Going Natural

Going Natural

Suburbanology: Kicking the mulch habit

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I’ve gone wild or what passes for it in suburbia.

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 natural world.

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 ecological 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 mediocrity 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 commercial 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, “Grounded Design.”

“Too much mulching perpetually keeps plants in an establishment phase, never allowing them to touch and interact 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 butterflies 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 Montgomery County’s most respected experts on 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 disconnect 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 cultural 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 buying 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.”

April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda. To comment on this column or suggest ideas, email aprilwitt@hotmail.com.

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