Mulch of March brings joy to the gardener

March 31, 2002|By Susan Reimer

By the time you read this, the mulch will have arrived.

It will be sitting in a mound in my driveway, filling up my vision, invading my consciousness, calling to me the way the mountain called to Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Those of you who think you know me will assume this is because I will not be content until every shred of the shredded pine bark mulch is tucked underneath the chin of a perennial. But you would only be half right.

For me, mulch signals the change of seasons in the same way that falling leaves or falling snow signals a new season. Mulch means "spring" in a way that robins and longer days do not.

Let me restate myself. Mulch signals to my family that the seasons have changed. Though they might not have known my whereabouts or cared to find me for weeks beforehand, they know that when the mulch arrives, they can find me outside.

It takes two or three days of back-breaking back-bending to spread the mulch on the flower beds. It probably takes a little longer each year as I get a little older, but I have obscured my physical deterioration by opening a new bed, or two, every year. I tell myself the work takes longer because there is more of it, not because I am less able to do it.

Anyway, I don my special mulching jeans and mulching shoes, a bandanna and knee pads and I walk out the door to face my mountain of mulch. And my family knows -- or they should after all these years -- that I won't be what you would call "available" for the next three months.

It is not that mulching takes that long. As I have said, a long weekend should get it done. It is that mulching is what drug counselors might call a "gateway" activity. It is the first in a series of garden activities required to get the yard in shape, and I won't be making anything that looks like dinner until midsummer's night.

There are winter's weeds to pull, and this mild winter has left plenty of those. The edges of the beds need to be freshly cut. The lettuces must go in the ground, and the grasses, the roses, the hydrangeas, the perennials and the bulbs must be fed from a garage shelf that looks for all the world like a pantry.

Everything gets trimmed, pruned, raked, cut back, divided or transplanted. Small children and neighborhood cats, stand clear.

My gardening engines have been idling since the last mum faded, and that pile of dirt-brown mulch is a checkered flag to me. For me, the smell of mulch triggers that same sense of a new start that freshly sharpened pencil shavings once did.

There are seasonal chores that irritate me: Didn't we just do Christmas? But mulching is not one of them. It is a killer job, but it leaves you with the kind of worthy ache in your muscles that can only come from honest work.

By late May, the gardens and I will be battling the kind of heat that drains you of all motivation. But right now the sun is low and warm. The wind is bracing and it reddens my cheeks, but it is not bitter or numbing. You think to yourself that you could work all day in weather like this, and then you do. And mulching is just the start of it.

But like so many things in the garden, mulch is not exactly what it seems when it is that messy pile in the driveway. Soon, it will be a neatly tucked blanket around the emerging plants, protecting them from cold and heat and drought. But gardeners don't just mulch for the sake of the plants. We mulch for our own sakes.

The arrival of the mulch is a gardening imperative that even the most dull-witted child or spouse cannot fail to understand. It is a shaggy, dirt-brown permission slip to leave the house and go to the garden, where the phone never rings and the children fear to tread.

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