Funny You Should Ask


When the chips are down

It’s kind of sad, actually, when you think about it. If you’re like me-and for your sake I hope you aren’t-you’ve become jaded by our pervasive consumer culture. You’re increasingly unimpressed and indifferent, perhaps even impervious to the wonders of commercial innovation. Other than that Ginsu knife you bought at three o’clock this morning, can you even remember the last time anything truly took you by surprise, blasted through that prickly shell of skepticism, and earned your instant respect and appreciation?

Well I can, because it happened to me just last week. The product I’m talking about, of course, is bark mulch.1

Now, I realize this is not technically a new concept or material. I realize that landscapers and amateur plant people for decades have been using chopped up pieces of tree skin to great and positive aesthetic effect. But until last weekend, I had never fully appreciated its versatility, transformative powers, and most astounding of all, incredible ease of use. It struck me like a thunderbolt. As a busy homeowner trying to reclaim a wilderness of weeds, it might even have changed my life.

Here’s how bark mulch works, for those of you not directly descended from renowned horticulturist Luther Burbank: First, take an area of your yard, perhaps one hitherto untamed and unweeded, and stare at it for several weeks with bafflement, fear, and general discouragement. Then drive down to the friendly home-improvement megastore that’s sucking the life out of all local business in your region and buy several bags of this miraculous substance, along with a roll of something called landscape fabric.2

Exciting as I know the process sounds so far, the fun won’t really start until you return home with your precious cargo. You’ll step from your vehicle like Clint Eastwood packing heat, look your patch of renegade flora square in the petals, and watch as every leafy tendril quivers in fear. We like to think plants are dumb, but they know what’s happening-they’re about to be smothered and covered in three to six inches of tree chunks. They’re weeping and notifying next of stem.

Things will happen quickly from here. Unroll the fabric over the offending region, cut it to size, and skewer it with garden pegs to hold it in place. Then tear open a mulch bag, shake it vigorously, and let the chips begin to fall. Soon you’ll be madly grabbing another bag, then another. Faster! Faster! You’ll be ripping them apart with your teeth, wildly flinging clouds of bark to the farthest reaches of your target area. In moments, with almost no exertion on your part, your yard will be transformed from an embarrassing, uncivilized wasteland to an eye-popping expanse of decorative glory. “You did all that?” visitors will gasp in amazement and adoration. You’ll just smile a secret, inner smile and think to yourself, “Yes, I am a genius. I really know how to open a bag.”

So here’s my challenge to you, dear reader, and I make it with a high degree of confidence and safety. If you can show me a consumer product in any other segment of our collective existence that achieves this level of instant metamorphosis with this little work, I’ll step on my rake. Bark mulch is simply amazing. No weeding. No rock picking. No scraped knees. No lower back pain. Just throw a piece of cloth over the problem, toss on some chips, and bask in the glory of your achievement. Tiny effort, big reward. What could be better, or more innately American?3

Warning: This is where my more melancholy and tortured self takes over, and a dark cloud suddenly hovers over the topic. I’m troubled by what my affection for bark mulch might say about me as a person4-that I’m all about major transformation with minimum effort, that I’m always looking for the quick fix, that I’m more interested in style than substance, that I’m seeking only effortless accomplishment. Could it be true? Do I live my life like I work my yard, skipping the hard stuff and going straight for the easy achievement? Is it possible? And is it normal to get depressed thinking about bark?

The problem is, it’s not just me. I think we’re basically a bark mulch society, and maybe that explains why the elderly are held in such low esteem, why aging is treated like a disease, and perhaps even why there’s a dire long-term care staffing shortage.5 In this impatient, consumer-driven century, we’re all about progress, power, status-sexy challenges, measurable results, monetary rewards, public recognition. The elderly don’t meet those criteria. We perceive aging as decline, and decline as boring, difficult, and unworthy of our attention. Coping with decline is a huge effort, with an intangible reward-the opposite of modern mulch spreading.

Fortunately, not everyone thinks this way. Walk into any nursing home and you’ll see committed professionals at the bedsides of vulnerable residents, making life better for no reason other than that’s what caring humans do. These aren’t bark mulch people. They know their reward probably won’t be instant or tangible, and their contribution may not even be noticed. They’re doing right by our elders, even though it means passing up a host of easier opportunities for recognition. Day after day they’re shouldering a thankless burden, skinning their knees and breaking their backs to preserve and celebrate the miracle of life.

As a society and as individuals facing an unprecedented landscape of frail and vulnerable seniors, we have a choice-to throw a cover of denial over them; sprinkle some money, government programs, and the heroic efforts of others decoratively on top; and get on with more self-gratifying things, or to get our hands dirty personally tending and protecting life in the often inhospitable terrain of old age, disability, and disease.

You’re a long-term care professional. You’ve already made that choice. And in a bark mulch world, your gardens should inspire us all.

Gary Tetz is the former editor of and, and writes from Walla Walla, Washington. To send your comments to the author and editors, e-mail To order reprints in quantities of 100 or more, call (866) 377-6454.

1.Admit it. You don’t think I can connect bark mulch to nursing homes. You underestimate me, my friend.
2. Some misguided “experts” believe spraying the weeds with Roundup or napalm is a preferable premulch preparation. I don’t subscribe to that approach. I think weeds should be made to sit alive in the dark under a thin layer of landscape fabric, thinking soberly about the trouble they’ve caused.
3.Thinking back on my Canadian childhood, I don’t recall doing much with bark mulch. But we did work similar wonders with tinted ice shavings.
4.It appears I’m forever cursed to see everything as some kind of dark, self-indicting metaphor. Pitiful, isn’t it?
5.See, I did it.1

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