# Mulch Bargain? It’s Not in the Bag…

#### May 5th, 2014

I got an interesting question from a reader who was floored by how expensive it was going to be to have someone mulch his landscape.

This guy has a pickup and usually goes out to the home center and gets 30 bags of mulch at $4 each to cover his beds 2 inches deep.

That’s a fair amount of lugging, so he asked his lawn-mowing service for a quote on how much *they’d* charge to do the deed for him. The estimate: $60 per cubic yard.

Figuring he needed 60 yards because his 30 bags were 2 cubic yards each, he came up with a total of $3,600.

“Am I missing something?” he asked me. “Or is the cost of delivery and labor simply that much that the cost jumps from $120 if I do it myself into the thousands? Or is the mulch that much better?”

The answer lies in a common confusion that throws off a lot of people this time of year when they’re trying to figure out the most economical way to get mulch on dirt.

The bugaboo – if you haven’t guessed – is that most of those mulch bags at the store hold only 2 cubic FEET of mulch, not cubic yards.

Mulch sold in bulk is typically measured in cubic yards.

It takes 27 cubic feet of mulch to equal one cubic yard, which means you’d need 13½ of those 2-cubic-foot bags to make just one cubic yard (27 divided by 2).

It helps to picture it this way. A cubic yard is 3 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet deep. To build that cube, you’d have to lay out three rows and three columns of 1-by-1-by-1-foot cubes, then stack two more layers on top. Three times three times three equals 27.

In other words, bags holding 2 cubic feet really don’t go that far compared to what you get in a dumped pile of bulk mulch.

The labor to lay mulch isn’t cheap, but it’s also much more expensive to buy mulch by the bag than in bulk.

That’s why the cheapest route is to buy in bulk and lay it yourself.

Now if you’re laying just a few bags, say 10 or 12, you don’t need “bulk.” In fact, companies may not even be interested in delivering just 1 cubic yard or less to you. Some have 5-yard minimums for delivery.

If they do deliver, you may end up paying more for the delivery charge than for the mulch.

The same goes for hiring somebody to lay a cubic yard or less.

Be prepared to pay more per yard for small jobs than for bigger ones. That’s because mulchers still have the same fixed cost of driving to and from the job site, plus the gas and time of getting and loading the mulch.

Once you start getting up into the 30-bag range of our sticker-shocked mulch consumer, it’s worth pricing the hiring-out.

This particular fellow is paying $120 to lay 30 bags of mulch himself. That’s 60 cubic feet of mulch total (30 times 2 cubic feet each).

To convert that into cubic yards, divide 60 (cubic *feet* needed) by 27 (number of cubic *feet* in a cubic *yard*).

That works out to 2.2.

At $60 a yard, the mower’s quote should actually total $132 – 2.2 times $60 per yard. That’s really not much more than the $120 do-it-yourselfer total and definitely way under the $3,600 shocker.

When you figure you’re letting someone else pay for the gas to haul the mulch and put mileage on their own back instead of yours, that $12 extra sounds pretty good.

I’d want to verify first that the total really would be $132. In this case, the lawn-mower might’ve based the $60-per-yard quote on the premise that he was getting a 60-cubic-yard mulching job (not a 2.2 one).

The bottom line is that if you’re doing a lot of mulching and ESPECIALLY if you’re doing it by hauling around a whole lot of bags, you might want to get some do-it-for-me prices.

Do the math.

To compare prices, it’s best to start out with the amount of mulch you’re going to need.

To come up with that, multiply the length (in feet) of the area to be mulched by the width to get the total number of square feet to be covered.

Then multiply that by the number of inches of mulch you want to put down.

Finally, divide that total by 12 to get the total cubic FEET of mulch. That’s the number you’ll need to shop for bags.

Example: Let’s say you’ve got a bed that’s 5 feet wide by 20 feet long. That’s 100 square feet.

If you want to put down 2 inches of mulch, now you’ve got 200 square feet to deal with.

Divide that by 12, and you’re going to need a total of 16.67 cubic feet of mulch.

If the bags you’re pricing are 2 cubic feet each, you’ll need just shy of 9 bags. At $4 a bag, you’re looking at $36 (plus tax). (Note that you might find some bags in 3-cubic-foot sizes, so calculate that bigger amount accordingly.)

To calculate cubic yards, again start by multiplying length (in feet) by width. But in this case, you’ll need to convert inches to a percentage of feet (or “factor”).

If you want 2 inches, the factor is .167 (2 divided by 12 inches). If you want 3 inches, the factor is .25 (3 divided by 12). If you want 4 inches, the factor is .333 (4 divided by 12).

Multiply your square footage by the factor, divide that by 27, and that’s your cubic yards.

Example: You’re mulching all around the house, and two of the foundation beds are 5 feet wide and 20 feet long while the other two are 5 feet wide and 30 feet long. You want to put down 3 inches of mulch.

Here’s the math: 5’ x 20’ = 100’ (two of those) and 5’ x 30’ = 150’ (two of those). Total square footage is 500’. The factor for 3 inches is .25, so .25 x 500’ = 125 cubic feet. Divide that by 27 to convert cubic feet to cubic yards, and the magic number is 4.63 cubic yards of mulch needed.

OK, if your eyes are glazed over by now or if that’s way too much math for your liking, just go to any search engine and type in “mulch calculator.”

You’ll get a variety of sites that let you type in square footage and the number of inches desired. Hit the “calculate” button and you get a total – often in cubic feet *and* cubic yards.

One I like is the National Gardening Association’s Mulch Calculator.

Happy mulching. When you’re done, come on over and do mine…

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