Sunday, May 29, 2016


When did mulch become a landscape feature?  Within my lifetime.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960's and 1970's we didn't have mulch.  We didn't have shit, really.  There was no Lowes, no Home Depot - maybe an 84 Lumber if you were lucky.  We had the local lumber yard or hardware store, where they sold nails by the pound, and stacks of 2 x 4's.   

But no mulch.

If you asked someone back then what mulch was, they would have said some sort of compost.   Pine bark mulch wasn't a thing.   Logging companies threw it away.   

But in the late 1970's and early 1980's that changed, and shows like This Old House started to showcase yards with enormous mulch beds.   Originally, you might mulch to keep the weeds down until your shrubs and plants established themselves.   At that point, they dominated the planting area and no more mulch was needed.

But for some reason, the "look" of a broad bed of mulch became a thing and today, people have half their lawns covered in mulch, aided and abetted by its co-evil twin, landscape fabric.   I still remember "Norm" showing us how to do this on PBS back in the day.

So, what's the deal with mulch?   And what's the problem with it?

Well, to begin with, it is expensive.   It can sell for $5 a bag or more and you need many, many bags to fill the enormous mulch beds that many folks have today.   We're talking beds that are 30-40 feet long and 10-20 feet deep.  These take dozens of bags to fill, and cost hundreds of dollars to establish.

And once they are set up, you're not done.   Since leaves and other detritus makes them look messy, you have to get a leaf blower and blow all the leaves out of the mulch bed.   And every few years, the mulch starts to degrade, so dozens of new bags are needed to re-fill it.

A neighbor of mine just re-stocked his mulch bed with two dozen bags.   And only a few years ago, I helped him spread well over 50 bags.   At $5 a bag, we are talking hundreds and hundreds of dollars.  Of course there are cheaper mulches and more expensive ones.  You can buy a "permanent" mulch made of shredded car tires.  That sounds nice.

And here in the South, throwing wood on the ground is always problematic.  You are basically creating a termite attractor.

When we were in Virgina, we used to get "free" mulch from the County, who shredded lawn waste and offered the resulting chunks in huge steaming piles at the community rec center.   We would shovel the truck full of the stuff and then build mulch beds at home.   All that was needed was dirty, messy, backbreaking labor at both ends of the pipeline.

Is mulch worthwhile?   It think not.   And as I noted, the idea of the mulched planting bed is a relatively new phenomenon.   Back in my parent's day, if you wanted a garden, you planted your plants and then pulled weeds all day long.   Since this was a pain-in-the-ass, you kept your planting beds modest and small.

Today, with mulch and landscaping fabric, we can create huge planting beds which are never filled in with plantings, but remain mulch beds.  We like the "look" of mulch today, for some reason.   It is a fashion, however, that is only a few decades old.

I have resisted buying mulch at our house here on the Island.   In addition to the termite deal, I am kind of done with elaborate gardens (having built two already) which create maintenance nightmares and mean you can never go away on vacation without coming back to an overgrown garden that will take weeks or months of trimming and weeding to get just so.

The back of our property was landscaped by the original owner who planted Ligustrums and Azaleas, along with ornamental grasses.  After more than a decade on the rental market, it was an overgrown nightmare.  Over the years, I have attacked it slowly, removing all the poison ivy vines, trimming the Ligustrums (which are now the size of trees) and bring the Azaleas back to human size.   With all the tall Georgia pines, we have a steady rain of pine needles.

Some folks around here use "pine straw" as they euphemistically call it, as a mulch.   It is just dead pine needles, and paying for a bale of it seems rather foolish when every day a bale is dumped on our property by the six Georgia pines we have.   We used to have seven, but one almost fell on the house, and some good old boys offered to take it down for $650 which seemed fair as it was well over 100 feet tall and three feet in diameter.  The remainder just threaten to crush us to death someday.

