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The Joy Of Mulching

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

We filled our pickup truck with mulch hay today, and my spirits are soaring. Mulch, despite its icky name, always does that to me. Especially mulch hay.

For one thing, when the weather is cold and the world has turned to mud and it\’s too early to work outside even though you\’re dying to, you can always mulch.

I don\’t mulch the vegetable garden. Since I plant intensively, the vegetables grow close enough to each other to keep weeds in the dark (this is technically known as “shade mulch\’).

What I love to mulch is problem areas—those in-between places, neither lawn nor flower bed, that look scraggly and weedy and unkempt. The one I\’m thinking about right now is a spot around a big lilac bush at the back of the house.

You know how lilacs are. Every spring they sprout new shoots out of the ground. These are woody and hardy and you can\’t pull them up. All you can do is cut them as far down as possible. But the worst part is that amidst these trunks and shoots all sorts of opportunistic weeds take root, and spread from there to infinity. In the case of this one lilac the weed is a low-growing ivy-type thing, with round scalloped leaves and tiny blue flowers. It smells foul when you yank it out. This is the spot I have selected for this spring\’s mulching offensive.

First, I will pull out as much of the bad stuff as I can. Then I will gather up a year\’s worth of New Yorkers and spread them over the ground, trying my best not to get distracted by a 40-page article about orchestra conductors. I will supplement the magazines with old newspapers, cardboard boxes and such. When not a square inch of dirt is visible, I will fetch a bale of hay, cut off the strings, separate it into “slabs” and lay them over the reading matter, until not a single printed word can be seen.

By the time I\’m finished, my mulch cake will be a good eight inches tall. And nothing will grow through it. Not this year, anyway. Next year, I\’ll just add more mulch.

When everything is looking neat and cozy under its comforter of hay, I will retire indoors to meditate on what I want to plant in that spot. When I have decided—I\’m thinking about spearmint, since the spot is shady—I will simply move the hay aside, cut holes in the magazines beneath, bung my little plants in, and tuck the hay around their feet.

I do use black plastic for mulch, but only in no-holds-barred (well, herbicides are barred) battles against certain fiends, such as Bishop\’s Weed. (I am girding my loins to write a post about Bishop\’s Weed.) Unlike The New Yorker, black plastic doesn\’t gracefully disintegrate after a season or two, and when I put it down I don\’t get that satisfying feeling that I\’m making use of something that I would otherwise have to take to the dump. Moreover, when pieces of the plastic get uncovered—by snow-plows, dogs or goats—they flap in the breeze looking like flags of doom.

However, black plastic works. It helped me kill an entire garden that had been overrun by Bishop\’s Weed. I\’m hoping it will kill the Bishop\’s Weed that is creeping into the flower beds in front of the house. Desperate times, and all that.

Ruth Stout was the Mulch Goddess during the years when I was learning to garden. She was bold, eccentric and outspoken, and had a full head of electrified-looking white hair. She was a Quaker and told the truth as she saw it. She lived into her nineties, and I honor her memory.

You can read about her here:

6 Responses

  1. wow. it would never ever occur to me to do this with old new yorkers. and somehow i cannot imagine that they would gracefully disintegrate. i suspect that i would lift the hay seaons later, and there they\’d be, soggy, pages curling, that 40-page story on the conductor still readable….and unread.

  2. I wonder if my husband\’s family is related to her–we don\’t know much about the Stout side over there. This is a woman I would have liked to have as a neighbor.

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