Seeing Red
Kaatskill Life
by Don Statham

I have been noticing for a while now that we Americans are obsessed with reinventing things. And sometimes this is not always for the best. For example, when driving from the city to upstate New York, I’ve observed an offense being committed at an alarmingly rapid rate. In both town and country gardens, homeowners are now mulching their gardens with red mulch, a new craze I don’t understand. This is not a color I am familiar with, except for, perhaps, in illustrations of the planet Mars. Placed in perfect circles around towering sugar maples, or put in straight rows under yellow and orange marigolds, the sin is the same. Why has mulch become decorative? Why upstage a bride? Surely it is the plant we want to see, not the neon ground surrounding it.

The whole point of mulch was that it was practical. It keeps the weeds at bay and keeps plants from drying out during the hot days of summer. Before this new wave, mulch was more or less the same color as the soil, and so when you mulched no one knew. Now, not only your neighbors know but also, I suspect, satellites can detect the red dots from outer space.

I fear that there is no end in sight. It’s become a sort of cult fad. I have made it my personal mission to rectify the situation one mulch salesperson at a time. I begin my campaign by letting them know in no uncertain terms that red mulch is ruining the American landscape. If I sense I have a conversion I stop there, but if not I proceed with intimidating thoughts on esthetics and health. My last attempt at this was only a partial triumph, which shows me I have my work cut out.

Recently, I had gravel delivered to my house and the owner of the company informed me that he had lots of products that might interest me, such as horse manure, topsoil, and mulch.

I said, “Not red mulch.”

He smiled and said, “Yes, we can’t keep it in stock.”

Appalled, I said, “Plants look terrible against that color.”

He replied, “It covers well.”

I quietly insinuated that he was responsible for the decline of the American landscape and that he should be promoting black or brown mulch. He said that he did, in fact, have black cedar mulch but that he couldn’t sell much of it. A small nursery nearby only carried the red stuff until I made a noise. Tony, the owner, agreed with me that the color was unsightly. He now carries regular cedar mulch for those that care.

What is happening when people make choices for themselves against their own better interests? Americans have an insatiable appetite for the new. What other culture would find the Cabbage Patch doll cute? Or purchase a purple dinosaur called Barney for their children? What was wrong with green dinosaurs? On a trip to a large store that carries “everything” I asked for bamboo stakes and the garden saleslady said, “We have tomato stakes” and proceeded to show me a plastic pole made to look like wood.

What’s wrong with something real? Why is the fake or copy preferred? Are we to believe because its new it must be better? I realize I must sound like my grandparents, but I am trying to understand why Americans have gone out en mass and bought red mulch against their better judgment. When confronted with a new product I wish we’d sit down and think about it. Is this really better than what existed before? Is it environmentally sound? Will I be better off by having it?

I went online to try and find out what makes mulch red and in the process I found a new mulch, which I believe may be worse then the red stuff. Made from recycled tires, it is a pleasant earthy brown and, so, I was initially fooled. I am all for recycling, but tires are made from petroleum. What appeared to be charming could be highly dangerous. Do we really want mulch that will never break down and has little to do with the soil it pretends to protect? It would only take a carelessly tossed cigarette to suddenly have a fire on your hands. Tires can burn for days and the fumes are terrible. Imagine that the mulch ignites and burns the house down. The flames spread across the neighborhood to other mulched beds, igniting rhododendrons and azaleas. Before long a suburban neighborhood goes down in flames.

An important part of gardening is in looking to the future: if I plant this shrub today, in ten years it will be 15 feet tall. We gardeners have to constantly look at the garden in the present and visualize what the effects will be in the future. Right now the future looks grim. When we choose fads over substance it reflects a society that doesn’t care to think for itself, but one that is satisfied by surface rather than reason.

Don Statham divides his time between Bloom Design, Inc. in New York City and projects in upstate New York.

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