How to Get the Best Garden Mulch to Prevent Weeds for Free


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Ready to take your gardening game up a notch?   It’s time for some mulch magic – but what is the best garden mulch to prevent weeds?

I’m sure you’ve heard about mulch as every expert gardener recommends it.  If you’re a beginner, though, choosing the best mulch seems like an impossible task. Don’t worry! I’ve got tips for choosing the best type of mulch as well as where to find free mulch near you.  

rows of garden greens with straw mulch to prevent weeds

The Best Garden Mulch to Prevent Weeds

When it comes to preventing weeds in your garden, selecting the right mulch is crucial. The best mulches for weed prevention are those that create a dense barrier and suppress weed growth but still allow water and air to reach the roots. The best mulch for your garden also adds nutrients to your soil.

Why Use Mulch in Your Garden

Two things I wish I had known when I was a brand new gardener were the benefits of mulching and companion plants. Mulch and companion planting are two things your organic gardens really cannot live without.

My favorite reason to use mulch is that it helps keep down the weeds. Anything that results in less weeding is a win-win in my book.

Mulch does more than just keep down the weeds. It also keeps moisture in the ground which reduces the amount of water you need to use on your garden. Mulch also works as pest control.

Buying mulch from a home improvement store can get expensive, especially if you have a big garden. Before you start looking for free mulch, it’s important to understand what type of mulch you actually need.

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woman in garden gloves using straw for garden mulch to prevent weeds in lettuce bed

Different Types of Mulch

There are two main types of mulch, organic and non organic. Organic mulch is made of natural materials so it will eventually decompose. It adds nutrients to your garden throughout the decomposition process. As a result, organic mulch will need to be replaced every year or two.

Inorganic mulch is manmade. It will not decompose and it also doesn’t add nutrients to your garden soil.

Mulch materials have different purposes. Some of them work better for being close to the plants and add nutrients to the soil. Others make better mulch to prevent weeds on your walkways.

Organic Materials for Mulch

Don’t throw out your yard waste – use it for mulch instead!


Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants love straw mulch. It keeps disease from splattering on plants during heavy rain and also provides hiding spots for beneficial insects like spiders.

Bark Mulch

Bark mulch is my favorite for mulching around trees and for using on paths. It decomposes more slowly than other types of organic mulch. Common types of bark mulch include hardwood, oak, and pine.

Use a thick layer of shredded bark to smother weeds. I think it makes things look tidier and aesthetically pleasing too. I like to use it in my perennial beds and around established shrubs and trees.

Bark mulch retains soil moisture and moderates soil temperature to create a healthy environment for your vegetables while it also prevents weeds.

woman raking shredded leaves for garden mulch


Leaves from your yard make great mulch – don’t rake them away! Add shredded leaves around your plants in the fall. They will decompose over the winter and add valuable nutrients to your soil.

Whole leaves are great to lay down on garden paths to prevent weeds. Do not use whole leaves directly around the vegetables because they turn into a soggy mat and prevent air and water from getting to the plant.

Leaves also attract earthworms. You get weed suppression and soil aeration all in one.

It used to be a myth that pine needles and oak leaves were toxic to the garden as they made the soil too acidic. However, both pine needle mulch and oak leaves can be used quite successfully in the vegetable garden. They both take a little longer to break down but will not affect the pH of your soil.

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Newspaper and Cardboard

Newspaper and cardboard are great for smothering existing garden areas if you want to establish new beds. Make sure you layer them so there are no areas of dirt getting water or sunlight to control the weeds.

Avoid using newspaper and cardboard with glossy finishes or lots of dyes.

Grass Clippings

Fresh grass is kind of a mixed bag. Some people will put their grass clippings directly from the lawnmower into the garden bed. However, they also blow away easily and decompose quickly.

If you use any type of herbicide on your grass, do not add this to your garden. The chemicals can leach into your vegetable soil. I use grass clippings to mulch potatoes only when I have no other choice.

black plastic with holes in raised garden bed to prevent weeds

    Inorganic mulch

    Inorganic mulches are effective weed barriers and excel at moisture retention.  They also don’t decompose which means you don’t need to replace them every year.  However, they also don’t add any nutrients to your soil.  

    Black Plastic

    Black plastic can be put on the garden in the winter to kill the weeds and bugs. It’s not great for the summer as it gets very hot and keeps out all moisture.

