Mulch Madness

In order to keep from being driven insane this summer trying to maintain a beachhead against the hordes of weeds infesting the Temporary Garden, there were only two alternatives: chemicals constantly applied, or a budget-busting amount of mulch. Once the humidity and mosquitoes arrive with a vengeance in June (ours feast all day long, not just morning/evening) my daily gardening time limit shrinks to about an hour which would be totally useless under the current weed-circumstances.

I’d already gone through three gallons of Spectracide in an effort to keep the spring weeds from going to seed, and now the “boys of summer” are beginning to appear; so, mulching was clearly the next step.

My lawn cutting guy quoted me $850 to supposedly “mulch everything” after I made it clear (or hopefully clear; he has little English and I have zero Spanish) that I wanted shredded 100% bark mulch that is absolutely not dyed. Never having ordered mulch before, this sounded pricey to me and I was also very concerned that he hadn’t really understood what I wanted, nor my insistence that the mulch not come from the Town facilities – a practice rampant among lawn services hereabouts because it can be obtained much cheaper than anything sold commercially but is not something you want to apply anywhere close to a residence.

Next I got a quote from the service who did the fall cleanup here last year (which generated 47 large bags of oak leaves, plus the three giant grasses, which is why I couldn’t even begin to attempt it myself). He told me I’d need a good eight yards, quoted a price of $640 for what he called “triple shredded bark” and assured me that it was neither dyed nor from the Town’s supply. I figured that was about $200 less than the fellow I had qualms about, so said okay. He said I should indicate the areas to be mulched in order of priority and “we’ll see how far it goes”. The job was done on Friday morning.

Well, he certainly wasn’t kidding about “triple shredded”… this is two-thirds of the way to being topsoil, in my opinion. :-/ But with eight yards of it having been dumped in my driveway I was hardly in a position to tell him to take the stuff back.
landscape guy's so-called mulchOh well, I thought, at least I won’t need to worry about it containing the plastic-bag shreds and other foreign matter with which the Town product is loaded. It took three men three hours to spread the mulch over all of the front yard beds plus four of the planting beds in the backyard. Problem was, there was nothing left for any of the raised beds, nor for the beds along any of the perimeters, nor for the remaining other four planting areas. After they left, the closer I looked at the mulch the more I was convinced that it will probably break down and disappear entirely in less than six months. Applied, it looks far more like soil than mulch. If this mulch were to be given a commercial name it would probably be called ‘Repeat Business’! It was clear I needed to get more mulch, but definitely not from him.

One of the local nurseries had a very nice shredded cedar bark mulch in bulk at $43/yard. I hoped that three yards would take care of all the remaining beds in the backyard, plus perhaps the most problematic part of one of the three perimeter beds. Delivery would be $45 additional. The truck arrived to dump it in the driveway on Saturday midday. Now this was what I’d been hoping to have gotten from the landscape guy! Nice and clean, substantial enough to last a while, and smelled lovely as well.
lovely 100% cedar mulch

So… now to move the stuff to where it needed to go. I do not have a wheelbarrow – have never in my life been able to master driving those things – but do have a garden cart. Nothing wheeled can get into the raised beds anyhow, so I devised a method of filling my two flexible plastic tub-trugs (eight shovelfuls of mulch into each) which I then trundled in the cart to the various beds, lifted and dumped out, and spread properly around the inhabitants.

high-tech mulch delivery method

My high-tech mulch-delivery method, posed fetchingly near a color-coordinated rhododendron.

It took 6 ½ hours for me to distribute the three yards (okay, so I’m not the Incredible Hulk.) Long story short, it covered all the remaining individual beds but there was nothing left for the perimeter beds which would probably have eaten up another two yards themselves. Those areas will get sprayed, because neither my back nor my budget can stand the alternative, LOL.

You know, it’s fascinating what six-plus hours of doing nothing but hauling mulch can do to the human brain. By hour #3 I was inventing cute little ditties such as “I’ve been working on the mulch pile/All the livelong day/I’ve been working on the mulch pile/Just to make it go away…” and by hour #4 I was counting the steps from mulch pile to whatever bed I was working on, out of morbid curiosity as to how many miles I was logging (too damn many).

Next I decided to mentally calculate the cost-effectiveness of hired versus self-installed mulch:

8 yards of landscaper-supplied mulch + 3 men + 3 hours, for $640 = $80 per “installed yard”

3 yards of nursery cedar mulch, delivered, $189 including sales tax = $63 per yard, un-installed. Now just for fun let’s assume I’m paying myself the current minimum wage in my state, which is $8.75/hr. Multiply $8.75 x 6.5 hours = $56.88, round it up to $57. Add that to the cost of the mulch, and get $246; divide that by three yards, to get … $82 per yard, installed. Two dollars more per “installed yard” than the landscaper method. Amazing. Trust me: my back was in at least $57 worth of pain after that job!

