The Language of Home

Mulch Ado

Or, a buried life

By Noah Salt

Every year about this time — late winter, early spring — trucks towing flatbeds of pine needles begin to appear like clockwork, roaming the neighborhood in search of customers who wish to bury their trees and flowerbeds with blankets of longleaf pine needles.

Keep in mind that there are almost no pine trees in the neighborhood where we live. It’s an urban forest, as it were, full of mature hardwood trees, including many beautiful old oaks, dogwoods, poplars, redbuds and elms.

Speaking purely as a gardener who believes in the rule of natural landscaping, it mildly offends my eye to see a beautiful hardwood tree buried beneath a mound so neatly arranged.

As evidence of this arboreal travesty, I cite the homeowner who lives around the corner and demands that his lawn crew “fluff” up his seasonal deliveries of fresh pine needles so that his trees and flowerbeds look like they’re tucked into bed at Kensington Palace.

A botanist pal informs me foot-thick coverings of pine needles actually rob tree roots of vital water and natural nourishment, especially if new layers are added every season.

On the other hand, who am I to tell someone what to put on his shrubs and flower beds? Even so, a nice load of locally made hardwood mulch would go so much further toward naturally beautifying and protecting vulnerable flower beds, trees and shrubs.

The benefits of mulch have been known as long as there have been human beings interested in coaxing plants out of the ground.

We are talking at least millennia here, Folks, the epic moment Stone Age gardeners discovered that spreading decomposing matter on living plants to be an excellent way of boosting growth and inhibiting weeds.   

If the discovery of mulch wasn’t quite on par with, say, the invention of the garden cart wheel or harnessing fire, it nevertheless proved to be a revolutionary development that advanced the capacity of early civilizations to feed and sustain life.

Archeological discoveries of ancient middens — places where early inhabitants dumped everything from animal waste to broken tools — have yielded rich soil and intimate details about the lifestyles of our hunting and gathering forebears.

Mulching today is estimated to be a $1 billion dollar annual industry— often referred to as the “Silent Gardener” — using just about every material imaginable to make mulch.

The English word “mulch” probably comes from the German word “molsch,” which means “soft and beginning to decay.”

The list of useful mulch ingredients includes, but is certainly not limited to, discarded food scraps, chopped up newspapers, grass clippings, seaweed, peanut and pecan shells, peat moss, wood chips, tree bark, autumn leaves, and cardboard. Even carpet scraps and vulcanized rubber recycled from old tires are commonplace in modern mulch piles.

The truly eco-dedicated gardener makes his or her own mulch by composting vegetable matter and any of the natural ingredients listed above. In general terms, a properly attended organic composting pile produces mulch that is even more nutrient-rich than the most commercial varieties of mulch available.

My own wife recently brought home a barrel-like contraption and announced we were joining the crusade to reduce our carbon footprint and save the planet by composting our table scraps, yard wastes and so forth. A lidded container in the kitchen soon appeared on the kitchen counter to collect said materials, though early one morning I mistook it for the coffee container and tried to make breakfast coffee out of week-old decomposing lettuce.

Nah, I’m joking. Actually, making mulch-ado about the tons of waste we produce everyday is probably a good thing for our gardens and the planet.

This spring, when I do spread a shredded hardwood mulch around my shrubs and trees, I will use what a leading urban forester calls the 3-foot mulch rule — applying a circle three feet in diameter, 3 inches deep and 3 inches from the trunk.

I think my ancient gardening ancestors would agree that’s a pretty good rule.

Just don’t ask me to tuck my hardwoods in with pine needles. 

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