I just spent a couple of hours mulching my front yard with stuff that cost me nothing but a bit of effort. This morning our church had its annual leaf-raking party. Hubby and I hauled away all the leaves and pine needles, saving the church the hassle of getting rid of them and furnishing us with lots of great mulch. We had also been stockpiling newspapers for a few months, so we had everything we needed to enrich the soil and assure a mostly-weed-free yard in the spring. I cleared away any noxious, invasive weeds (bindweed, crabgrass, etc.) and laid down thick pads of newspaper (at least 8 layers thick; preferably thicker). Then I poured leaves on top. No need to shred the leaves first. Whole leaves will break down slowly all winter, feeding the soil and providing a thick weed barrier.
Because pine needles are acidic, I use them only around acid-loving plants like rhododendrons or blueberries, or I use them to mulch pathways, areas under big trees, or other places where I don't plan to plant anything for awhile. A layer of newspaper under pine needles really isn't necessary unless you have a major weed problem. And you don't want to put newspaper under pine needles when making a path, because the pine needles slide across the paper, making for a slippery, dangerous path.
If you have a large area to mulch, cardboard sheets are quicker to apply than newspaper.
I like to call this method cheap, lazy gardening. You make compost in place rather than hauling everything to your compost heap, then hauling the finished compost back to where you need it. You don't have to weed (much) come spring, and you don't have to dig (much) at planting time. When I use this method, I never till--ever. I just rake back the mulch, plant, and scoot the mulch back around the plants. Or, for veggies and other heavy feeders, I rake the mulch into my pathways, plant my row, and mulch with manure and/or compost. The remaining leaves help keep the path dry and weed-free. And everything you use is free.
If you don't have a ready supply of leaves like I do, consider picking up bagged leaves from the curb in front of your neighbors' houses. They won't care, and you'll get lots of free mulch. You could even be a good Samaritan and offer to rake leaves for elderly neighbors in return for the leaves.
Rainy Day Gardening is brought to you by Meg and Janet, two librarians who like to play in the dirt.
Born and raised in Northern California, Janet started gardening when she was about 4 (mumble mumble years ago). After relocating to Portland, OR, she became a true rainy day gardener, gardening in the rainy Northwest for 14 years. In 2010, she picked up stakes (and other garden implements) and moved to Southern California, where rainy day gardening is a rarity. She now gardens on about 2/10 of an acre, growing vegetables, fruit, flowers, trees, shrubs, and a fine crop of weeds. Her interests include carnivorous plants, citrus, cottage gardening, her greenhouse, and anything edible.
Meg was born in South Carolina and raised all over the country (plus Japan!), but has been living in Seattle since 1992 and now considers it "home." She has only been gardening for about two years (just bought her first home) and is still in the learning stages. Her interests include bright colors, plants she can snack on while she's weeding, and learning how to keep things healthy and happy without using chemicals.