Garden Blitz

I’ve just spread 4 cubic yards of shredded hardwood mulch. The garden looks much better. I’m feeling guilty as heck. For the first time, I am glad my garden mentor, Roy Diblik, lives near Lake Geneva. He won’t just happen to drive by and see what I’ve done.

Patrice Peltier

Why all this angst over a common and perfectly acceptable gardening practice? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using shredded hardwood mulch. Lots of people do it. However, I have been trying a more earth-friendly approach. Increasingly horticulturists are advocating using plant material from one’s own yard — leaves, grass clippings, compost — to mulch. Doing so lessens trips to the dump to get rid of these materials, cross-country shipping of commercial mulch and trips to the garden center to pick up said mulch. Think of all the time and gasoline saved!

Normally, I mow leaves in the late fall to shred them, then pile them on my garden beds. In spring, before new growth starts, I mow the garden beds to re-shred not only the leaves but the mature seedheads, stalks and dried foliage I let over winter. The result is a self-mulched garden that the emerging plants simply poke up through. This approach also saves a lot of shoveling and bending to apply mulch … making it Patti-friendly as well as earth-friendly.

Last winter, however, I planned to be somewhere much warmer in March when I normally mow the garden. In anticipation, I mowed lightly in late fall, leaving more of the plant standing than I would have in March. (I mowed higher to help protect the crowns of the plants over winter.) It was a failed experiment.

This year, there were more bare places than normal for weeds to germinate. They took full advantage. I weeded. A few days later, new weeds emerged. By June, I was feeling tired, frustrated and overwhelmed. Replacing the garden with turfgrass sounded appealing. Drastic steps were required.

Without any organic material from our own yard to use as mulch, I resorted to buying truckloads of shredded hardwood mulch. I weeded — for what I hoped would be the last time this season — as I mulched. Naturally, I chose the hottest days to do this.

As I worked — and mopped my brow — I could hear Roy’s words in my head: “Plants did not evolve to grow in wood. For thousands of years, they’ve been growing up through their own debris.” I was chastened, but I did not stop. Eventually, I began to hear other words from Roy. 

The first conversation we had — nearly 20 years ago — was about how to keep gardens manageable for gardeners. The most important thing was for gardening to be fun — not overwhelming — he told me. Right now, what I needed was to use hardwood mulch to keep me from wanting to quit gardening completely.

The sun shone. A choir of angels sang. (Well, maybe not.) I found absolution. It’s OK — in fact, necessary — to learn from failed experiments. It’s OK to take care of oneself while taking care of the garden. It’s all part of what makes gardening blitz. 

Patrice Peltier lives in Spring Green and writes regularly for Wisconsin Gardening, Chicagoland Gardening and The Landscape Contractor magazines. Her work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens and Midwest Living magazines.