native wildflowers, knows that joy. She
hasn’t mulched her Chevy Chase garden
in more than 30 years. Ask her how she
deals with bare dirt and she says, “What
bare dirt?” She primarily plants natives,
which spread freely and choke out weeds.
So how did we American suburbanites develop our mulch habit?
Before World War II, most garden
books didn’t mention mulch that much,
Rainer says. Mulch is a by-product of the
logging industry, according to an essay I
read by an agricultural extension agent
who recalled that the mills of his North
Carolina youth processed wood with the
bark still attached. But the bark dulled
saw blades and slowed work crews. Sometime in the 1970s, he says, he noticed that
mills had begun stripping trees of bark
before processing them.
Then the industry needed to find
something to do with all that leftover
bark and other byproducts of turning
trees into two-by-fours.
By the time I bought my first home—
and first gardening books—in the 1980s,
the regular application of commercial
mulch was accepted conventional wisdom.
Ralph Stephens, 78, of Chevy Chase
says our unquestioning willingness to
buy massive amounts of commercial
mulch is symbolic of our wider discon-
nect from nature. “The outdoors,” the
retired economist says, “has become a
place where the sun shines on your iPad
and makes it harder to use.”
Landau, the conservation ecologist,
knows how difficult it is to buck cul-
tural norms. She and her husband have
turned their front garden in Bethesda
into a lawn-free zone of native plantings.
“It is just chaotically beautiful,” she says.
Landau says she doesn’t like buy-
ing commercial mulch because there is
“such a big carbon footprint involved in
getting it to my door.” She primarily lets
nature mulch for her. Decaying leaf litter
hosts fungi and attracts minute insects
that are important players in a garden’s
ecosystem, even though most people
never notice them, she says.
Still, her husband can’t resist buying a
few bags of commercial mulch each year
at a school fundraiser.
“He loves the way mulch looks. We
have been taught to love the look of lawns
and love the look of that nice, neat line
that mulching gives us. It’s hard to let go of
that,” Landau says. “Hopefully, in another
couple of decades we’ll all laugh at ourselves that we used so much mulch.” n
April Witt is a former Washington Post
writer who lives in Bethesda. To comment
on this column or suggest ideas, email
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