I’ve gone wild or what passes for it
I didn’t spend spring vacation in Daytona Beach taking drunken selfies with
my besties—I stopped buying mulch.
I had an epiphany. Hauling home heavy
plastic bags of uniformly chopped and
dyed commercial mulch from a garden
center and dumping them around my garden is a kind of cultural sleepwalking. It’s
a failure to engage with the reality of our
Think about it: Mother Nature gives
us free mulch. It’s called fallen leaves.
Yet the Battle Hymn of Suburbia is the
roar of mow-and-blow crews corralling
and carting away every fallen leaf in sight.
This fall they’ll leave many tender plants
without a protective blanket of leaf litter to help them survive winter’s chill. In
spring, when flocks of mowers and blowers return to our blocks, they’ll mound
fresh mulch so high that some neighborhood trees will suffocate and wither.
“A lot of people use way too much
mulch and end up smothering what
they are trying to protect,” says Deborah
Landau, 46, of Bethesda, a conservation
ecologist for the Maryland-Washington,
D.C., chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
I try to avoid making my yard an eco- C L A U D
Kicking the mulch habit
logical wasteland. I don’t spray chemicals; I know that keeping my roses pristine kills honeybees. I plant to feed and
shelter birds. I compost. I reduce the size
of my lawn just a little more each year.
But I never questioned my industrial
mulch habit until recently.
Some things are so ubiquitous in the
landscape of our lives that we no longer
see them. It takes an outsider to notice.
During a visit to America last year,
British garden writer Noel Kingsbury
noticed “the vast deserts of grass mown
to within an inch of its life, the extensive
mulchscape which surround ‘plantings’
of evergreen shrubs ruthlessly pruned
into meatballs. Much U.S. landscaping
and its management seems to express
almost a hatred of vegetation, or as often
with hatred, is it really fear?”
“Such a waste of space,” Kingsbury
further lamented in his blog, “such medi-
ocrity on an epic scale, such obsession
with control, above all the conformity.”
I understand the appeal of the rigidly
enforced line between lawn and mulch.
Life is complicated and messy. The com-
mercial mulch line looks simple and
tidy. But it’s not.
Thick layers of commercial mulch don’t
always confer the benefits we’ve been led
to expect. The wrong kind of mulch for
conditions in your garden can promote
weed growth by creating overly-fertile soil
conditions that weeds favor, says D.C.-
based landscape architect Thomas Rainer,
37, author of my favorite garden blog,
“Too much mulching perpetually
keeps plants in an establishment phase,
never allowing them to touch and inter-
act and fill in,” Rainer says. “We have
weeds because there is a niche wanting
to be filled. So we have to keep buying
bags and bags of mulch to replace the
role that plants would play in nature.”
Marney Bruce knows what happens
when you buck that trend. Her Bethesda
garden has little lawn. She mixes the leaves
that fall in her yard with pine needles and
other amendments to lightly dress her
garden beds. She plants primarily native
perennials and grasses that spread and
self-seed freely, attracting wildlife.
“I have so many more birds and but-
terflies and bees than almost everyone
else around. My neighbors thank me,”
says Bruce, 66. “It’s so enjoyable to have
a yard that gives back to me just as much
as I give to it.”
Cristol Fleming, 79, one of Montgom-
ery County’s most respected experts on