The Washington Post

How to mulch: the app we need

My corn patch My corn patch

The other day I was putting down some mulch and I noticed that the big plastic sack it came in carried instructions. “How to mulch,” it said.

There were all kinds of suggestions, if not requirements, for proper mulching, including the scraping away of pre-existing layers of mulch. I found myself offended, and at the same time alarmed. I was offended that the mulch bag would assume that I am so freakin’ stupid that I don’t know how to put down mulch, and alarmed because, by failing to remove older mulch, I’d been doing it wrong all these years.

I think we can all agree that, in the best of all possible worlds, mulch would not come with instructions. We’d just know things. We’d be handy with tools, knowledgeable about designs, and able to fix anything this side of a fusion reactor. But we live in a society in which core competencies are being eroded. Our skills with the physical world become attenuated through neglect. There’s a faucet in my kitchen that is leaking due to a faulty gasket and I could no sooner fix it than perform brain surgery on myself. It’s not just that I don’t do plumbing; I don’t do the physical world.

Sorry, I’m the Big Idea guy. And my Big Idea is to call a plumber.

I’ve been reading George Packer’s article in The New Yorker on Silicon Valley and San Francisco, and he depicts these places as functionally narcissistic – extraordinarily cocooned against the rough textures of American society, of which many of the tech geeks know almost nothing. There’s a great moment when a young wiz is explaining the genius of smart-phone apps that call luxury cars and make restaurant reservations on the fly: “San Francisco is a place where we can go downstairs and get in an Uber and go to dinner at a place that I got a restaurant reservation for halfway there…[or] I could order takeout food from my favorite restaurant on Postmates, and a bike messenger will go and pick it up for me. We’ll watch it happen on the phone. These things are crazy ideas.” To which Packer adds: “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups were solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up.”

Is there a How-to-Mulch app??

I need to fly out there and explain to these tech folks that there’s a huge untapped market of  50-somethings who may need an app to order fertilizer on the fly. You know how it goes: You’re in the garden with your small potted tomato plants, you’re ready to put them in the ground, you’ve dug the hole, the hose is poised to add water, you’ve got your Tomato-Tone and your lime and your bone meal and your Leaf-Gro, and then, just as you’re about to perform the blessed rite of planting, you realize you need manure. Composted cow manure. Manure Express. Where’s the Manure Messenger app?

I’m too dirty to get in a car and go to the plant store or the hardware store. I want my manure and I want it NOW.

But here’s the sad thing, and I’ll say it even though it makes me flush with shame: I don’t download apps because I forgot my Apple password and I’m not sure how to retrieve it. So I don’t do apps. I use whatever came with the phone. (In a separate digital disaster, I got a new laptop and it doesn’t know any of my passwords; thus an emergency call to my colleague Melissa who runs the blogs and was sitting on a plane in Oklahoma and who somehow remotely reset my password, which all strikes me as magic.)

I guess I could fix my app problem, somehow, if I had a full day off work, and no pressing plumbing concerns and no urgent weeding challenges and no offspring needing a ride somewhere, and if, more importantly, I really cared that much about it. In other words, I could be more digital, and plugged in, and connected, and tech-savvy, and younger-seeming, if only I were a completely different person. But enough of that: I’ve got to head outside and practice my mulching.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Next Story
Joel Achenbach · May 20, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.