On Mulching

One of the articles on my Messages from Marcia blog, is entitled “The Summer of Superweed Hell!” It tells about how I have been spending 2-4 hours a day weeding and then mulching with the intention being to smother the weeds so that they do not come up again next spring and throw me into a sci-fi-esque scene of being surrounded by millions of superweeds!

What are ‘superweeds’?” my city-folk friends may ask. Once I found I had lots of them on my acreage, I had to study up on the science of superweeds. There are numerous varieties, mine being Waterhemp, but they have in common that they’ve evolved a resistance to the herbicide Roundup, which most of the farmers (and gardeners) here in Central Illinois use to kill weeds. They can grow 2” in a day (!) and one plant has around 500,000 seeds!! Freaky! Now, even though I’m involved in this intense battle and have killed thousands of them, I gotta hand it to the little devils for their ability to survive. It’s like they’re giving the finger to Monsanto—take that! And that! And that! Anyway, the farmers are freaked out, so I gotta handle mine so they don’t sue me because my plants’ seeds blew into their fields.

When Kevin (my Woody Perennial Polyculture mentor) told me last July that I needed to take them down immediately, I paid a couple of his guys to go through the rows with their jim-dandy weed wackers. Two problems with this— (1) they couldn’t use the weed wackers close to the new plants for fear of accidentally chopping them down; and (2) the weed stumps that are left then coppice. (Look it up… I had to… You can probably guess… clue: remember “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from “Fantasia”?)

You no doubt wonder why I do not hire others to do this work—after all, you just take the mulch and put it where you want it, right? Well, let me tell you, it is an ART and a SCIENCE! Without my B.S. (Bachelor of Science) and M.A. (Master of Arts) degrees, I doubt I could do it!

For instance, there is SCIENCE regarding one’s tools. Of the hand sickles I tried, only the one with the Japanese blade worked. Then, it mysteriously disappeared! Weeks later it was found out in the alfalfa. (Playful coyote?) So enter the science of putting bright orange tape on the handle—and buying two more sickles based on the proven scientific theory that if something is really important, one should have two of them.

Note that some of the Waterhemp stems are so thick and strong that I have to use LOPPERS (the tool one uses to prune branches off trees) to cut them off! It only takes me a couple of tugs now to know which I can pull up by the roots and which need to be sickled or lopped.

Then there’s the SCIENCE of wheelbarrows. The little red one was the right one for a little ol’ (71) lady, 5’2”, 110 lbs., but one day the nuts fell off, as did the wheel. Try to find nuts in an alfalfa field! When I went to purchase nuts and bolts to fix it, I did not know the right kind to buy, and bought ones that were unworkable. Who would have thought it—something as simple as nuts and bolts?! That’s when I learned that the big green wheelbarrow someone gave me was hard to handle. How can a wheelbarrow be hard to handle? Well, it has to do with the science of height and weight and angles and force… it’s complex, but all I know is I sure was happy to get my little red wheelbarrow fixed!

An 8-pronged pitchfork works best to pitch the wood chips; but then there’s the SCIENCE relating to the length of the handle. When I found one with a short handle AND a hand grip on the end, I was in heaven!

As for work clothes, now we’re talking both SCIENCE AND ART. You would think in the heat of summer I would want to be as bare as possible. But, no! That would leave my skin bare such that I would get a weird-looking tan (being a girl who can’t just strip naked to the waist!). Also my dermatologist warns to stay out of the sun from 10 to 2. Thus I had to have TWO work bras, morning and afternoon, so that each would have 24 hours to dry out before being worn again. The best pants have a loose elastic waist, loose fit, 4 pockets, light in summer, heavier in winter. Summer shirt is a white/light man’s shirt, big, loose, with collar, and long sleeves whose cuffs I cut off to a length where the shirtsleeve meets the gardening gloves. And, yes, I always wear gardening gloves—ones that are good for both pulling the weeds and for handling the pitchfork and spreading the mulch. Imelda Marcos had 1000 pairs of shoes… I have a dozen pairs of work gloves.

As for proper footwear, thanks to my natively high intelligence, I knew to purchase rubber blog shoes (for summer) and fur-lined work boots for winter. Do NOT try to find these at the mall; search for stores like Farm and Fleet. Then try not to accidentally puncture your boots with your pitchfork! Ha, ha! Your footwear can stay in the garage in summer, but in winter you want your boots (and gloves) to be warm. I had to turn my utility room into a “mud room,” which creates an artistic challenge!

