May 26, 2016

The Coupon

In the first episode of the classic TV drama, “Mad Men”, department store heiress Rachael Mencken is listening to a presentation from Sterling Cooper, a Madison Avenue ad agency.  The year is 1960, an era of rampant sexism.  Pitchman Don Draper gives Ms. Mencken the agency’s best advice: a 10%-off coupon in select ladies’ magazines. 
The part of our property that is not
wetlands - roughly half an acre - is an
enormous planting bed for trees, shrubs
and perennials.  No grass!
Mencken explodes with outrage. “Our store is 60 years old,” she says.  “We share a wall with Tiffany’s.  Honestly, a coupon?”  Smooth-talking Don Draper responds, “Miss Mencken, coupons work.  I think your father would agree with the strategy.”  The equally suave Roger Sterling adds, “It’s not just research.  Housewives love coupons.”
We’re meant to recoil in horror even as we smile smugly from our 21st Century perch: the idea that women could be successfully manipulated by the simple expedient of offering them a coupon.  Today, such a heretical thought would never see the light of day.  Perish the idea!
Well, maybe not exactly or, maybe there has been some kind of role reversal.  Six weeks ago, I found a coupon in my inbox.  It came from one of my favorite nurseries and it offered $20 off of any delivery.  Not off of any plant or shrub… just twenty bucks off of a delivery.
The old mulch is peeled away
down to the underlying loam
Well, it just so happened that Betty and I had been discussing buying leaf mold – those finely chopped-up leaves that have aged a year or more and are perfect for mulching flower beds.  We have something better than flower beds at our new home:  an entire yard – half an acre – that is one enormous shrub, tree, and flower bed.  It consists of eighteen inches of screened loam topped by several inches of mulch and, since last October, a coating of chopped autumn leaves.  Our great idea was to put another inch or two of leaf mold on top of that parfait for even better future soil, impervious to weeds and grass.  We knew we were probably going to buy leaf mold, it was just a matter of where and when.
So, off we went to the nursery, my printed-out coupon in hand.  We went straight to the sample bin of leaf mold.  Great.  Exactly what we wanted.  Ready to order!
Not so fast.  Betty started looking at the other bins.  And especially at the aged leaf and grass compost.  It was jet black, crumbly, and smelled of the good earth. 
The old mulch comes away in
matted chunks that need to be
broken up
“We need this,” Betty told me, letting a handful of black gold trickle through her fingers.  “We have dozens of shrubs still to plant and hundreds of perennials.  This is perfect!”  And so we bought ten cubic yards of compost instead of ten cubic yards of leaf mold. I used my $20 coupon which brought our total purchase price down by about five percent.
Three days later, a truck delivered our ten cubic yards of compost.  Which is when we discovered our strategic error: compost and leaf mold are not the same thing.  Leaf mold is a great insulator; it’s like bark mulch except that it is fluffier and looks nicer.  Compost also looks very nice, but it is a nutrient-rich medium in which to grow things.
Had we purchased leaf mold, we could have raked it over the plantable part of our property, topping the loam and mulch with a fresh insulating layer that, in a year or so, would itself become part of the soil.  Time commitment?  About a day.   Compost, on the other hand, is like adding a layer of super-rich, ready-to-plant soil.  It would also take about a day to spread compost over our yard but, once in place, it would nurture each and every seed that fell on it, be that seed one of grass, weeds, poison ivy, strangler fig, kudzu, or maple trees.
The dark area represents what has been completed to date.
It's roughly five percent of the job.
To put it mildly, that would not be a smart thing to do.  Here’s what we did instead:
Over the course of four weeks, we used about three cubic yards of compost to plant those new shrubs, perennials, and annuals.  Which left us with just seven cubic yards of the stuff.
All the while, we contemplated an alternative – any alternative - to what in our hearts we knew all along was the only possible solution for the other seven cubic yards.
This week, I began what is without a doubt the hardest work I will do all summer.  In five-foot-by-ten-foot strips, I am raking off the top few inches of mulch from our yard… 
No.  That’s not right.  “Raking” is an inaccurate description.  A year after being put down, the bark mulch has begun breaking down into its own, soil-like texture.  It is, in short, now a solid, hard-pressed mat of material.  To remove it, I bang the tines of my steel rake into the mulch and pull up a piece a foot wide and a few inches long, which I then chop into bite-size pieces that resemble what was put down originally.
When the old mulch has been pulled into a pile and the loam below is exposed, I add tubs of compost and spread that compost out to an inch’s thickness.  When that is done I pull the reconstituted mulch back over the top of the compost and loam.  The compost lays atop the soil, gradually enriching it for the next round of shrubs and perennials we will plant.
As of this morning, I had completed work about 400 square feet of our yard.  I have another 8,000 square feet to go.  Gosh, I’ve done five percent of the project! 

Which is exactly what that coupon represented as a discount to the purchase price of the compost that got me into this situation.