Friday, May 28, 2010

Mulch Magic

In Birdland we received a huge pile of mulch. Did I maybe bully the utility tree trimmers into dumping it in my yard? Let’s just say that I persuaded them that they didn’t need any paperwork in triplicate to leave me the remains of my own trees. The mulch has been an inspiration as I spend my mornings chasing the shade around the yard building islands of flowerbeds. I go back and forth with my wheelbarrow designing random pockets of order. As I sweat, I become aware of two facts: one, that I could work in the yard for two or three hours every morning of my life and be completely satisfied; and two, that there is a narrator in my head dictating a how-to list. By 9:30, the only shade left in the yard is in parts I have already weeded and mulched, so I come in to breakfast and my computer and surrender to the narration.

How to stop mowing and discover the kind of garden your yard wants to be in three progressive steps.

1) Stop mowing and see what happens. Unless you have been keeping your yard very trim and using chemical herbicides for a while, you’ll probably notice first the diversity of plants in the yard, even different kinds of grasses. Let them go to seed. Did you ever examine a grass flower to see the pollen-covered anthers glitter like tiny golden wind chimes? For me letting the grass grow was fairly easy. In our big, country yard the entire yard has been completely mowed about three times in twenty years. My new policy of mowing only once a month in the summer has already yielded plenty of wild spots in the yard.

2) Rethink your concept of “weeds.” My friend, Mary B. told me about visitors from the city who ask self-consciously they could dig some Queen Anne’s Lace from her yard. Queen Anne’s Lace is nothing but wild carrots, escaped from cultivation. It grows like a weed around here, but it is also a lovely, delicate umbel of antique-looking flowers with delicate, ferny leaflets. When we visited England we discovered a very popular garden plant, a purple variety of broad-leaf plantain, also a “weed.” When we toured the gardens at Japan house with our friend, Susan, our guide talked about each careful addition to the garden, and Susan leaned over and whispered: “In South Africa, Cotoneaster’s a weed.” Visiting my friend, Diane’s lovely back yard garden, I noticed some 6 foot tall plants with broad leaves, a long cluster of glistening black-purple berries, and a tropical look carefully surrounded by mulch. I told her that Pokeberries are poisonous. “I know,” she said. “I just like them.” I looked again. The plants were lovely! Yes, the berries are poisonous, but so are the red berries of Yew, a popular landscaping choice. We just need to be educated and careful. As soon as my boys could hike around in the woods with me, I would teach and then quiz them on the edibility of each plant. Look at each plant that comes up with the grass with an open heart. What are its qualities? Does it have a blossom that could feed pollinators? Is it hardy? Most “weeds” are, or nobody would think them a problem. The first thing we noticed in Birdland was that Creeping Charley spread out all over the West side of the yard in a thick, green carpet dotted with lovely purple flowers. It seems to me a perfect ground cover, only letting a few tufts of grass through, only growing about 4 or 5 inches high at the most.

3) Now that your heart is open to the unwanted stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom, rethink your concept of “weeds” again. Opening your heart to weeds doesn’t mean you have to let them take over your life, and certainly some plants are noxious. Make a list of true weeds—those you will always pull out. Your list should be shorter than it was before your conversion. My eradication list looks like this: poison ivy, hemlock, ragweed. These plants have plenty of places to grow outside of Birdland. I don’t need to host them. Next think of second level weeds—those you won’t completely eradicate, but want to limit. Thistle, for instance draws butterflies, but I don’t want it to take over the whole yard. Goldenrod is lovely, but it would choke out everything else if I let it. Burdock, can be quite majestic, with its elephant ear leaves and funky, purple blossoms, and apical dominance, but the burs will be impossibly tangled in Isis’ tail if it grows in an open field of grass. As our grass began to go to seed, whenever we noticed Shasta Daisies and Black Eyed Susans we’d pull the grass surrounding the flowers and mulch it. We did the same with a few Thistle and Burdock. Next, we mowed the space between the islands of flowers, working toward the idea that the islands will grow and the mowed area will shrink.

Pay attention to what your yard is telling you. Different light, different soils, nurture different flowers As various plants come up in the yard, my vision grows and changes. I’m taking it slowly, letting my vision unfold.

Notice Beauty; Respond in Peace; Blessed Be.


  1. Love your image of "chasing the shade around the yard", as it's exactly what I do...and it's a sensible way to work.

  2. Aww shucks, Blaze. Thanks :)

    Thanks, Sue. I admit I sometimes don't get out there early enough to catch the shade in the area I want to work on--so I just work somewhere else.