America's Gardeners Prove They Can Get Too Mulch of a Good Thing

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Spring is in the final stretch, which means that 99 percent of the commercial and residential landscapes hereabouts are now smothered in mulch. Where soil once dared to bare itself, blankets of chewed-up tree trunks safely shield our eyes from dirt.

A lot of people in my neighborhood have mulch laid by landscape crews, either in bags or with a bulk delivery. Otherwise, it's a weekend-long job for the do-it-yourselfer. A fairly modest 1,000 square feet of garden beds would consume more than 80 bags of bark or wood mulch.

As I see people hauling and ripping these bags, I wonder, what's driving them? Is it a clear understanding of the benefits of mulch, or is it some civic impulse to conform in what has become Mulch Nation?

"We seem to have gone nuts for mulch," said Marylee Orr, an environmentalist who says our addiction to mulch is costing Louisiana its coastal cypress forests.

Without doubt, we decorate our lives with mulch in a way our ancestors would have found strange and extravagant.

In 1916, Robert Cridland wrote a book on how to construct and care for the stylish suburban garden. But scan the index of his "Practical Landscape Gardening" for mulch, and you will find it missing. It is also absent from the book's black-and-white photographs of garden beds.

The use of mulch is advocated in subsequent gardening books, but either as a winter measure to protect marginally hardy shrubs (the mulch is removed in the spring) or in the vegetable garden for weed and moisture control. In both cases, the mulch is found with such things as grass clippings, sawdust or cornstalks.

One popular product from outside one's garden was hay that had become wet, no use for livestock feed but great for the cucumber patch. As word of the benefits of mulch spread, so too did a demand for a material that was not always handy. Prophetically, the garden writer Ruth Stout wrote in the early 1960s: "If enough people in any community demand it, I believe that someone will be eager to supply it."

Today the mulch industry has its own trade group, the Soil and Mulch Council, and the quantities of ground-up wood generated in the United States annually, while not quantified by any government agency, are palpably (or is it pulpably?) huge. The council estimates that we spread 40 million cubic yards of the stuff each year. These days, you can't go to a supermarket, mass merchandiser or even gas station without finding bagged mulch displayed for purchase.

But the economic downturn is causing shortages of mulch as fewer acres are cleared for development and the sawmills and paper mills that generate mulch as a byproduct use it instead to fuel their boilers, said Robert LaGasse, the council's executive director.

Concerned that mulch mania is leading to the clear-cutting of Louisiana's coastal baldcypress forests, an alliance of environmental groups has been formed to fight excessive logging. It is working to raise public awareness of the issue, seek government intervention, lobby retailers to stop selling Louisiana cypress mulch and urge a consumer boycott.

Most of the old-growth forest was cleared by the 1930s, and what exists now are trees that have grown since, said Orr, executive director of a group called Louisiana Environmental Action Network. Orr and others argue that Mississippi River levees have changed the silting patterns of the forest to the point that the conifers cannot reseed sufficiently and that denuded swamps are being invaded by weed trees, especially the exotic tallow tree.

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