Here's how you can find material for mulch and critter homes

How You Can Find Material for Mulch and Critter Homes

In this episode, we’re going to look at several ways you can find material for mulching and building critter homes without spending a ton of money. All these methods are inexpensive, but some do require some physical effort on your part—though you can always get help from a friend or family member. But with some simple actions, you can get the material you need for mulching and building critter homes.


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In past episodes and blog posts, I’ve often talked about the importance of mulching and building critter homes.

Keeping the ground covered with mulch is a great way to retain moisture, build soil, and provide habitat for wildlife.

And critter homes are key to supporting a diversity of wildlife that in turn keep pests in balance for you.

But finding the material for mulch and critter homes can be a challenge. This is a challenge I know all too well.

When my wife and I purchased our property it was basically all just lawn and old pasture fields. There were very few trees. And the trees that were there were all growing along the fence line.

The first thing I wanted to do was make hedgerows, and start planting food forests and gardens. A lot of that grass needed to go.

The easiest way to do this was to sheet-mulch the grassy areas. But that takes a lot of cardboard and woodchips, straw, or leaves.

I also wanted to add snags, and critter homes to create habitat for wildlife. But again that takes a lot of logs and rocks.

So how was I going to get all this material without spending a ton of money? If you’ve got a lot of money you can always just buy it. But that wasn’t an option for us.

I started to look around and reach out to people and soon I discovered an almost never-ending supply of free mulch and other material. Though it does take time and effort on my part to get it all.

That’s often the trade-off. If you spend money you don’t have to spend as much time and effort. But I don’t think it’s realistic for most of us to spend lots of money on these projects. Mulch can be really expensive to buy—and often the stuff people buy isn’t actually that good.

I much prefer the free mulch I get.

I’m going to dive into the sources I’ve used to get mulch and material to build critter homes but I’m also going to talk a bit about how you can get this material from your property too. That might not be realistic at the start but as your plants grow and mature it becomes easier and easier.

Let’s dive into how you can find materials for mulch and critter homes.

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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.

Okay, let’s get started.

Episode Resources:

Further Listening and Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.

Books and Other Resources

Finding Material for Mulch

Mulch your garden paths with wood chips or other types of mulch

I love it when I can get a ton of woodchips all at once. This big pile came from the county when they were doing some roadwork.

It seems like I’m always mulching something. This has gotten to the point where I start to feel anxious if I don’t have a big pile of woodchips or leaves waiting for me outside.

What do I do if I don’t have mulch!

It might seem a bit crazy but using mulch to get new areas ready for planting is something I do all the time. And without mulch that work grinds to a halt.

Which isn’t good—I want to plant more plants!

It always seems like I’m in a rush to get areas ready so I can plant them come fall and spring. There is just always too much to do.

So I’m always on the lookout for material for mulch.

And over the years I’ve found a few ways to get mulch without spending a ton of money. But to be clear it still costs some money since you often need to drive to pick up the mulch. And if you don’t have access to a truck you might need to rent one for the day.

I’m lucky that I can borrow my dad’s truck. I just pay for gas and I get to use the truck to get loads of mulch and other material. Without access to a truck, you will be limited to what you can get. Though I’ve seen people loading up big plastic bins with woodchips or putting down a tarp in the back of their van or car to haul bags of fall leaves.

But this does mean more driving to get the same amount of material that a truck can hold. Renting a truck might be cheaper and it will save you time.

It is still cheaper to rent a truck for the day and get a bunch of free mulch than buying the mulch and having it delivered.

So if you’ve got a truck or you’re using plastic bins in your car where do you get mulch? Well, this will require some research on your part.

Some cities and counties take yard waste from people and grind it up and let people haul it away for free. While the material might be a bit messier looking than classic beauty bark it’s great for sheet-mulching and preparing new areas for planting.

Here in Thurston County, you can get free mulch from Thurston County Waste and Recovery Center off I-5 near Lacey. You’ve got to load it and haul it away yourself but it’s free. I often go there to get loads of mulch for my place.

Ask around and see what you can find where you live.

But another great source of free mulch is fall leaves. While I would rather people keep their leaves many people are still getting rid of theirs. So instead of all those leaves going to the landfill or being burned see if you can get them for your place.

