Mulch Ado About Nothing In The Garden This Summer

Janet's World

July 12, 2009|By Janet Gilbert | Janet Gilbert,Special to The Baltimore Sun

We at the Janet's World headquarters in Maryland are conducting an experiment with mulch. I'm sure I don't have to convince you to read on, after this compelling topic sentence. Who doesn't love a good essay about mulch? The only thing better would be a scratch-and-sniff essay about mulch.

Let's first explore the purpose of mulch. Shredded hardwood mulch is supposed to protect plants and keep weeds down, while giving your flower beds that je ne sais quoi, which is French for "the exact same appearance as all the other suburban yards in your subdivision, and subdivisions across the continental United States."

And yet I have had a decidedly unsatisfying experience with mulch over the years - so much so that if I were to take one of those post-purchase surveys, I would not hesitate to blacken one of the little circles closer to the word "useless" instead of "useful" in the weed-tamping category. In fact, I would probably have to write a long thesis in the "Share Additional Comments" box. You see, it seems to me that mulch covers up the types of weeds you are currently trying to eradicate in your garden beds, but introduces and promotes the growth of entirely different, especially hardy strains.

All I know is that after distributing one truckload I had delivered a couple of years ago, my yard sprouted a thick crop of vicious, tap-rooted, thistle-type weeds. Before long, my neighbors got them, spreading the je ne sais quoi.

Several weeks ago, in a fit of spring gardening mania, I ordered five or six yards of mulch from a reputable company. But this time - figuring the product hadn't improved because no one's invited us to bubble-in any feedback forms - my husband and I decided to change our application method.

We introduced the "newspaper layer."

We had read somewhere, probably in the latest issue of The Fastidious Yet Lazy Gardener, that a layer of newspaper under mulch could prevent weed propagation. We thought it was high time we stopped spraying toxic substances on the weeds, and in the process, our forearms and shins and ankles. But we also didn't want to be pulling weeds along with different back muscles every weekend. So we thought we'd give this newspaper idea a try.

I must say, the newspaper layer certainly added a layer of difficulty to the job. The first Saturday we attacked the project, it seemed to me that the wind would pick up just as I had positioned the newspaper layer, lifting and carrying it just out of reach into my yard, where my dog would chase it down and helpfully shred it. Suffice it to say we finished one puny flower bed in a five-hour afternoon.

Fortunately, we were forced to let the mulch ripen for the remainder of the month, due to the unusual Maryland Monsoon June. During this rainy season, we just sort of got used to navigating and parking around the pile in our driveway. We plain forgot about it, the way you could easily forget about a five-foot-tall brown mountain of wood chips smack in the middle of your driveway.

Last week, I decided enough was enough. I was going to finish the project. And when I stepped outside, pitchfork in hand, I remembered the painting American Gothic and drew inspiration from the fact that I was conquering the yard the old-fashioned American way, with ingenuity. I couldn't help but notice that where I'd carefully layered the newspapers weeks before, there was indeed a noticeable absence of weeds. This spurred me on with renewed energy, for about five minutes. Then it was back to chase-the-dog and collect-the-newspaper-shreds all over again.

But the Mulch Madness Project appears to be working. I'll write another stirring column about it soon. In the meantime, save this one. I might need to borrow it, to bury under my tree circles.

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