A Leaf-lifter's Nightmare

THE REAL DIRT

June 12, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

My garden was built on impoverished soil, but I've worked hard to improve it. I bury kitchen scraps in the back yard. I salvage clippings from a barbershop. After rainstorms, I scoop up earthworms from the sidewalk and place them in the soil.

Anything organic is fodder for my garden -- the cheaper the mulch, the better. What I relish most are leaves -- bags and bags of them -- removed from neighbors' lawns at night.

Each fall, I cruise the streets at dusk in search of leaves, stopping at curbside just long enough to toss the chubby plastic bags into my pickup truck. I never stay long enough to examine the contents of these bags; that can wait until I get home. Besides, I feel uneasy gathering other people's lawn debris, though it is ticketed for the dump.

I feel like a leaf thief.

I hurry through neighborhoods filled with towering oaks and maples, collecting leaf litter until the truck is full. Then I rattle on home to revel in my new-found booty, like a kid counting his Halloween candy.

Those bags yield oodles of leaves, some of them shredded (a bonus). Most of the debris in the bags is biodegradable, though sometimes I'll find plastic and paper trash mixed with the leaves. Once I found a smelly old shoe; another time, a hairpiece. But that's as yucky a discovery as I've made.

I've never found anything truly horrid in other people's leaf bags, like old bones . . . or a body. Neither has anyone else, except for the heroine of Ann Ripley's thriller "Mulch," an intriguing new novel that blends gardening with suspense.

The heroine of "Mulch," an avid gardener named Louise, also collects her neighbors' leaves -- until one day when she dumps a few of them in her back yard in Northern Virginia, and out tumble parts of a homicide victim.

Louise is appalled. Who would disguise a murder in mulch? The cops haven't a clue. No one is reported missing, and Louise can't remember where she picked up those particular bags. Worse, she's considered a suspect herself because the authorities are skeptical of anyone daffy enough to canvass the countryside looking for leaves.

Louise's family comes to her rescue. "She's just an organic gardener, she can't help it," they tell police.

The police are baffled by "the mulch case" until Louise, a sort of female Sam Spade, finds a clue that can identify the murderer. Of course, this leads to a showdown between the gun-wielding killer and the heroine, who attempts to defend herself with -- what else? -- a houseplant.

Guess who wins.

Ultimately, it is Louise's eccentric gardening activities that help solve the crime. Even the murderer cannot believe his misfortune in living so near a recycling fanatic:

"If you'd order mulch from the garden center like my wife would do, instead of mopping up after homeowners, picking up other people's trash . . . "

"Mulch" is the first novel for Ripley, 67, a devout organic gardener who drew heavily on her own horticultural experiences. Ripley, too, has circled the block looking for leaves, much to the chagrin of her children, who would hide in embarrassment in the back seat of the family station wagon.

"People think you're odd for doing it," says Ripley. "I've taken a lot of teasing over the years from people who don't understand I'm just recycling nature."

Those good-natured gibes prompted her to write "Mulch." What else could those leaf bags contain, asked a friend? Ripley began to think. . . .

"It's a good place to hide things," she says. "Most people just don't dig mulch. They think mulch is icky stuff, full of worms and rotting things."

Hence, the book's title.

"Mulch is an ambiguous word," says Ripley. "Gardeners know mulch as a cover that breaks down into nutrients for the plants. But in a sinister way, mulch can be a cover for evil, a place to tuck body parts."

Alas, the most heinous things Ripley ever found in her leaf bags were some loose Styrofoam peanuts used in packing crates. She discovered them only after dumping the contents on her flower beds.

"Disgusting," she says.

Will the premise of "Mulch" scare off would-be leaf thieves? Ripley thinks not.

"Some people might feel a bit apprehensive now [about gathering leaves], but organic gardeners are zealots," she says. "Nothing will stop them from collecting leaves, not even this book."

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