Of course, the only thing that really matters in the end is how well either product will suppress weeds for at least the next 12 months; everything else is just mulch ado about nothing. 🙂

2017 UPDATE: I came to bitterly regret the endeavor described above. See my December 2017 post (The Phantom Mulch Menace) and remember it as a cautionary tale!

  11 comments for “Mulch Madness

  1. May 25, 2015 at 6:13 pm

    Argh, what a process. I think it will all pay off though as you sit back and enjoy a few calm areas in the summer storm of weeds and open ground!
    … mulch ado about nothing. Ouch 🙂
    My neighbor put down the triple mulch last spring and it’s holding up much better than you would think, but the idea of fancy scented cedar mulch really appeals to me.
    I wish I could say I was done mulching as well, but the thought of toiling in the heat does nothing for me!

    • May 25, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      Whew, glad to hear that the triple-shredded might not do a quick disappearing act. 🙂 The shredded cedar mulch doesn’t have an overwhelming scent; I noticed it most when shoveling out of the pile and when spreading it in the beds by hand. It’s a nice fresh scent though — a very welcome change from the “ammonia stink” of the stuff the commercial services usually put down! :-/

  2. May 25, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    A lot of mulch is really ugly. I hate the painted stuff. My favorite is the chipped pine bark.

    • May 26, 2015 at 10:21 am

      For some reason I haven’t seen that for sale around here in years, although everyone had it back in the 1970s and 80s. The dyed garbage (literally) seems to have unfortunately taken over the marketplace. 😦

  3. May 26, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    We get free woodchip here from tree surgeons who are eager to get rid of their chippings. Works as a great mulch, a bit bright first of all, but soon darkens and acts as a brilliant mulch.

    • May 26, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      The tree companies here have tons of woodchip mulch too… but don’t give any of it away for free, darnit! 😦

  4. May 27, 2015 at 5:10 pm

    It is certainly hard-labour!
    I get sugarcane mulch for my garden as the soil is so very, very poor that I need to add organic matter, and sugar cane mulch also has good N-P-K values as it breaks down, so gives the soil a feed as well.
    It is USD $13 for a bale which covers about 9ft2 (which is approximately a yard) if applied thinly.
    It comes in little bales, and is very light, so I just buy it as needed. The only trouble is that it breaks down very quickly so it probably isn’t any cheaper in the long run and it isn’t especially pretty.
    At any rate I hope you enjoyed a long hot soak and good drink after that punishing regime 🙂

    • May 27, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      Sugarcane mulch sounds literally delicious! I did a quick google and in appearance it seems the most similar to straw or perhaps pine needles (which in some parts of the USA is easy to get but rarely seen here in the northeast).

      Back in the early 1980s one could buy bagged cocoa hull mulch. It looked incredibly neat and tidy, and did smell a bit like chocolate for a while (nothing wrong with that! LOL) but as you can imagine it too is very lightweight. A not uncommon issue with it, though, was the tendency for patches of white fuzzy mold to appear. This, and the higher cost, may be why it never really caught on; I do see it on Amazon for about $25 per 2-cubic-foot bag though (ouch, that’s worse than when it was sold by nurseries) as “cocoa bean shell mulch”.

      • May 28, 2015 at 2:40 am

        It looks very similar to straw…but unlike cocoa hull mulch it isn’t attractive or fatal to dogs. But I can’t believe how expensive everything has become in the US….it used to be so much cheaper than here in Australia, but now the prices are almost on par

        • May 28, 2015 at 11:16 am

          Apparantly our housing prices are not that different either, at least in the suburbs of the major cities. Out of curiosity I was looking at home listings to see what a comparable house would cost here vs there, and after doing the currency conversion they are not far away from each other… at least for the AU starting prices. I’ve learned the auction process is often used in Australia whereas here that is only used to sell homes that have been foreclosed on by the bank (mortgage holder) for nonpayment.

          • May 28, 2015 at 5:59 pm

            It’s funny how we auction all the time to sell property in major cities: it gives advantage to the seller in that there are limited recourses available for the buyer to pull-out of the sale (as well as potentially ensuring people out-bid each-other on the day….pushing the prices higher).
            In the Sydney area (where I am) it is almost impossible to purchase a small, free-standing house for less than AUD $1,000,000…housing bubble, anyone 🙂 ?

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