Free Mulch, Workout and Xeriscaping

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I’m still sore today! You know that pain that hits your whole body the day after doing your first workout after a prolonged time away from the gym? Kinda like that but it wasn’t a workout that caused this – it was mulch.  I spent the whole day Saturday shoveling mulch and carting it around my yard. Why would anyone need 6 truckloads of mulch?

Our house sits on a plot roughly ⅓ of an acre in size. When we bought it most of the land not directly under the house was covered with grass. After spending one hot and humid summer behind a gas push lawn mower I quickly realized that something needed to be done. I considered a riding mower which would let me drink a beer while cutting grass, but my wife was already picturing me turning into this guy. Perhaps a riding mower is an overkill in a subdivision anyway.

It’s only logical to assume that the less grass you have the less time you’ll spend mowing, watering, fertilizing, aerating, dethatching, overseeding and controlling weeds. At that Eureka moment I decided to reduce the size of our lawn by converting several areas to mulched beds with trees and shrubs, vegetable gardens, fire pit and play areas. I’m estimating that we now have at least 50% less grass than we did when we moved in. It’s my own version of Xeriscaping if you will.

Not surprisingly, the weekly mowing commitment went from 1.5 hours behind a stinky loud gas mower to 30-40 minutes behind this awesome leg-powered silent lawn mower. Now I don’t have to yell at my wife to close all windows and take cover with our son inside as if my lawn mowing is some sort of hostile air raid. Instead they are usually playing outside as I cut grass without fumes, noise or rocks flying at 100 mph (or whatever it is after hitting a blade spinning at 3,600 rpm). No gas to buy, no oil changes, filters, spark plugs and all the other maintenance headaches and expenses that come along with any combustion engine. Update: I wrote a review of my Fiskars Staysharp Max Reel Mower – take a look and see if ditching your gas lawn mower is for you.

That maintenance bliss comes at a price. The amount of mulch needed to cover the formerly grassy areas sufficiently enough to prevent grass and weeds from sprouting all over the place is intense. I actually went around and measured all the areas to be covered and at 3 inches thick I would need 20-25 yards of mulch. That’s a big-ass dump truck filled to the top.

I called 6 places that do mulch delivery locally and got quotes that ranged between $700 to $1,000. Now, that’s just them delivering the mulch and dropping it in the driveway. I would then have to spend several days running around with a wheelbarrow to spread the mulch where it needed to be.

Before dropping that kind of cash on processed trees… did you know that you can get mulch for free? Our local landfill accepts yard waste (trees, bushes, brush etc) from the county residents and shreds it all into mulch available for pick up every day of the week. The mulch is not dyed or treated with any chemicals. Brown, black and red mulch commonly purchased by homeowners usually is.

Every time I told someone about this service they would immediately reply with “yeh, but that stuff is not as nice looking and it has BUGS and TERMITES!” I’ve been using free mulch for many years now and can tell you that, at least at our landfill, none of this is true. It looks good and I never see any bugs. Yes, you’ll get a bottle cap or a piece of plastic or some other random piece of garbage mixed in once in a while but it’s hardly the reason to discount this option.

OK, so we have a source of free mulch but how do you get it home?

Have you ever seen those Uhaul pickup trucks advertising $19.95 daily rates? Well, it’s true – sort of. You total bill will be (much) higher but it’s still cheap considering the alternative. More on that in a minute.

I reserved a Ford F150 on Thursday on www.uhaul.com and picked it up on Saturday at a local center. It was almost brand new – a 2013 model with less than 2,000 miles on it. Most importantly, it had a nice 8 foot long bed. When I got to the dump the scene looked like this:

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They have a machine with a conveyor belt that loads the mulch into your vehicle or trailer. There are county dump trucks that bring mulch and dump it near the machine. Then a loader picks up and loads mulch into the machine to keep up with the demand. When it’s your turn, you pull your truck under the conveyor belt, go to the little booth and press the big green button to start the flow. If you are by yourself like I was, you will need to run between the truck and the booth to spread out the mulch into the corners of the bed.

The first load was relatively quick because the line was short. When I got there for the second one the line was at least 15 cars long. Apparently I happened to pick one of the busiest weekends to do this project. As I was sitting there waiting, I noticed that the biggest problem was that whenever you had 1 person in a car that needed mulch, they would spend half the time running between the booth with the green button and their truck.

Lets Work Together, People!

When there were two trucks in front of me, I got out of the car and offered the guy who was about to start loading to hold the green button while he spreads the mulch. Then I did the same for the guy behind him. When it was my turn, I went to the guy behind me asking if he’d hold the button and he happily agreed, seeing how fast the line was moving now. Anyway, I did not see this mentioned in the instructions posted in the booth, but it certainly should be there.

Renting a pickup truck has another crucial advantage over getting mulch delivered. I was able to park right next to several areas of the yard and unload directly from the truck instead of running all over the place with a wheelbarrow. That saved a lot of time and energy!

Here is one area that used to be all grass where I laid out a pathway to the gate and filled the rest with 2 truckloads of mulch directly from the F150:

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NO MORE MOWING LIKE THIS!!! Just this spot alone used to take me 10-15 minutes with a gas mower… never again!

Of course it goes much faster with helpers. My son, my wife and my mother-in-law were all helping to spread the mulch around while I was busy driving back and forth to the dump.

