THE HOW DO GARDENER: Maybe there’s no free lunch, but there’s free mulch



Glass and bark mulch in the landscape. (Photo by Rick Bickling)


Applying mulch around your trees, shrubs, garden, and landscape beds is one of the easiest and most effective ways of not only keeping plants healthy, but also reducing water usage, preventing weeds, minimizing mowing, and just plain making your yard look better.

According to a North Carolina State University study, a proper layer of mulch will result in a 10 to 25 percent decrease in soil moisture loss due to evaporation, help keep the soil aerated by reducing soil compaction from rain hitting directly on the soil, and reduce water runoff and soil erosion. The insulating qualities of mulch help keep the soil at a more uniform temperature by keeping it warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer.

Mulch falls into one of two main categories, organic mulch and inorganic mulch. Organic mulch would be material such as pine straw, bark nuggets, wood chips, compost, grass clippings, or even layers of newspaper. Organic mulch will usually decompose over time and will need to be replenished regularly. Examples of inorganic mulch are gravel, rocks, pebbles, recycled glass, recycled tire mulch, and landscape fabric. This type of mulch typically does not decompose over time so needs only be placed once.

Mulch should be applied to a depth of about 2 to 4 inches and extend out to cover as much of the root zone as possible. For trees, mulch at least 3 to 6 feet out from the tree. Be sure to pull mulch back 1 to 2 inches from the base of plants and trees to prevent rot.

Rather than just having a mulched bed go right up against your lawn, use a border of stones, metal or plastic edging material. This will make for a distinct outline for your mulched area, keep weeds and grass from growing into your beds, and make trimming the grass along the bed edges much easier.

Well, mulching sounds like a good idea, but what about this whole “free mulch” thing? Did you ever wonder what happens to the tree limbs and branches that the power company trims back from power lines, or the empty glass bottles that are picked up from all of those recycling bins you see curbside on garbage day?

Here in our area, and in many cities across the county, they are processed into various forms of mulch and made available to the public for little or no cost.

Tree waste is shredded into traditional wood mulch, and the collected glass waste is crushed into small pieces and tumbled with course sand until the edges are smooth and there are no more sharp points. Some facilities sort the glass by color, and others mix glass of all colors together to produce an attractive multi-colored glass mulch.

Here in our area you can get as much wood mulch as you can load into your vehicle for no charge down at the Austin Recycling Center by the airport. If you load glass mulch yourself, it is also free, or for $9.67 you can have a worker in a Bobcat load a ton of glass mulch in one quick dump. Not a bad deal, a ton of mulch for the same price as a few bags of mulch purchased from the store.

Try putting different types of mulch in different beds and pathways in your landscape to add interest. Glass mulch makes an interesting and attractive addition to your home landscape, but its unique properties afford an opportunity to get creative. Try replacing that narrow strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk with glass mulch. I decided to form up my own custom concrete stepping stones and embed a layer of glass mulch into the top of the wet concrete to provide a one of a kind look for a pathway.

Mulch can be applied any time of the year. It can consist of a wide variety of materials with many different textures, colors, and looks. Other than a little elbow grease, it can often be applied for little or no cost. Mulch is a great way to spruce up your landscape and protect your plants. Choose mulch with the look and the price that suits your needs and put some down this season. You’ll be pleased with the way your landscape looks and the way your plants and trees thrive.


Rick Bickling is a certified Master Gardener in Williamson County. He has been designing, planting and maintaining landscapes and gardens for more than 30 years. 


or reach Rick by email at