How to keep the sweat out of one’s eyes? A zillion ways, no doubt. But I chose to use a bandana–in my color palette (ART), of course, in case anyone stopped by—properly folded and tied. If it wasn’t too windy, I’d wear my straw hat that ties under the chin, mainly when the sun was low as in early morning and late evening.

There’s an old adage about weather in Illinois: “If you don’t like it, wait five minutes!” Harty-har-har! But, damn, if ain’t pretty true!

In winter, there’s more SCIENCE to be applied, e.g. one needs to know the formula for how many degrees to lower the temperature due to wind chill. It’s also smart to research and know just when frostbite sets in, and at what point your fingers/toes turn black and fall off. You can read about why mittens are warmer than gloves, but there’s nothing like experiencing the difference in real life. Then be glad you live in a high-tech world in which you can purchase handwarmers—little packets with magical ingredients that get warm when you shake them. I can’t pull weeds with packet-mittened hands, but I sure can pitch and spread mulch!

I’m still learning about the relationship between coldness of the air (factoring the wind chill—and there is ALWAYS wind on Lockie Farm!), thermal underwear (which comes in 3 gradients of thermalness), and body temperature. Ya pretty well gotta have a degree in math to figure this out!

Then there’s the SCIENCE of wind. First thing to figure out is the direction from which it is blowing, necessary to know so as to prevent the dirt from the mulch from blowing into your eyes. Knowing this, one then has to figure where to place the wheelbarrow and which direction to pitch from. It didn’t take me very many times of getting dirt in my eyes to figure out that I should close them once I start to make the pitch. That brings up the factor of PRACTICE. By consciously practicing squinching my eyes when pitching, I can pretty well do it now automatically—like automatically sharping the F’s when playing in G major.

Now you probably haven’t thought about the SCIENTIFIC aspect of the control necessary to dump the contents of the wheelbarrow exactly where you want it. One has to lift up the handles and then, keeping the contents balanced, change from a pushing grip to a dumping grip—a bit of fancy “hand jive”! For a “righty,” the left hand and arm is weaker; so I had to consciously send more energy to the left hand when dumping, otherwise I could lose control (happened a few times!) and have the mulch land in the wrong spot—an error not easily fixed given the tiny size of a wood chip!

After making the dump, I carefully spread the pile of mulch into a 3-square foot patch. As a lady, I like to be dignified, but I could never figure out the ART of remaining dignified while bending over with legs akimbo, butt up, pawing the mulch with my hands! But I was good at the ART of smoothing the seams between the 3-square-foot patches.

As for the SCIENCE of the body, more than once I had a few ribs go out, and looks like I have a case of “pitchfork elbow”! Question: if I keep mulching, will it heal, or not? My chiropractor and masseuse work on them and know better than to tell me to stop working. Plus I learned that if I weed/mulch directly after eating a big meal, it tends to come up when I bend over. Yuck! But the good news is that I’ve lost 10 lbs and have developed rock-hard quads and biceps!

It’s good to have a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to bodily functions. When I was working a quarter mile away from the house, I wasn’t about to walk all the way back and forth just to relieve myself. I just put some toilet paper in my pocket, look both ways, squat behind the wood pile, and postulate that the act was not happening exactly on the hour, which is when Kevin’s research camera takes a picture of my acreage.

My SCIENCE physics lesson came one late afternoon when dark clouds gathered and I started hearing thunder. Of course, I kept working. Then I started seeing some lightning flashes. Hmmm… I’m out in a big field, no trees, exposed… plus I’m holding a sickle with a metal blade… and handling a metal wheelbarrow … now what was that experiment Ben Franklin did with the kite and lightning? Damned if I could remember! So when the next lightning bolt occurred, I made what I figured was an intelligent decision and bravely speed-walked back to the house.

Also involved is the SCIENCE of prediction. There are three tree services who bring me free mulch, but I usually only have a few hours (if that) notice of when they will arrive. So the game is to take down a new mulch pile as fast as possible, and also to always know where I want the next one to be delivered. Sometimes there are choices, and factors can easily change, so one must learn how to compute on many random factors, make the right decision, and have the ability to change one’s decision at the last moment. Being female, that last part is pretty easy for me. 🙂

I could easily feel that there’s something wrong with a person who has two college degrees doing manual labor. But I remind myself that I am not just mulching superweeds—I am an Agriculture Activist (ahem), creating a farm that can be a demonstration site for restoration agriculture. Knowing I am “on purpose,” and having figured out all of the above, I can more easily get into the zen-like, be-in-the-moment frame of mind, and just happily mulch away!

I hope you now understand why I’m so glad I got a B.S. and an M.A. and am doing my own mulching. Hire a teenaged hunk who only thinks about you-know-what to do this complex work? I don’t think so!