May 23, 2010

The Secret Pleasure of Mulching

In mid-April – a month earlier than it should ever be done in this area – I watched as a lawn maintenance company blew mulch into the beds around a neighbor’s home. The mulch came out of a long, probably eight-inch-diameter hose that snaked back to a large truck. The person doing the mulching haphazardly sprayed the mulch into azaleas and rhododendron, creating piles six inches deep or more. I cringed at the sight, but am long past the stage of saying anything about such behavior on the part of my neighbors or the firms that service their lawns.

I cannot imagine paying someone to spread mulch for me, though this evening my back and shoulders are telling me I did too much work today. To me, there’s a great satisfaction in spreading mulch. In mid-May (when the ground has warmed up in New England), perennials are well established for the new season, early spring bulbs have been reduced to foliage and shrubs are showing their new growth. Spreading mulch is a final step in re-imagining a landscape for the new season.

At our home, mulch must first be inspected before it is purchased. Ten days ago, Betty drove up to Sam White & Sons, where she walked the mulch piles, sifting handfuls before pronouncing it acceptable. Later that day, a dump truck dropped off ten cubic yards in two piles. Six yards went to the beds alongside the street and was spread over two days. Next came the beds along our driveway. Today, at the end of three days of preparatory work, we tackled two beds immediately in front of the house.

During those three days, we ‘edited’ what we call our outer sidewalk bed, a fifty-foot-long, eight-foot-wide curving garden of mixed perennials and shrubs. A summer-blooming phlox that was hidden behind a rhododendron in another bed now has a new, sunny locale. Stands of Ladies Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) that had migrated from its reservation were dug out and sent to the compost heap. The area of Snow-in-Summer (Cerastium tomentosum), though in full bloom, was reduced by half. A dozen perennials were brought back to acceptable boundaries and spurge was grubbed out from dozens of unwanted locations.

When the mulch finally went down this morning, it was top dressing for a bed that, at least to the trained eye, had been subtly re-made. Foliage colors have been re-arranged in a more pleasing fashion and the color scheme that will follow with summer blooms will be equally altered. It was three days well spent.  The final result is shown above.

But the mulch is more than a top dressing. It is also a unifier. A week ago, the outer sidewalk bed looked, frankly, messy. It was a hodgepodge of plants that, because of a season of rampant growth fueled by abundant rain, lacked visual coherence. The dark brown mulch provides the canvas upon which those plants and shrubs are arrayed, plus the contrast to the dark green grass of mid-May is dazzling. Because of the mulch, the eye can easily follow Betty’s planting pattern.

The mulch will be in its current state of perfection for perhaps two or three weeks. Then, inevitably, the sun will bleach the dark brown out of the top-most layer and it will no longer be as ‘special’. But for now, all is perfection. The sidewalk bed is perfectly edged and the mulch is uniform.

So much pleasure from so simple a thing.

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