When it comes to gardening, soil gets expensive fast whether you’re growing a patio garden or raised bed garden. A cheap and not great quality cubic foot of soil will cost $5.84 at Walmart and really only goes up from there. Buying compost or soil is cheaper at bulk. I’ve seen it as low as $20 a cubic yard from local retailers. But what if you could get soil, compost and mulch for free?
You can and here’s how.
Soil, Compost & Mulch For Free
I have 4 raised garden beds 4 ft x 10 ft needing soil, plus numerous deck planters ranging from 2 ft x 3 ft to 2 ft x 8ft. When you calculate the cubic feet of dirt needed to fill them and extraneous other containers, they total roughly 240 cubic feet of soil. That’s over $1400 in soil costs if I just bought bagged $5.84 soil, though it would cost far less for locally sourced bulk soil. Even then it would cost $180+.
I’m frugal and I don’t have a gym membership so I’m combining those two things to dig and haul most of my own dirt from local free resources: namely the leaf mulch and wood chip piles at my local transfer station.
Throughout the year, people in the community drop off their leaf waste to the site. It builds into an enormous mound. The same is done for wood chips from downed and pruned trees. Over time all that organic material breaks down into compost, i.e. highly rich soil.
I go in with 5 gallon buckets, a wheelbarrow and shovel and find older spots and dig down to where the leaves or wood chips have decomposed to soil and haul that home in my van for free.
Cost Benefit Analysis
Is it worth it? That depends on a number of factors: how much soil you need, availability of resources, transportation capacity, your financial means, and your interest in manual labor.
My garden space is a decent size. If I only bought bagged dirt, I’d be spending $1400. That makes ordering soil from a local retailer at $20 a cu ft far more appealing. At that price you’re getting roughly 27 cu ft (if I’m doing the math right). To order you usually need a minimum amount for delivery or a way to haul it yourself. Even if I ordered local compost for delivery, I’d be looking at $180+ (far more reasonable though than bagged big box store soil).
Since a delivery of soil means I’d have to still shovel it into a wheelbarrow to transfer it to my beds anyway, I don’t mind filling my own buckets with free compost at the community site to cut out the middle man and the cost. It’s only a half mile away for easy trips and I have a work van for loading the soil. Your location, transportation capacity, and willingness toward manual labor may differ.
For smaller gardens or container gardens, bagged soil may be the more convenient way to go. If you’re really strapped for money or doing it on the cheap, digging your soil and compost may be the best option – and comes with a nice workout, no gym membership needed.
At the end of the day, it depends on why you’re gardening. $200 for dirt for a garden my size might be cheap or expensive given your reasons for wanting to grow food or a flower garden. Spending $1400+ on garden materials seems excessive to me since I only spend around $200 for groceries a month. $180+ for retail compost is a better number if I can harvest more than that in value from my garden. I’ll probably order some for the garden given its size. That said, it’s easy to get carried away and spend tons on garden materials and supplies, making gardening more pricy than shopping at an upscale organic market if you’re not careful. Who wants that?
I love free and I get exercise by hauling the soil myself so I’ll stick with the free, decomposed mulch piles for now. Mostly. There’s another way to get free compost and soil with far more ease.
Make Your Own
I don’t need to haul all 240 cubic feet of dirt from the local landfill or order from a retailer to complete my garden. That would be a lot of hauling! Last year I created two compost bins and filled one with half-decomposed leaves from the neighborhood and from raking my own half acre of land. Into the second bin went food scraps and other food waste that I’ve been adding to since. While the second bin is still decomposing, the first bin finished its job and I was able to fill most of my kitchen deck planters with the soil the bin produced.
Next year I should have even more soil from both bins since I didn’t have enough material to fill them both last fall. This year’s garden and yard waste will rectify that. If it doesn’t look like it will be enough, I intend to bag some half decomposed leaf waste at the mulch site to add to my bins in order to quicken the process and have more compost available for next year’s garden.
Other Community Leaf Waste Benefits
The leaf waste site is free but it doesn’t just contain leaves and compost. People sometimes drop off some food waste, hay and even half rotted stable manure to enrich the composting product. Savvy gardeners can grab the hay and bag the manure to add to their own mulch or composting bins instead of buying them from other places, thus saving more money while enriching their own gardens.
The other benefit of such sites is that you can grab free leaf litter or wood chips to use as walkway bedding, insulation, or mulch throughout the year.
I’m a big fan of DIY and love a bargain. My favorite bargain is finding something free. Keep money in your pocket by utilizing free community resources like leaf and wood chip waste sites. Bring a shovel and buckets or a wheelbarrow. Dig in for truly rich soil, compost and wood chips that your garden – and wallet – will love.
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