Low Maintenance: Mulch It

Last Saturday morning, I was lodged into a corner of my kitchen avoiding the 6-foot long window over my kitchen sink. It overlooks the backyard and the deck, which is the main entrance to our house. When we put an addition on five years ago, we added windows all along the back of the house so we could see the kids playing in the backyard. I didn’t consider the reverse view: we are on display for anyone in the backyard. And so are the dirty dishes on the counter and in the sink. It was designed with Pottery Barn ideology and is being lived in with Malcolm practicality. I was hugging the corner cupboards after hearing a clunk on the deck. The lawn care guys were outside, and they had found a pair of my leather sandals I had missed picking up before the rain the night before. The crew leader had plopped them on the deck for me.

On Wednesday, I had taken my small snippers, the long-handled trimmers, and a hack saw to the front yard. Never mind what precluded the need to see something majorly physical accomplished, just know I was armed and the trees quaked. After perhaps 10 little snips on the weeping cherry, my most beloved snippers of 10 years fell apart and random pieces scattered on the ground – with the smallest bits disappearing under the dead grass. I picked up the long-handled trimmers and the first cut proved worthless: they were rusted after being last used to help a Boy Scout with his Eagle project in the spring. We cleared a trail in rain and hadn’t dried them properly after the outing.

Bill’s hack saw beckoned, and my mind flashed back to tree trimming at our first house in Rockford, Illinois. My mom used to make the 3-hour drive to our house in her little Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. On a couple occasions, Mom and I spun like tornadoes pruning trees and loading branches up in her truck to take them to the pit. We were exhilarated and exhausted at the end of the day. That was about 20 years ago; she was my age then.

I was a lone Tasmanian devil Wednesday. I cut 10-foot branches down from a thorny Black Locus that a bird had shat out. Its branches hung over the sidewalk ready to jab any kid who would soon be walking down that sidewalk to school. It’s an invasive tree and can grow up to 100-foot tall – and its growth is so quick it seems visible week to week. I decided not to fell the whole tree as it may have landed on a passing car. I took down to a stump another tree-bush next to the locust that had gotten out of control.

I grabbed maple branches, pulled them down, and then reached up as I high as I could with the hack saw. Cutting 6-feet of weight off of the ends resulted in a bouncing up of the whole branch – hopefully to let more sun in underneath. I crossed the drive and acted on a decision I had been resisted making for a couple years: Is my magnolia a round tree-bush or a tall thin tree? Again like the maples, I considered the need for more sunlight under the tree for perennials. It’s now a rather regal magnolia tree. I tossed all trimmings onto the dead grass of the front lawn. Scratched, sweaty, heart-racing… I was a conqueror of trees.

Bill’s pet peeve is when I leave piles after working in the garden, so I called our lawn care company and asked them to pick up the trimmings and take them to the pit for me. And, I texted Ian to forewarn him of the sight that would meet him at the entrance of our drive. The manager of the lawn care company agreed and offered to do it for free in return for an accidental major weed-whacking incident in mid-July: They had ventured into one of my “flower gardens” and taken out all my raspberry bushes and ferns and trampled seedling wild flowers.

I purposely don’t use mulch so that plants have bare dirt to propagate from one year to the next. Having said that, I have a 6’ x 10’ bed near the back door that is all Columbines. They are a spectacular bloom of solid pink in the spring, but now they are a bed of tall, rattling, dried out Columbine pods. In the front garden, where I get the best sun, I left empty a 2-foot wide strip along the front of that flower bed – thinking I would get vegetables or annuals planted. I didn’t get that done, but it made me smile to see little Brown-eyed Susans and Purple Cone Flowers popping up amidst the grass and weeds in that area. Then a second weed-whacking incident occurred. I believe that was the day that I turned my back on every single weedy garden space around my house.

However, Thursday morning I decided to tackle the side garden where the first weed-whacking incident occurred. As I approached the weed patch, determined to find wildflower seedlings remaining after the lawn care guys trampling, a rabbit ran out from behind the long grassy and weedy plot. With my new gardening knee pads on -- a practical and spectacular birthday present from Bill's family -- I crawled on my hands and knees carefully excavating around 6-inch high fragile seedlings. It was a rabbit wonderland: tall weeds and grass providing cover to the rabbits as they mowed down the new growth. In my 1 ½ hour weeding expedition, I was doing little more than exposing a tender salad bar for the rabbits. The same rabbits who had claimed all of my new perennials that I had planted last summer amongst the Columbines.

Saturday morning the lawn care guys came by to pick up the trimmings. I really did not want to come face to face with them, given my weedy flower gardens which had precipitated their haphazard weed-whacking. That’s how I found myself jammed in the corner of the kitchen. I thought they were only there to pick up the trimmings. Then I heard the mowers and blowers wind up. With a sigh, a curled lip, and a shake of my head, I packed my computer and journals and headed out the door. I scared the daylights out of the crew leader as I appeared on the step only a few feet away from him and his leaf blower. Immediately, he turned the blower off.

“Mrs. Malcolm, I noticed your flower beds are a bit overgrown.”

No shit.

“I have some ideas about a mulch garden in the back where the grass isn’t growing.”

I’m more concerned about where the quack grass IS growing.

“And along the side of the house some mulched deciduous trees. Low maintenance.”

Sadly, I think he has a point. And I know from experience the power beheld in the hands of a weed-whacker. Dad routinely whacks flowers on the edges of Mom’s flower gardens. I just pay someone to do it here. This feeling of power is much the same, I'm sure, as that of a nearly-uncontrollable swirling diva after the first hack-sawed branch falls.

The English cottage garden I had in Rockford in my twenties is not taking hold here. Indeed, I do think I will concede to a bit of mulch and bushes. And shift my focus to just a couple flower gardens to keep under control.

For my primary responsibility now is pruning and growing children, not multiple flower beds. I’ve come around the bend and know that making part of my environment “low maintenance” will eliminate the weedy chaos that daily burns my corneas.

Fortunately, it has meant days of sweat and physical labor that leave me exhausted and exhilarated at the end of each day. Energy well spent.