Mulch madness: It's definitely spreading

June 13, 1999|By SUSAN REIMER

MULCH IS THE parsley garnish on the blue-plate special of suburban life. Mulch used to be the finishing touch on the razor-cut flower beds of the rich. But now everybody mulches.

Mulch is one of those miserable tasks that homeowners dread beginning because, once you start mulching, you can't quit until the last crumbs of that dump-truck load in your driveway can be swept into a dust pan. You aren't finished mulching until that last bag of mulch, gleaming with dew, is emptied.

"I mulch so I don't have to weed," says my sister, Cynthia, who just finished spreading three cubic yards of mulch and hasn't been able to stand up straight since.

"You do a ton of work now so you don't have to do any work the rest of the summer."

People who mulch always say that. They will also tell you that they mulch now so they won't have to water later. Mulching is supposed to keep down the weeds and help the soil retain moisture.

But I don't believe anybody has ever weeded or watered as hard as they've mulched. It is back-breaking work. I am reminded of the Chinese peasants planting rice in "The Good Earth." Mulching is like laying carpet -- a handful of fibers at a time.

Mulching is the result of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which forbid saw mills from burning the bark stripped from trees. Some other way of disposing of it had to be found, says Bob LaGasse, executive director of the National Bark and Soil Producers Association in Virginia.

"A couple of guys claim to have invented mulch, but they were just copying Mother Nature," says LaGasse. "In the 1970s, the National Forest Service put out a report that the slough of tree bark creates a superior humus for growing plants in the forest."

Mulching grew slowly until the early 1980s, when the public took a much bigger interest in gardening. About 21.6 million households mulched in 1998, almost double the number of just six years earlier, according to the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt. Gardeners now spend half a billion dollars a year on mulch, though the price of a cubic yard of it hasn't increased in a decade because people will only pay so much for mulch.

Some gardeners mulch twice a year -- once in spring to protect plants from the heat and again in the fall to protect them from the cold.

Other gardeners hope to mulch once and never again. They are the ones who blanket their flower beds with stone, crushed brick, oyster shells, marble chips, lava rock and -- heaven save us -- black plastic.

Now, in the spirit of creating a need where none before existed, mulch producers, not content to pressure suburbanites into heaping hundreds of dollars worth of inert tree waste on their yards in the name of neatness and uniformity, have created "novelty" mulches.

They come in a variety of colors and scents, perfect for those of us who were shocked to learn that mushroom manure we distribute with our bare hands is not recycled Portobello and shiitake mushrooms.

Producers are grinding old wood pallets into mulch and dying the result. That's the brilliant red mulch you are seeing this summer.

And you can now purchase a mulch made of cocoa bean shells that smells of chocolate.

"It's wonderful," says Bruce Butterfield of the National Gardening Association, who used it this year.

"But the next morning I found four raccoons in my garden digging like mad, trying to find the candy bars."

Pub Date: 06/13/99

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