    Rocks or Gravel

    Small rocks or pebbles also work really well for garden paths and areas that require a lot of drainage. We used a lot of rocks in our desert landscape in Arizona.

    Landscape Fabric

    I actually used landscape fabric between my potato rows this year because I bought a roll last year that I never used and it was the right width. You need to secure the fabric and cover it with another layer of mulch. If you don’t cover it with a thick mulch layer the weeds below will still get light and water.

    It is low maintenance and easy to install. The tightly woven fabric will eventually break down and it can be a pain to remove from underneath the layers of mulch on top.

    Rubber Mulch

    Rubber mulch is made from old, shredded tires. It’s durable, lasts forever, and definitely suppresses the weeds when used in a thick layer. It doesn’t decompose so you won’t need to replace it.

    Rubber mulch does retain moisture in the soil, but it doesn’t add any nutrients. Some people are concerned the chemicals from the rubber can leach into your garden soil. I would only use this on pathways and not close to my vegetables, personally.

    shredded bark mulch with tractor

    Find Free Mulch Near You

    Save money on your garden by using free mulch as a protective layer. I love getting mulch from neighbors and businesses in my community as it’s a win-win for everyone. They get rid of something they don’t need and I get something I do need for free!  

    First, check out your local city or government composting programs. Many cities and towns offer free or low-cost compost and mulch to residents as part of their waste management initiatives.

    Our local city collects branches and downed trees all year and has a huge pile of wood chip mulch, free for the taking! I’m using the wood chips on my garden paths and it’s just perfect. I love all the free mulch we’ve collected so far this year.

    Ask your local tree care company for free mulch as well. Tree trimming companies like to offload their wood chips and shredded bark so they don’t have the hassle of disposing of it. I recommend just calling their offices and asking.  The worst they can do is say no! 

    Social Media Groups or Buy Nothing Groups are good choices for finding free mulch. Make a request for free mulch and you might be surprised what people have available.  In my local gardening Facebook group people offer their clippings, manure, or compost for free when they have extra.  

    Collect your own grass clippings as you mow your lawn and use them in your garden. Same goes for the leaves! We actually don’t collect ours because we prefer to leave them on the lawn, but they’re there, free for the taking.

    We have had neighbors drop off grass clippings before. People with large yards who bag their grass are often only too happy to dump it near my garden.

    Local farmers are also great sources of free mulch. This might be something only rural peeps like me have access to, but I have had really good luck cleaning straw out of old sheds. I got a whole wagon full this year from my father-in-law, and last year I got a bunch of old hay before another barn was burned to the ground in our area.

    straw mulch around a tomato plant

    Not all Free Mulch is Created Equal

    Be selective about where and what type of free mulch you get.  Quality mulch should be free from contaminants like pesticides or herbicides, as these could harm your plants. Definitely ask about this if you’re getting grass clippings from others.

    Straw and hay can be full of weed seeds which defeats the purpose of using them for weed prevention. I have used both on my garden in the past and haven’t noticed too many weeds where I put the mulch.

    Inspect any mulch you get for signs of pests, disease, and chemicals before bringing it into your garden. Free mulch is awesome, but not if it causes more problems in the long run.

    Ultimately, the best mulch for suppressing weeds depends on factors such as your garden’s specific needs and how much time you want to spend maintaining it. Once you choose the right mulch for your garden and layer it correctly, you can enjoy a thriving weed-free garden.

    veggie garden using mulch and cardboard as natural weed control

    When is the Best Time to Mulch?

    The best times to mulch are typically in the early spring and fall seasons. In spring, mulching helps conserve moisture and moderate soil temperatures as the weather warms up. Spring mulching protects soil structures below and prevents erosion during heavy rains.

    Fall mulching retains warmth and extends the growing season for some vegetables. It also protects against winter frosts and gives the plants a nice, snug bed for the colder months. I

    How do I Mulch Vegetable Plants?

    Prepare your garden bed for mulching by removing any existing weeds. Loosen the soil and then apply a thick layer of mulch around your vegetable plants. The mulch should be evenly distributed. Aim for 2 to 4 inches thick.

    Leave a small gap around the base of each plant. If mulch is right up next to the stem, it can attract pests and disease. Replenish your mulch layer as needed throughout the season.

    Are Mulch and Compost the Same Thing?

