The Mulchman

Some twenty years ago in the front of the property, about three-quarters along the driveway next to a statue of St. Francis and a birdbath, I decided to plow through the woods with my mower, creating a winding path which comes out about one hundred fifty feet through the woods in a clearing on the east side of the land. I didn’t cut any trees; I just mowed a path about six feet wide. Over the course of a couple of years, the “Francis Path” became well-trodden by us, my son’s bike, deer, a kazillion squirrels, and who knows what. Eventually the ground was worn enough from us and rain so that it remained a path and the brush didn’t take it back.

Also, I have bushes around the house next to the porch, which wraps around the east and south sides, and I put paving stones along the barrier. And on the south side of the driveway before the woods, I cleared off a two-or three-feet perimeter so it’s easier to get in and out of the cars.

Basically, very basically, I landscaped. A lot, though mostly around the house, but also in other areas.

One day I decided to put mulch down. It is easier on the knees and ankles than the hard dirt when walking, and it simply looks so much better. I called the owner of a nursery about six miles from home. It’s a beautiful place to get bushes, flowers, and other landscaping materials. I have a few wrought iron tables and chairs from there, as well as one of the birdbaths and tons of roses and azaleas.

I called. “Hey, I’m thinking of mulching the place. I have a path, around the house, other areas.”

“Okay, Bob, How much mulch you need?”

“Oh, man, I don’t know.” I walked off the path while talking to him. “I’m figuring it out now. Okay, well, about forty yards.”

“FORTY YARDS?? are you sure??”

I looked at the house and the driveway and other areas around a short brick wall I had put up along another path. “No, you know what, that’s not right.”

“I didn’t think so,” he laughed.

“About fifty yards or so. I have other areas.”

“Bob, I don’t think you…”

“Oh and I’m not going to be here this week, can you just dump it down that path I told you about?”

“Sure Bob I can do that Wednesday—I’ve got to get rid of a lot of this bulk stuff before winter, but…”

“Oh! Right, should I leave you a check? Or do you want me to come in first and pay?”

“No, I’ll send a bill, Bob, but…”
“Thanks so much. I’ve got to go, but thanks! I’ll put a flag on a pole in the ground for your guys to leave the mulch.”

And I hung up. Yes, I was clueless.

I suppose this is the spot to stop and explain a yard of mulch. I learned this about a week later when I returned home: A standard dump truck with the controls inside to make it go up in the area and dump something out the back holds about ten yards of mulch.


I ordered fifty yards.

I can fill my wheelbarrow up twelve times from one cubic yard of mulch. So, I ordered six hundred wheelbarrows worth. By the time I got back to the property they had delivered enough mulch to cover the entire path, pretty thick too, from the driveway entrance clear to the clearing exit, all around the house, all along the brick wall, all along the driveway, around all the flowerbeds filled with rose bushes and azaleas, around and behind the shed, and I filled a dozen or so thirty-three gallon size garbage bags and brought some to my officemates house, my parents condo, and other friends.

I smelled like mulch for weeks.

But I’ll tell you what: it looked really good.

This isn’t my first time buying in bulk; just the first time I had no idea that’s what I was doing. Outside our apartment complex in Virginia Beach where we lived while I was building the house, a crew was building a new Schlotsky’s Deli. At some point when the outside was complete, skids with two-thousand beautiful, rustic bricks were just sitting there, and they put a sign on them that said, “$50 for all of them. You carry.” So I bought them. I had to rent a truck for other wood and materials from a local home store anyway. They wouldn’t put them on the truck with a forklift, so one afternoon I hand-piled all the bricks onto the truck and as dusk arrived I drove them the eighty miles up to my house, backed to a clearing and tossed them all out. Construction workers loved it because they used some for different locales which needed them, but eventually I had all these bricks and didn’t know what to do with them. At first, I built a barbeque in the backyard, and it looked damn good considering I had no experience. And then I built a wall running along the tree line from the east side of the house and up a wide path to the clearing. I topped it with, well, brick toppers, and eventually put much—a lot of mulch—in front of it.

I was onto something. Buying bulk from people trying to get rid of their stuff is awesome.

The home store I used—Home Quarters—luckily was going out of business just as I was using them for most of house work, both inside and landscaping. They had crepe myrtles, about a foot high, for one dollar a piece; I bought about twenty. Twelve or so survived, but they’re now twenty-five feet tall and covered in blooms most of the summer.

But one gets tired, you know? At some point you start to realize you’re not going to be able to do this forever, and you sit on the porch and notice things you could have done differently or things you’d like to do if you had the energy to drive to the home store, let alone build a freaking wall. The summers are hotter than before—scorching sometimes—and Hurricane Isabel ripped through and downed thirty oak trees on the property. It took me years to get the place just back to what it was pre-storm. Walk through the woods and there are still some Isabel-felled trees out there returning to the earth.

The shed roof needs to be repaired, but honestly the whole thing needs replacing. Writing projects, classes, all steal time away, of course, and eventually house stuff like mechanicals need to be replaced, and a ton of other things need to be improved. Hell, it’s been twenty-four years now. You get tired. You know?

Then March came. And Covid. And the “few weeks” turned into a “few months” and suddenly it was summer, and I sat at one of the tables out there and zoomed my classes, and afterwards looked around and noticed things to improve, change, places that needed mulching, a new path I wanted to cut. And somehow my energy returned, like I was thirty-six-again energy, and the mower and sickle became my friends, new projects started to emerge, and I began making plans for an eventual new greenhouse to build, a guest house, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts! Okay, well, some of the ideas, and tidying up the place was not only easy, it became a new passion during which I found more than a little of the old inspiration. Working out on the land fights anxiety and depression, and it is way healthier than, well, just about anywhere right now.

Maybe it was Antonio Muchado’s comment, “What have you done with the garden entrusted to you?” Sure, he meant the soul, but these days it’s hard to separate the two.

And I recall e.e. cummings:

“i shall imagine life
is not worth dying, if
(and when) roses complain
their beauties are in vain”

One thought on “The Mulchman

  1. It is beautiful, Bob. I feel that weariness–same as you, but brought my strong young daughters to this new house with a blank acre. I think and dream about how it might look, Bill comes home and builds little follies that can be accomplished over a weekend–a grape arbor, a “catio,” I hire people to build bigger stuff like a people sized patio, and we plant trees. Jacqui is great at the heavy lifting I am no longer strong enough to manage. You can’t reproduce those 24 years you spent. It all takes time. Well done.


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