from getting it because you’ll end up with an unusable soup. 

In about three to six months, your stirring and watering will pay off. An easy way to tell if your compost is ready to go is to look at it. The original materials you use should turn out crumbly and be brown or black in color. When it’s ready, apply a two or four-inch layer to your flower beds and vegetable garden. This layer will feed, build up, and protect the soil. This should be enough cheap mulch, but you can always add a different type of mulch on top of it like hay or grass. 

Mulch 16 Compost
Finished mulch will have a very dark coloring and earthy texture. 

Magic Mulch Recipe 

If making your own compost seems like a lot of work, you can make a cheap mulch that is ready to go straight away. You’ll need a few ingredients to create this cheap mulch, including: 

  • 1 bag of composted cow manure 
  • ⅓ cup of potash
  • ⅓ cup of blood and bone
  • 1 cup of dolomite 

Get a container and mix all of the ingredients well. Once you have them mixed, your magic mulch is ready to spread around established shrubs and trees. You can apply layers to your vegetable gardens and flower beds too. As it breaks down, this mulch will condition and nourish the soil, prevent weed growth, and help the soil retain moisture. 

These cheap mulch ideas and recipes will help you create the perfect mulch for your vegetable gardens, indoor plants, outdoor plants, or flower beds. We encourage you to experiment with the different types of mulch and find out which one works best for your needs. 

Keep Your Garden Healthy With These Cheap Mulch Ideas