Free Leaves - Save Money by Collecting Your Own Mulch and Garden Soil

When it comes to gardening, two of the most expensive components, and at the same time can be the most important, are compost and mulch. Premium garden soil from some of the most popular brands sell for over $10 per bag and that is only 2 cubic feet of soil. To fill a modest raised bed measuring 4 feet x 4 feet x 18 inches deep would require 12 bags. That is at least $120.00 in soil. That much money could buy a lot of vegetables and fruit. Furthermore, that expensive soil will continue to break down and will need to be replenished each growing season.

Mulch is also obnoxiously expensive and to make things worse, many of the products available commercially are not good to use. Cypress wood mulch, for example, does not provide as much insulation and protection from weeds as other choices. On top of that, cypress wood mulch is harvested from swamp forests leading to destruction of wetlands and loss of habitat. Another popular choice to use in our area is pine straw. Several companies now offer pine straw mulch in bags, bails or larger rolls. Each bale is around $8 each and will cover an area of roughly 30 square feet or a garden measuring 10 feet x 3 feet. That doesn't seem so bad but pine straw also decomposes and you will need to add mulch to your garden twice per year.

What if I told you that you could make your own high quality garden soil at home and easily collect enough free mulch to last the whole year? That’s right. I do it myself and so can you. Last week I emptied my compost bin and was able to collect nearly 25 cubic feet of finished compost. Once I add amendments to make garden soil, I can have as much as 75 cubic feet or the equivalent of 37.5 bags of premium soil. That’s $375 of soil that I made at home for nearly Free!

As the leaves fall from our trees at this time of year we have to decide what to do with them. We can bag them up and have them taken to the local landfill. This may take them out of site and mind but it also takes away the benefits that they could provide. If you are going to bag up the leaves, please use clear bags. This will facilitate other collectors to gather the leaves for use.

For oak and other hardwood trees, I prefer to compost them. Home composting can be easy and finished compost is the prime ingredient of premium garden soil. The simplest way to compost is to mulch the leaves with a lawnmower and let break down in place. They can also be composted using some form of composter or just in a pile on the ground. For more information about composting check out our online composting course. Click here to go to

Another fantastic use for leaves is to use them as a mulch in our gardens and around trees and shrubs. Hardwood leaves should be shredded which can be done using a bagging mower. Shredding them will make them more uniform in size and appearance and will help prevent them from blowing around. Pine straw and cypress leaves are also available in abundance at this time. Although most of our commercially available pine straw comes from the Northshore and Mississippi, there are a surprising number of pine trees in the New Orleans area. Cypress leaves are my favorite mulch of all. It stays fresh in storage and maintains its appearance in the garden. It also resists crushing so that it provides superior insulating and weed preventing properties. Another thing that I like about them is that, with a tiny bit of effort, they are completely free.

At this time of year, I keep my rake and a few bags in my truck and am ready to grab up some compostables and mulch when I see it. I also pick up bagged leaves ready for trash collection. Heck someone else already did over half the work. So get out there this year and gather up your fallen leaves to use as compost and mulch. You can save some money and benefit the environment at the same time.

~Chris Dunaway

Image #1 - Master Gardener Volunteers from the LaSalle Park Garden collect cypress leaves for mulch from the nearby arboretum.

Image #2 - I raked up cypress leaves along Bayou St. John in New Orleans and make bales with a homemade bailer box.

Image #3 - My backyard composting bin is made from repurposed fence boards. It measures approximately 3’wide x 3’deep x 3.5’ high

Image #4 - Finished and screened high quality compost.

Volunteers raking cypress leaves.
Cypress tree with bail of hay.
Finished compost bin.
Compost bin.
12/14/2022 5:23:02 AM
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