Mulch! Your plants' best friend can be the mulch you spread around and between them. A layer of organic mulch reduces weeds, protects roots from winter cold, and keeps the soil moist. Your garden's hardworking earthworms will help break down the mulch over time, adding its nutrients to the soil. You can purchase mulch by the bag or by the truckload, or you can save money by recycling materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill.
Fall is a great time for mulching with fallen leaves! Your own trees may provide all you need, or you can pick up tidy bags of leaves waiting at the neighborhood curbs on trash day. Shredded leaves are easier to spread around, and they stay put better. You don't need a chipper/shredder for leaves; you can just run your lawnmower through your leaf pile a few times.
You can also collect leaves now to spread around your plants next year. DGer Gitagal tucks big bags of leaves out of sight under the evergreens at the back of her yard. In a year (or two if you don't get to them), the leaves start breaking down. The partly composted leaves are easier to spread and will soon be incorporated into your soil by busy earthworms.
Pine straw is another material commonly used as mulch, especially in the Southeastern US. Evergreens generally drop their needles with less fanfare than the fall color and bare winter limbs of deciduous trees, but they do drop their leaves as new ones grow. Pines are grown plantation-style for the paper and lumber industry, and the needles are baled and sold for mulch. If you have pines in your yard, of course, you have your own source of free pine straw.
I tend to be compulsive about saving cardboard boxes, just in case they are the perfect size for sending plants or other gifts to friends. At least once a year, though, I have to go through my stack and get rid of most of them. I could break them down and put them out for pickup with the rest of the recycling. Or, I could put them to use right in my own garden.
Newspaper and cardboard make a wonderful under-layer for mulching. My friend Theresa always starts with a layer of old cardboard boxes, or half a dozen sheets of newspaper, when mulching around trees and between perennials. Newspaper generally breaks down after a year, while cardboard may last two or three times that long. The paper products form a tough layer that keeps moisture in while keeping weeds from popping out.
Grass clippings are easiest to find in spring and summer, of course. Many people compost them, but I prefer to put them to more direct use. Common sense says that trimmings from lawns treated chemicals should be used with caution, especially around any plant you intend to eat. You can put several inches of fresh grass clippings between tomato or pepper plants and alongside rows of other vegetables. Fresh grass heats up as it starts to break down, and I think this helps keep weed seeds from germinating.
As the grass dries, it forms a nice mat of mulch between your plants, much like straw. Actual straw, of course, is also a popular garden mulch. I'm not sure there's any advantage to paying for straw when you can get grass clippings free of charge. However, I keep intending to buy a few bales of straw in the spring, so I can try the straw bale gardening method. At the end of the growing season, the partly-composted straw would make a wonderful mulch material.
Coffee grounds are another item that can be applied directly to your garden rather than being dumped in the compost pile. The grounds from our daily pot of coffee always end up under some plant. In summer, I often dump the filter directly into the garden bed under the deck. When it's too cold to venture out, the coffee grounds end up around my houseplants.
Don't limit yourself to your own used grounds. Any place that brews coffee generates coffee grounds. A layer of coffee grounds makes a great addition to the mulch around your plants! Take a look at this article by Jeremy Wayne Lucas for tips on acquiring and applying this "brown gold."
Shredded hardwood mulch is a favorite for appearance as well as for weed control. If you have a chipper/shredder, you can make your own mulch from tree trimmings. You may also be lucky enough to find a landscape professional willing to swing by at the end of a job and drop off a big pile of shredded goodness. Many communities collect yard waste separately so they can offer it to residents as mulch and compost rather than dumping it in the landfill. Of course, there's no guarantee that material from unknown sources won't contain bits of poison ivy or noxious weed seeds.
I do often opt to buy nice, clean mulch from a local nursery rather than using free "mystery mix mulch." But I can still save money by using the hardwood mulch only as a light top layer, with other organic materials underneath. That gives me the "landscaped" look of wood mulch without breaking the garden budget.
Why stop with mulching? If you gather enough of the above materials, you can put them down in layers to create a whole new garden bed, using the lasagna method. Prepare a lasagna garden this fall, and you can have a new planting bed ready by spring, with no digging and no money needed for fancy topsoil.
If you've been using only wood chips or shredded wood mulch in your gardens, it's time to experiment. Try some under-layers of cardboard, grass, leaves, coffee grounds, and other organic materials. Then top-dress with a cosmetic layer of your usual landscape mulch. Your wallet and your earthworms will both thank you. Your plants will be happier, and you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you put some "trash" to good use.
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for more information (let the cursor hover for a few seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear).
For a great overview of mulching methods and materials, see Toni Leland's article, "Got Mulch?"