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The Truth, Mainly - 11/30/1998

Mulching: Time for another smug autumn activity

In her New York Times column last week suggesting we get a less "exhausting" president next time, Maureen Dowd remembers that Michael Dukakis' "idea of a great evening" was putting mulch on his tomato plants.

That may be why Dukakis usually was perceived as insufferably smug. I knew there was something about him I could identify with.

"You're insufferably smug," my wife tells me every fall about this time. "Have you been celebrating yourself for being at one with the Cosmos again?"

She means, of course, the way I deal with the leaves that fall from the trees.

Lots of people simply rake them up, bag them, and have them hauled to the dump. The dump!

Hardly, I tell her smugly, a fit place for Our Leaves.

You want to know what I do? I'll tell you. You can do it too.

I mulch my leaves with my mulching mower. If you don't have a mulching mower, just plug up the chute where the grass clippings come spewing out.

You now have a mulching mower.

Now you push it back and forth across your yard chopping your leaves to tiny bits. But only if they're crisp. Here's how you know they're ready: walking across your lawn makes crunching noises—like walking across a field of freshly opened potato chips.

Lots of people don't have the patience to wait until the leaves are that crisp. They see a leaf on their grass as an unwelcome intrusion rather than as an opportunity. So they immediately bag it and have it hauled off to the dump.

You don't hear people like that humming along to the Music of the Spheres.

What, you may ask, makes mulching leaves morally superior to bagging them?

Oh, not much. Only that bagging makes you what we mulchers call A Part of the Problem. Mulching makes you A Part of Nature's Regeneration Process, at one with the Cosmos. That's all.

When your mulching mower turns the crisp leaves into little bitty pieces, see, they fall between the blades of grass. They appear to disappear, but they're really down there recycling.

Chopped leaves are more moral than bagged leaves because they give earthworms something to eat. Earthworms have to get to the surface to eat the now bite-size chopped leaves, see, so they burrow their way up from their underground domiciles and thereby aerate your lawn for you. And when they eat the chopped leaves, see, they put a whole lot of roughage into their little digestive systems. So they have to go to the bathroom-and with such urgency that they don't have time to burrow back down to their domiciles. So they go right there on the surface, sometimes hiding behind foliage, sometimes not.

And they thereby fertilize the lawn they've just aerated.

The chemical lawn-care folks don't want you to know about this because they make vast amounts of money doing poorly what earthworms do well. Not that money's as important as the morality here.

The Truth, Mainly


(At this point in my explanation, my wife usually rolls her eyes and says "Good grief.")

Well, you may say, that's all well and good, and I'd like to be moral and smug too, but what about the leaves that fall on my driveway, my sidewalk, my porch? I can't very well chop them up with my mulching mower, can I?

Of course you can. But you won't want to. What you'll want to do is put those leaves in the bed of your highway-orange, state-surplus '76 Dodge pickup-the one with the rusted-out floorboard you can see through—then drive them to your compost pile in the alley behind your house.

But first you have to spread last year's composted leaves onto your garden. You load the wheelbarrow with them, push it to your garden, and shake it back and forth vigorously until the compost is spread about.

Then you rototill the whole thing under. It looks lovely and smells great and you can hardly wait for next spring to start the whole process over again.

Now that your compost enclosure is empty, you can put your pickup load of new leaves in it. Add some ashes from the wood-burning stove, sprinkle it good with the hose, and let the pile sit a week or two. Then turn a little of it with your four-tined pitchfork to see if it's steaming yet. Steam is a sign of regeneration. If it isn't steaming, add a little more water and that horse manure your wife keeps asking you why you're saving.

By Christmas morning, it'll be steaming good.

"Merry Christmas to you too," you'll want to say to your compost pile.

In the meantime, under your lawn, earthworm mamas are telling earthworm children about their role in next spring's Regeneration Process.

You take a deep breath of cold air and go in the house to tell your wife, yet one more time, all about it. She'll find you insufferably smug. You'll feel awfully good about yourself. You may even decide to run for President.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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