Each year I get a couple of hundred bags of fall leaves from people in my area. As I write this at the start of November, I’ve already collected 103 bags of leaves and I hope to get another 100 or so. All those leaves will help me get some new native trees and shrubs going in a wetland area that I’m restoring.

To find these bags of leaves I make a post on the app NextDoor. NextDoor is a social media app and website that is focused on local topics. Most of the posts you see on there are from people in your area and you can control which neighborhoods see your posts. This is great for getting bags of leaves in the fall.

I just make a post asking people for bags of leaves. I only take leaves that are already bagged and they have to be placed so I can just drive up, park, and grab them. In an hour I can easily get 20 to 30 bags of leaves.

And if you don’t want to use that app—try asking your neighbors, friends, family, and people you work with. They might even be willing to drop them off for you.

But there is one more option to get free or very cheap woodchips without having to get them yourself—and that is to reach out to tree care companies and potentially utility companies in your area.

Each day these companies are driving from job site to job site filling up a covered dump truck with free woodchips from trees they’ve cut down or pruned. When their truck is full they have to dump it—often at the local dump for a fee.

Because it costs them money to dump their load of woodchips, they will often dump it at your place for free if you ask them. Or they might charge a small amount to cover their gas—it depends on the company and if you’re near their work area or not.

I’ve gotten a ton of woodchips for free this way. One time the county was pruning up branches up and down the road I live on. I reached out to them and got several large dump truck loads of fresh woodchips for free.

Keeping your eyes open for covered trucks pulling a chipper behind them is a great way to get woodchips for free.

Another option is to use a site called ChipDrop to sign up for woodchip drops. You can get them for free or offer to pay a small amount. But it’s still a lot cheaper than buying woodchips from wholesale dealers.

The downside is that you’re going to get 10 to 15 cubic yards of woodchips all at once from these options. That tends to be how much these dump trucks haul. A pickup truck with a full bed only holds about 2 cubic yards.

So you’ve got to be ready to deal with all those woodchips. A load like that will cover your driveway. But a single load can go a long way, so you won’t have to look for more for a while.

The other downside is that depending on where you live there is likely a waiting list to get woodchips from ChipDrop or tree care companies. So you’ve got to ask and get on those lists before you need to woodchips—it can take several months to get a load this way.

But since a load of woodchips from these sources is so large it could last you for quite a while.

There are other ways to get free mulch—some people like to ask farmers for old rotten hay and strawbales. It really just depends on what is available in your area. So use what I’ve shared today to help you get started and just ask around and see what you can find.

Now let’s shift gears to talk about finding materials for building critter homes.

Finding Material for Building Critter Homes

You can find material for mulch and critter homes online

I’m always on the lookout for logs for new critter homes.

Finding material for building critter homes can be a bit harder though it depends on where you live.

Rocks can be a great option for building critter homes. So if you live somewhere with a lot of rocks save any you dig up when gardening and use them to make critter homes.

If you’re wondering, what critter homes are they’re basically just rock piles or log piles that are set up in a way that provides space for critters to hide in. A brush pile can also be a great critter home.

I covered critter homes in more detail in a past podcast and I’ve left a link to it in the resources section of the show notes. So make sure to check it out.

But if you don’t have rocks where you live logs can be another great option. I tend to use logs a lot for mine because my place has very few rocks.

Finding logs and rocks can be a challenge—at least if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on them.

But you can find both by asking around. Using sites like NextDoor, Craigslist, and even Facebook can all be great ways to find people who want to get rid of their rocks and logs.

When I was building our wildlife pond I got all the rocks for it for free just by making posts on these sites and asking around.

A truck makes it easier but you can put a tarp down in the back of a car and get small loads of rocks and logs. Just don’t get too many since they can be very heavy. I’ve done this with our Prius and it works fine as long as you’re careful not to overload the car.

Another great way to get free logs and rocks is to look for new development projects and ask if you can remove some old logs and rocks. Often these sites are going to be bulldozed anyway so the developers don’t really care what happens to the logs and rocks.

And remember when building critter homes rotten logs are actually better than fresh logs.

So just ask around and keep your eyes open for people cutting down trees, getting ready to develop a site, or building a new house or other building. Often you can get lots of free logs and rocks this way if you’re willing to get the material yourself.