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In the end I had just enough time to get 6 trips in before landfill closed at 5PM. That was enough to do most of my yard but I could use one more truck load to really finish up the backyard. That’s alright though because I have pine trees in the back there and I can use the pine needles to cover up the rest.

In fact, that’s part of the “free, easy and green” maintenance plan going forward. Now that I have a thick layer of mulch I will be topping it off with pine needles from our “forest”. It looks really nice and it’s very easy to carry on a tarp and spread wherever necessary. Much lighter than the regular mulch and it’s a free self-renewing resource right in my own backyard!

Truck Expenses

I managed to put 60 miles on the F150 running between the house, the dump and the rental place. Uhaul charges $0.49 per mile in addition to the $19.95 per day fee plus I had to get 4 gallons of gas. After all said and done, including taxes and “environmental fees”, the total came to $70 to rent a brand new truck for 24 hours.

I think that’s a hell of a deal on many levels. $70 vs. at least $750 for delivered mulch is obviously better. Add the option of using a pickup truck as a wheelbarrow and there is no contest. Renting whenever necessary for $70 is still cheap compared to actually owning a truck, driving it to work at 15 mpg just to be able to do an occasional DIY project like this. Even if I rented 5 times a year (I don’t) it would still make sense to own my MINI Cooper instead of an F150 in gas savings alone.

Is It Worth the “Trouble”?

Yes, it was a lot of work to get the project done this way. It would have been easier to call a landscaping company and have them do all of this while I’m at work or out enjoying the weekend. Pretty much all of my neighbors do it like that. I’ve never seen anyone rent a Uhaul truck to get free mulch in all the years living here. However, one neighbor came by to ask about the details of what I was doing and how much it costs and said that he might have to copy it. By all means do – that’s the point of this post anyway.

The alternative, at least as I see it, is a slippery slope of outsourcing behavior that virtually guarantees a 40 year mandatory  job sentence  followed by a brief retirement and death. Silly as it may sound I view DIY mulching as a symbol of the opposite – the type of behavior that virtually guarantees early financial independence. (Yeh, I know – this is a post about free MULCH, right?)

It’s also a GREAT exercise.

If you are a fan of CrossFit you should try MulchFit – a vastly superior, environmentally friendly core strength and conditioning program. You will elevate your heart rate, burn calories and build muscles all while improving the curb appeal of your house, reducing water consumption and pollution, minimizing fertilizer runoff and decreasing lawn maintenance in general. It’s free and we’ve partnered up with Uhaul to provide necessary equipment at a nominal charge.

JUST MULCH IT

Can’t get enough xeriscaping? Continue reading here!

11 thoughts on “Free Mulch, Workout and Xeriscaping

  1. I love this — truly functional fitness! As a devoted crossfitter, I approve 100%.

    Great move to reduce the time you have to spend repeatedly mowing your lawn by xeriscaping. I just wrote about this topic on my blog yesterday — how eliminating these type of unimportant rituals can save HUGE amounts of time over the course of your lifetime. I even mentioned xeriscaping as a good way to spend less time on yard work — great minds think alike…

    Thanks for all of the detail on how you went about getting the mulch — I may be copying this move in the future!

    • It’s a lot of work to get Xeriscaping going but it pays out nice dividends later (time savings, less expenses, better for environment…). If you think about it, it’s similar to investing in the market so it should be a familiar approach to anyone on the road to FI.

  2. Funny that you mentioned the Fiskars as I have been on the fence about buying one. Although I actually enjoy maintaining my gas mower, I hate the environmental and other issues that go along with it. My only concerns with the Fiskars are the cutting width and its effectiveness if the grass gets long. What’s been your experience with those as compared to the gas mower?

    • From my experience, cutting width is not an issue since I have a lot less grass now and running around for 30-40 minutes with the Fiskars mower feels a lot more like exercising and a lot less like mowing. It’s really hard to explain this until you try it yourself. If the grass gets long you might need to do a couple of passes – first with the mower set at the highest setting and then at the usual height and it should be fine. It will also take more leg muscle to push it around when the grass gets really tall. I cut mine once a week and sometimes once every 2 weeks and that usually requires just one pass. However, if you have a lot of weeds and especially crabgrass this mower might not work very well. I try to maintain my lawn and there are not that many weeds so that’s not an issue, but in the beginning when I had crabgrass Fiskars was pretty useless. Let me know if you have any other questions. I plan on writing a post about it because it definitely works but it’s not for everyone. Also, my sister has one of the cheaper reel mowers (no engine) and after trying it out I can say that the linked Fiskars model is way way better in all respects.

      Update: I sold my Fiskars and went back to gas. Here is why.

  3. Nice. I was hoping you had a local source for free mulch. We do too, and it’s great for projects like this. That stuff not cheap when you need a ton of it!

    Re the lawnmower… Mr PoP totally digs his gas lawnmowers. He has 2 (one at home, and one we keep at the rental), and he lovingly restored both of the commercial grade hondas (HR214 and HR215) from Craigslist purchases. They are over 25 years old, and should last forever with proper maintenance, which again he lovingly does every spring before our rainy season hits in the summer.

    • Sounds like Mr. Pop is treating lawnmowers as more of a hobby – nothing wrong with that! My 30 year old motorcycle and 2 aging cars provide all the gas engine maintenance excitement I need at this point. Besides, my son was helping me push the reel mower yesterday – there is no way I’d let him be anywhere near me when I’m running the gas mower.

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