Monday, April 8, 2013

Adventures of Mulch Boy

It must be made clear: Mulch Boy is all Mulch Man. You must not let Mulch's diminutive title lead you to believe that he is anything less than a co-sovereign of our little kingdom. I did actually ask him whether he wanted to change his title from Boy to Man, but he says Mulch Boy is his preference. And let's face it: it's funnier.

I mention this as preface to a description of Mulch Boy's current adventures. So far I've pretty much focused on my own labors, but Mulch has been laboring mightily himself and deserves appropriate coverage.

Last Saturday, you may recall my somewhat haphazard approach to my garden plan of the day. Lots was accomplished, but I got no high marks for organization.

In contrast, Mulch Boy had but two missions: cut down the dead cherry tree and organize the compost heaps. Unlike his wife, who would have probably attacked this plan by cleaning mulch out of the creek bed, he approached his chosen tasks with laserlike focus.

The first was easily dispatched. We found two sour cherry trees in our backyard our first spring here. They are lovely in flower; when the cherries are ripe, they resemble every cartoon cherry tree you've ever seen on Washington's birthday.

Alas, the one in the very back of the yard began to slowly perish two years ago, from what grievous cherry tree disease we do not know. This spring, Mulch decided to put the poor thing out of its misery. And so Saturday, out came the handsaw and down went the cherry.

It was just a little thing. Mulch dispatched it in less than twenty minutes, taking off the branches until all that was left was its slender trunk, which he brought down in two pieces. From where I sit now on the porch, I can see the tiny stump, perhaps five inches high, all that is left of our pretty tree.

The real challenge of Mulch's day was not so easily overcome.

The compost heaps. Several years ago, my friend and I attended a free class provided by the city of Falls Church on how to make your own compost. If you are like me, you've Googled and read any number of articles about making compost, and have found yourself intimidated by numerous authors warning you about the delicate balance that must be maintained between hydrogen and carbon, the correct proportion of green versus brown matter, required frequency of turning and watering, tumblers versus three-stage bins, and so on.

Luckily, the nice ladies teaching this class talked about all these variables and then told me what I really wanted to hear: it just doesn't have to be that complicated. If you are willing to wait for the big payoff, all you really need to do is throw your leaves and grass clippings in a big pile and leave it there. Eventually (depending on whether you chopped up your leaves first, six months to a year) the bottom of your compost pile will have transformed into actual compost, or as Mulch likes to call it, Super-Soil.

I brought home from the class a free compost bin, which was simply a black sheet of flexible plastic with holes in it to allow air to permeate the pile. Thus our first compost pile was born.

What I did not know was that Mulch Boy had a cherished family compost heap tradition, one that my three-foot wide, three-foot high bin could not honor properly. As I learned, Mulch's grandfather not only maintained an enormous vegetable garden in his day, he maintained an enormous compost heap to support it, perhaps six by six feet. My little bin was fine for what it was, but dreams of a Grandfather-worthy heap took hold in Mulch.

And thus our second compost pile--truly a heap--was born. Behind the shed, where it would not take away from the glamour (hee) of our decorate backyard beds, Mulch began The Big Heap. As long as the length of the shed and perhaps four feet deep, The Big Heap was created by piling together the accumulated leaves already trapped between the fence and the shed, plus adding more leaves vacuumed from around the yard. (It's a big yard, surrounded by hundred-foot-high trees, so that was not an insubstantial amount of leaves.) Finally, an enclosure of chicken wire to keep Dogs out, and The Big Heap was a done deal. And then there were TWO, TWO compost heaps--ah ha ha ha!

Two compost piles would seem to be plenty for your average suburban farmer. But there was a problem. The Big Heap was big, yes, but its demure location behind the shed grew more inaccessible as the plants we installed in the area grew. What's the point of cooking all that fine Super-Soil if you can't actually move it where it's needed?

Then last year came the dry creek bed project. As you may recall, a lot of earth moved to make way for the 92-foot trench that ultimately made our basement safe and dry during rainstorms. Much of that earth was incorporate into the veg garden and the flower beds, but far from all. What to do with all that dirt?

