Over the last twenty-five years a tide of mulch--some shredded, some chipped, some brown, some bright orange--has spread over America. It makes the landscaping in people's gardens, around the parking lots of malls, and in front of filling stations look calm and controlled, like a room after the bed has been made.
I have bought mulch in my time--heavy, cumbersome bags of it--though never as much as I needed to achieve that well-bedded look. Every spring, if I were dedicated to that look or if my house were within sight of critical suburban eyes, I would buy another dozen bags to supplement the dwindling original layers of the stuff.
But I don't. Instead, I combine spring clean-up and mulching into a single effort.
First I go around the garden collecting the dried-out remnants of last summer's plants: the baptisia branches, the peony stems, the dried sedums, and the six-foot stalks of what is either a small sunflower or a Jerusalem artichoke. I gather armfuls of the stuff and, instead of carting it into the woods, I pile it thickly along the back of the flower beds, having first pushed the remnants of the store-bought mulch to the front. Then I stomp on the piles to break them up and so the wind won't blow them away.
This home-grown mulch is dun-colored and, at least to my countrified eyes, fairly innocuous. It saves me not only money and gas but many trips into the woods, which is a good thing in this busy season. And in a couple of weeks, when the baptisia and the peonies and the giant hostas and the pachysandra and the columbines all explode, you won't be able to see my home-grown mulch unless you look really, really closely.
Fortunately my gardening friends and I, by unspoken compact, only look closely at what is admirable--that hardy lavender! that budding rose bush! Our friendship-trained eyes barely register the sprouting bishop's weed, the un-harvested dandelions, and that stack of old stalks laid on the ground at the back of the flower bed.
Blinking away the undesirables, we look each other in the face and declare that what with the crazy weather, and the absence of bees, and those horrible invasive species this is the most challenging, impossible gardening year ever, and it will be a miracle if we can get a single plant to survive until the October frosts arrive.