    Both mulch and compost benefit your garden, but they are used for different purposes. Mulch’s main purpose is to prevent weeds, conserve moisture, and regulate soil temperature.

    Compost is a nutrient-rich soil amendment made from decomposed organic matter like kitchen scraps, yard waste, and manure. I think every organic garden should utilize both compost and mulch for best results.

    So what is the best garden mulch to prevent weeds in your vegetable garden?  Personally, I prefer to use organic types of mulch whenever possible.  I use bark chips on my walking paths and straw or shredded leaves in my planting beds.  

    Different mulches serve different purposes, so you don’t have to choose just one. The important thing is that you suppress the weeds and enjoy time in your garden.

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    About Michelle Marine

    Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long-time green-living enthusiast, and rural Iowa mom of four. She empowers families to grow and eat seasonal, local foods; to reduce their ecological footprint; and to come together through impactful travel.

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    1. Love the size of your garden! Do you use plain straw to cover everything? Love the way that looks. Enjoy your mud-lovers! ;0)

      1. Hi Daisy! We use plain ole straw and grass clippings to mulch the plant seedlings. We got it for free too by cleaning it out of a farmer’s shed. I forgot about it! I use the wood chips to cover the paths and make a berm around my garden. Happy Gardening!

    2. I would so love to have a garden that big. The picture of the kids is great. Like my sister use to say” God made dirt. Dirt can’t hurt.” That saying came from her getting in trouble for eating mud pies. Thanks for the fond memory.

    3. You are WAY ahead of me!! I think we may talk about getting the tiller out & hitting the little strip of garden we have after the holiday weekend. Our farmer’s market opens on Tuesday, so I will get some transplants there to make myself get started!!

    4. I would love to have a garden the size of yours. Looks like you have a great start with all of the plants in. I saw the picture of your kids with all the mud on them, looks like they had a lot of fun. My son won’t even touch the dirt to plant the seeds he needs to use a pencil to make the whole in the dirt. He just doesn’t like to get dirty. But will wipe his face on his shirt, go figure. 🙂

    5. The pretty purple plant is Hesperis, common name is Dame’s Rocket. It is considered invasive in some areas. I hope it isn’t on the bad plant list for your area. It has a lovely scent & reseeds easily.

      1. You’re right! I just googled Dame’s Rocket and that’s definitely what it is. It may very well be invasive in our area. It’s better than the thistles, though, so I’ll take it! 🙂 It’s confined (for now) to a small area of our property and I like it there. I’ll keep an eye on it. Thanks so much for your comment!

    6. We were incredibly stubborn about mulching due to the cost. We went WAY too long before finally trying it. This is such a helpful article. FREE mulch is the best but it does have to do the job and NOT create problems.
      I started with free hay in the garden and the seeds were live. Oh boy that was a weedy mess. We used straw and black plastic this year in our flower beds with bark on top. We have mulched with gravel and landscape fabric too around ornamentals. Works great!
      We also rented a chipper one year and pruned back a bunch of cedar branches. That made EXCELLENT pathway mulch. We may buy a chipper and use it every year. We have cardboard layered in the veggie garden with straw and plastic. Just cut through it to plant. Great stuff!

    7. We’ve used newspaper before and it worked great. But you are right you have to be careful about weed seeds. We got some free mulch one year, I added it to the garden and we had this weird grass popping up all over it took me two years to get rid of it.

    8. I’m so jealous that your transfer stations offer the pile of free wood chips! Around here everyone wants them and neighbors run after trucks to get them to leave them at their house – they never make it to the transfer stations. 🙁 They are pretty precious, ha!

      Oh, yeah, I did buy cheap bales of straw from some old farmer when we first moved from the city – turns out he was just trying to get rid of old hay and my paths grew better grass than our lawn, lol.

      It’s a beautiful thing when it does work out, though – love the weed suppression and even moisture from mulch!

    9. Hi Michelle,

      We mulch our beds every year. Since they are all ornamental it helps with weeds and makes them look neat and tidy. Usually we purchase wood mulch from a local landscape company. They bring it to our house by the truckload. One of the more arduous tasks in the spring, but well worth it. It can get pricey. I need to check our local municipality for the possibility of any freebies. Thanks for the great suggestion.

    10. Great post, Michelle!

      I use both organic and inorganic mulch in my garden. Your free resource will help me saving a lot of money. I intend to write some posts about applying mulch in the garden.