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Garden in the City: The Battle of the Mulch

By Patty Wetli | August 19, 2013 8:32am

LINCOLN SQUARE — Mulch isn't among the top causes of conflict among married couples.

Except in our household.

It all started when Master Gardener Pete told us we needed to amend our plot's soil to improve its water retention. He mentioned a couple of options, but all I heard was "cocoa bean husks." Actually, all I heard was "chocolate."

Imagine, a garden of chocolate soil. I'd never heard of such a thing but immediately knew I had to have it.

After a bit of online research, I dispatched Dave to Wonka World Menard's to fetch a few bags of this magical mulch.

He returned home empty-handed.

"They didn't have it," he said. Neither did Gethsemane Garden Center, he told me, which reminded me of the time we walked into a Pizza Hut while road-tripping through Utah and our waitress informed us they were out of crust.

At Gethsemane, "the woman said they don't carry it anymore," said Dave. "They had other alternatives that were just as good but didn't smell as nice."

My chocolate dreams deflated, I gave my garden sherpa the OK to choose one of those alternatives and vowed to infiltrate the cocoa bean husk black market, if need be, next year.

Ladies, you know what happened next.

He came home with the wrong mulch.

"Peat? You bought peat? You know that peat's totally unsustainable. I don't even think it's mulch. Why the f--k would you buy peat?"

From Home Depot, no less.

It was like the opposite of everything the urban gardening movement stands for. Why not just announce to our fellow gardeners that we clubbed a baby seal and traded the pelt for blood diamonds?

But peat it was.

We schlepped the bag over to the garden where I continued my harangue, peat having risen in my mind to an ecological disaster on par with the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.

"You're not spreading it right," I said, as Dave scooped trowels of his misguided purchase into our plot. "It's too thick and clumpy. And you're getting it all over the plant leaves. I hate feeling like if I want something done right, I always have to do it myself."

The capper came when I overheard a fellow gardener, a few beds over, extolling the praises of her beautiful cocoa mulch.

Steam literally came out of my ears.

Eventually I simmered down — contrary to popular belief, torturing Dave is not my life's goal. He's been generous enough to take on a passion of mine as his own, with little more than the occasional harvesting of kale as reward. He's even more of a newbie than me when it comes to growing our own food — the point of this whole exercise wasn't to be perfect but to share the learning experience.

I mean, two months ago, I couldn't identify a "ripe" pea.

But I did Google "does peat work as mulch" when we got home.

And lo, not only is it not sustainable (peat bogs are being depleted around the globe at an alarming rate), as mulch it pretty much sucks. It's not particularly beneficial to soil from a nutritional standpoint and it's so lightweight, it tends to blow away or wash away before it can do much good. Shredded newspaper makes for better mulch. So does cardboard.

I'm not saying I rubbed this in Dave's face. Aside from a column on the World Wide Web.