So I rake up the pine straw and then run it over with the mulching lawnmower which turns it into a fine mulch which costs nothing and looks good (and spreads itself).   The acidity of the pine needles keeps plants from growing - other than the Azaleas which love acidity, which is why people plant them under pine trees.  I let some native "fan palms" grow up and they look good and also provide privacy from the neighbors.

The result is a "mulch bed" that sort of fills itself and needs only the occasional run-over with the lawn mower.   Recently, I bought a shredder on Amazon which can be used to shred the pine needles and other leaves into a fine mulch.  It works pretty well (it has actual blades, not the string-trimmer kind) and cost less than one load of mulch would.

We have sort of taken an incremental approach and minimalist approach to landscaping in this house.  We don't want to create high-maintenance areas, so we use native plants or plants that require little water and care and thrive on neglect.   And rather than pay some landscape architect to design and construct the landscaping, we have added a bit every year, as time, labor, and money permits.

As I noted in earlier postings, it is entirely too possible to over-do your landscaping.   Going to Lowes or Home Depot every weekend and buying carload after carload of landscape timbers, edging sprinkler systems, lawn lights, mulch, plants, soil, and other yard tchotchke, you can run up a lot of credit card debt.

Worst yet, your yard can tend to look "busy" with so much going on.   We've always thought our house was a little shabby looking when it came to landscaping (but improving every year, incrementally) and are surprised when people say how good it looks.   It looks "good" because there is not too much going on.

By the way - here's a hint - those bags of "weed and feed" they stack up at the home improvement store?  Just avoid them.   Turns out the "weed" in those mixes can kill a lot of grass types, such as the centipede grass we have here in Georgia.   Centipede grass is called the "lazy man's grass" as it requires little mowing, water, or care.  It spreads by sending out centipede-like tendrils and eventually takes over a lawn, leaving a lush carpet.   It doesn't like a lot of heavy traffic, so you can't walk on it a lot.   It also hates "weed and feed" too.   Just throw a couple of bags of regular fertilizer at it once a year and be done with it.

After several years, our yard is looking better than ever, not by spending more money and more labor, but often by spending less.   We fired the yard service, whose tractor-like mowers were killing the centipede grass (traffic again).   We bought a Honda push mower for less than the cost of a few months of that "service" - and the exercise has been good for me.

We don't have a sprinkler system, but do water a bit in the spring and fall.  In the summer, we just let the grass do its thing, and in the fall, throw some realtor grass seed on it, and it stays green all winter (unlike the neighbor's manicured lawn, which goes brown despite all the watering).

I think we've found a happy medium between an over-manicured and over-maintained (and overly busy) look and the abandoned house look.  Learning to live with and work with the native plants is part of the deal.   Walking away from enormous "mulch beds" was another part.

It is funny, but we did talk with a landscaper and asked him for ideas on how to landscape the property.  He wanted to build (you guessed it) enormous mulch beds, plant non-native plants, install a sprinkler system, tear up the hardy centipede grass and put in sod, and so forth and so on.   And the cost was only in the tens of thousands of dollars - to start with!   Of course, the resulting maintenance would have consumed all my time, or cost hundreds more per month out of our budget.

The fanciest house on the street and the poorest house are only a few thousand dollars apart in price.   Price depends on location first, and condition second.   Fancy landscaping might help with "curb appeal" in selling a house - or it may backfire, as we learned trying to sell houses with extensive gardens.   Most folks see lots of mulch beds and plantings and think, "Gee, I'll be out here all day weeding and mulching!  No thanks!"

Spending a ton of money to build a high-maintenance home just doesn't make any sense.   You'll find your "dream home" becomes a nightmare of constant expenses and labor.   You may end up feeling trapped by it - never able to leave, never able to vacation, because you have to constantly maintain it.

Less is more.  Doing things is better than owning things.

And I am done with mulch beds.   We lived, as a society, without them for generations.   For some reason, our generation has adopted them as a norm, without thinking as to why.