Why, hide it along The Dark Side of the house, of course! As you face our house from the street, you see that the only thing separating our house from our neighbor's on that side is an old aluminum fence and a tiny walkway. This walkway is more tunnel, s it is overhung by four enormous overgrown holly trees, planted mere inches from each other and towering over our house.

It was here that the former homeowners inexplicably plopped several tiny shrubs, I suppose to impress potential buyers. I rescued as many of those poor stunted guys as I could, leaving that dark corner to itself as ill-suited for supporting plant life.

But what about compost? As Mulch Boy moved the dirt displaced by our creek bed to The Dark Side, it occurred to us that this was perhaps a better location for The Big Heap. Not only was it discreet, but imminently more accessible from the front and back yards--not to mention the fact that it appeared to be constantly fed by the continual shedding of the holly trees above it. Brilliant! Pleased with the new plan but exhausted by our labors with the dry creek bed, we left the pile in The Dark Side to do as it would, and left building an actual enclosure for another day. Or, as it turns out, year.

And so finally to the weekend of March 30, 2013. (You thought we'd never get back, didn't you?)

After dispatching the cherry tree, Mulch Boy turned his attention to our various compost heaps... and began to have doubts. Was it too dark in The Dark Side for compost to cook? Wasn't The Big Heap behind the shed much more practical, given its size? Let's hear what happened in Mulch Boy's own words.

It was declared by PQ (Royal Decree # 42) that the big compost pile [The Big Heap] in the back (which has not been mined for two years because we’ve been using the new small compost pile at the side of the deck) was too difficult to get at, and potentially dangerous for MB’s back. MB disputed this at first, saying that he could get back there, and that if in future there was no path for the wheel barrow to get to the compost pile he would just park the barrow by the shed and move one shovel-full at a time to it.
Furthermore, PQ determined that the spot on the outside of the fence by the cellar stairs [The Dark Side] would make a nice secondary compost pile, as it would be easier to get to and because the holly tree sheds back there all year round. Mulch initially didn't agree to this, as that area does not get any sunlight and he wondered if it would compost as well without light. PQ then pointed out that Mulch often got some really good soil from that area from the holly leaves that collect there year round and pile up in the corners. Mulch was forced to grudgingly admit this was so.
After much gnashing of teeth MB acquiesced to the queen’s decree (avoiding open rebellion and maybe an angry stare from the queen when he eventually injured himself trying to get to and from the pile out back and then using some vile language that the children should really not hear), and so decided to move as much of the super soil from the back of the shed to the new spot and as much of the dirt that was in the new spot (leftover dirt from THE TRENCH) to the back.
This was not rebellion, as Mulch saw it. This was a one-time dispensation. Like the repatriating of funds from overseas banks by US corporations (something MB approves of and wishes POTUS would allow) only with super-soil. It took four or five round trips, but the deed was finally done (“for heaven, and the future’s sake” as Robert Frost may have said). Now the new spot is 80% super-soil and 20% leftover dirt from THE TRENCH, and the old back of the shed compost pile is 80% leftover dirt and 20% super-soil. It has been smoothed down so it is even, and the fencing has been removed. It will be left to itself for another two years, at which point the process may be repeated, if needed and allowed. The new area has now been fenced in and will be left to itself except to give it a stir in mid-fall to incorporate any new leaves that will surely pile up there.
The results of Mulch Boy's labors are seen below. (And no, he is NOT as downtrodden as he would have you believe!)

Our first compost heap 1: My Little Bin. It all started here.
Compost Heap on The Dark Side. Daphne rests comfortably
until I find her a new permanent home.
The Big Heap. Grandpa would be proud.


  1. Nice work, Mulch Boy!

    Oh, how I wish I had so many choices for the location of a compost bin/pile/heap. My choices, all of which have been used at some point: In the Driveway, On the Patio, and The Side of the Veggie Garden that Got Too Shady. That last spot sound ok? Let me add that it is right next to the street and adjoining my neighbor's front walk.

  2. I vote for The Side of the Veggie Garden that Got Too Shady. Also, for Capitalizing the Names of Locations in Order to Give Them Formal Titles for No Reason. (hee!)