Mulch Ado About Something: A Lesson

I know I've posted very little in recent weeks and there's a reason for that, totally unrelated to the holidays or my mother's health.  I have spent what I consider to be an inordinate amount of time undoing that which was done in spring.  To review, after years of NOT putting down mulch in the back gardens, I decided this spring that a nice layer of mulch on the beds was indicated.  I knew it meant I would have to reseed the annuals that bring such beauty and grace to my cottage garden planting scheme in the spring.  Since the summer of 2010 was so hot and dry, though, I felt mulch would help the perennials, trees and shrubs make it through the summer of 2011 with less stress, should it prove to be as hellatious.   I could not have been more wrong, about the mulch OR the summer.   

I'd asked my friend and garden guru Otahal* and his crew to do the heavy lifting and spreading.  Because they had an unexpected opening in their busy schedule, I had to scramble to find a soil yard that could deliver on short notice.  I had used a soil yard on Saums Road previously - for products other than mulch - and so I called them to see whether they could accommodate me.  When they said yes, I placed an order for 6 yards of hardwood mulch and they promised to have it here within a couple of hours.  Did I have any idea of the source of  their hardwood mulch?  Had I ever made a visit to their soil yard to view - and FEEL - the product I was buying?  Friends, I had not ... and it was a grievous error on my part. 

Only after the driver of the dump truck had unloaded the mulch on my driveway and I felt the first stirrings of concern, did I query the origins of the mulch.  It was not reassuring to hear the driver say that shredded wood pallets were amongst the materials used to make the mulch.  As Otahal and I surveyed the mulch, my concerns grew.  At that point, there was nothing we could do but soldier on and hope for the best.  

Y'all know what kind of summer we endured here at Wits' End.  As the mercury climbed over 100 day after day after day after day after day after day after day, as the days rolled by (a little Sondheim moment there) - and rain failed to fall - I despaired as I watched the mulch mat together and form a barrier to repel my watering efforts.  I fluffed the mulch where I could, when I could but my paltry efforts weren't enough to make a difference.  

A few weeks ago, as I began planting some of the newly purchased shrubs and perennials I'd bought to add more structure to the gardens, each time I pulled back the mulch layer, I was  horrified to see just how dry and lifeless the soil beneath had become.  The most significant indication of its lack of fertility was the absence of the earthworms that grace other areas of the gardens.  I decided there and then that something had to be done.  

I'd seen a compost sifter/screener on Pinterest that I thought would work for screening the mulch.  I talked to my home improvements guy, Brent Cook**,  and he agreed to build a similar one for me in exchange for some of the computer assistance I've given him over recent months.  Within a couple of days, I had a sturdy screener***, with notches on front and back so it could fit on top of the wheelbarrow.  And for almost three weeks now, I've spent most of my time in the garden removing and sifting mulch, placing the discarded chunks and shreds in empty pots and tubs.  The picture below is most but not all of them.

It doesn't look so bad in that picture, does it?  Let's take a closer look:

After telling myself for weeks that I really should hire someone to do this job for me, and continuing to slog on by myself, this past Monday I looked at the remaining bed along the south fence and conceded that I couldn't go on.  Since Otahal and crew are swamped with bigger jobs, I called upon a local landscaper to assist me.  His crew is here today and they are making much shorter work of the sifting process than I could on my own, as you can see below.  In fact, they're almost done! 

When it comes to mulch, my friends, please learn from my experience!   First and foremost, know what you're buying: take the time to visit the soil yard and check out their product(s).  Some soil yards have samples of their offerings in their sales office but after this experience, I would ask to view the actual pile from which they'll scoop before committing to a purchase.  If they balk at letting you do so, walk away and find another vendor.   Save yourself time and money and a dump truck load of regrets!

* Otahal and I went to junior high together and he was one of my late friend MB's great loves. A lifelong love of plants caused him to ditch his job as an industrial pharmacologist and become a garden designer/grower/installer.  He and I collaborated on the front gardens last year.

**If you live in the Katy/West Houston area and need a reliable contractor, I've been very happy with the work Brent Cook has done for me over the last 14 years.  E-mail me if you'd like his number.  

***The compost screener was built from 1x4's and 1/2 inch hardware cloth.  It took them all of 20 minutes and it should last me for years.


Gail said…
Cindy, How very frustrating to have to undo this problem. Clever of you to figure out a compost shifter would be so helpful. Do you have an organic source? Something very similar happened to my neighbor when he ordered topsoil. His veggie garden had to be hauled away after he discovered the poisoned soil from ground up pallets/landscape timbers the 'yard' owner used. gail
I'm glad it is getting cleaned out but what a pain! I wonder if your soil is more or less solarized now?
Fairegarden said…
Oh my, what a tale of woe, but with a happy ending, Cindy! I am so glad you are able to make the best of a bad situation, with help. A good lesson for us all. Double ground, or the bagged soil conditioner which is extra fine pine bark pieces is what we use here.
Very important information. I think something similar has happened to each of us over time. I'm glad you figured out a way to deal with it and get your beds back to their norm.~~Dee
HolleyGarden said…
Thanks for the advice. It's sad that we have to be so diligent in making sure what goes in our gardens is what we want - not what someone wants to get rid of!
Anonymous said…
oh dear... not chipped pallets! smart of you to screen what was delivered, and even smarter to ask for help! you might consider adding some compost around plants that are performing for you right now, as i'd think all that carbon will tie up whatever nutrients (particularly N) your soil may have.
Rose said…
What a pain to have to undo all this hard work, Cindy! I think we have all had similar problems; I know I used to buy bags of mulch without even thinking what was in them. Now, whenever possible, I get mulch from the local landscape recycling center--no pallets ground up there!

That sifter looks like a great tool; I'd love to have one made for sifting my compost.
David said…
My goodness you work hard! I guess one of the most frustrating things about gardening is UNdoing something that also took just as much work to do! I've got my own examples and I'll bet all gardeners do. I'm glad it is finally working out and that the moisture is returning. I like that mulch sifter idea a lot.
BTW:I've got some fresh eggs for you from my hens. Would you like some? May I bring them by this week after school?
David NCE/ :-)
Cindy, MCOK said…
Thanks, y'all. Stay tuned for a post on the sifted mulch.
Anonymous said…
Rihtaš mal? Rihtaš?
Mulch has been the bane of my existence too this year, but fortunately for a different reason. People have asked me why I pay to have mulch delivered instead of getting free mulch from the village. The short answer is quality. The free stuff has lots of junk in it. It's terrible that you paid for lousy mulch. Good thing you figured out how to salvage the situation.
Carol said…
Hey Cindy! Just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas from my ranch in Conroe to you on your corner of Katy! Carol