Growing Mulch and Critter Homes

You can find material for mulch and critter homes from your own land

This is our new in-progress wetland area. While there is still a lot more work to do we’ve made some great progress. And one part of this work was to mulch all the areas we disturbed. Cutting the tall grass from the surrounding area with my scythe was a great way to do this without having to bring in mulch from off-site.

Once you start looking for logs, rocks, and mulch you will start to see it everywhere. At first, I thought it would be impossible to get enough material for my projects. But over time I’ve found enough sources that I can find what I need if I plan in advance.

This is why I get anxious if my stockpile of mulch, logs, and rocks starts to get low. Because it can take time to get enough material for large projects.

You’ve got to plan ahead.

But in the long run, I hope to stop needing all this material. I would rather grow my mulch and critter homes.

There are lots of ways to do this and our previous episode talked a bit about how skipping the fall cleanup can actually help you cultivate abundance by leaving habitat for wildlife. So make sure to check that episode out.

All those fall leaves and old dead stems and flowers provide a ton of great overwintering habitat for wildlife. You’ve just got to leave them where they are instead of raking them up and cutting them down.

This is much easier than building critter homes.

But large brush piles, log piles, and rock piles do provide great habitat for wildlife that stems and leaves just can’t on their own.

And as your property becomes more abundant you can grow this material on site. When you prune your fruit trees try using the material to make brush pile critter homes—your songbirds will love you for it.

Mulching with woodchips and leaves is great when a growing area is new. But the long-term goal should be to replace it with a cover of living plants. You can still chop and drop your plants once or twice a year to add more mulch.

Your plants will quickly regrow and cover all the cut branches, stems, and leaves.

I’ve put a link to a blog post in the resources section of the show notes all about chop-and-drop.

And if you’ve got large pasture areas that aren’t being used for animals try getting a scythe or weedwhacker to cut it down without shredding it. All that cut grass can be used as a great free source of mulch.

I’ve recently started doing this at my place to help restore a wetland area. Using my scythe I cut the tall grass in our pasture and then gather it up and use it as a mulch to help reduce pressure from the grass in the wetlands so I can get native shrubs and trees established.

If you cut the grass before it goes to seed you can avoid having grass seedlings popping up. I was a little late on doing this so I will need to top it up later to smoother the seedlings and any grass that pops up.

But it’s a great way to mulch a large area for free.

Think about what you have growing in abundance where you live and see if it can be used as mulch. I also chop-and-drop our invasive blackberries since we’re still dealing with a bunch of them. They may be poky but they make a great mulch and break down into soil fairly quickly.

Might as well use them for mulch since I’m cutting them down anyways. And eventually, when they’re gone they will have helped prep the soil for trees, shrubs, and other plants.

And finally, you can even plant trees specifically to cut down later and make critter homes or girdle some of them to make snags.

Trees like our native red alder that fix nitrogen can be planted to help prepare an area for fruit trees, berries, and other plants. While it’s great to leave some of the alders you can overplant them and then thin them later.

This way you can leave the healthiest ones with a nice spacing so they can grow well with fruit trees, berries, and other plants between them while also getting a bunch of wood to use as critter homes.

You could even use the wood first to grow edible mushrooms for food and then use the spent logs as critter homes later on.

It’s fine to find material for mulch and critter homes from off-site but also make sure to plan for ways to produce that material on-site as much as possible.

You don’t want to have to keep bringing in material forever—that’s just too much work!

And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at live staking and how to get started with it. I’ve been focusing these last episodes on tasks that can be done in the fall and winter and this time of year happens to be the perfect time for live staking. Live staking is basically where you take a cutting from a shrub or tree and stick it in the ground so it can grow into a new plant. It may sound crazy but willows and other trees and shrubs can be grown this way. It’s a cheap and easy way to get more plants.

So make sure to check out that episode next week to learn how to get started with live staking. And don’t forget to check out the show notes for more links and resources related to this episode.

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Daron is a restoration ecologist, lifelong gardener, and founder of Growing with Nature. He created this site to help people enjoy wildlife, grow food, and help heal our living world. He has managed the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he’s applying principles of restoration and permaculture to transform his property in western Washington to forests, wetlands, hedgerows, food forests, and permaculture gardens. He holds a Masters in Environmental Studies and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Water Resources. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children.