The case of the disappearing mulch

Over the years, hundreds of bags of bark have been scattered in her garden, but where did it all go?

Nature abhors bare ground – especially in gardens – and is only too willing to cover patches of naked earth with an endless variety of weeds. That's why I mulch, hiding all those bare spots with a thick blanket of shredded bark. It keeps down the thuggish weeds that steal water and nutrients from my plants. It also insulates my plants from heat and cold and keeps moisture close to their thirsty roots.

There is only one problem – my garden eats mulch. Skeptics might say that the disappearing mulch is the result of natural decomposition. They might also remind me that some of my precious bark shreds leave the premises during wind- and rainstorms or get compacted in the natural course of events. I understand about those things, but this is something different.

I buy my mulch bagged at the garden center and lug it around myself. I hurl it into the beds with my own hands and spread it with my own rake, so I am positive that every ounce of it hits the ground. With all that personal mulch involvement, you would think I would notice it disappearing. You would be wrong. Over the years I have bought hundreds of bags of mulch, and every year I find vast expanses of bare or nearly bare ground that look as if they've never been mulched before.

My husband, who is wary of the raccoons that burgle our garbage cans, is sure that they are responsible for mulch theft. He is in awe of their ingenuity, so he just assumes that they are bagging it up and reselling it down the road. I don't doubt that the raccoons are capable of such nefarious dealings, but I think they are more interested in all the flimsy neighborhood garbage cans. If I believed in garden spirits, I would lay the mulch theft at their doors.

My neighbors don't seem to have this problem, but appearances are everything in my suburban town and I am embarrassed to ask them about it. They may be too busy flinging their own mulch to stop and wonder where it all goes.

Can the plants themselves be eating it? The prime suspect in my yard is a bright red "Disco Belle" hibiscus that seems to get bigger every year. We also have a rose that started eight years ago in a one-gallon pot and is now six feet tall and eight feet wide. Neither plant receives any supplemental food or water, so it stands to reason that they must be fueling their enormous growth by snarfing down mulch like hungry teenagers. The rose – a rambler with exceptionally long canes – can easily reach into adjacent garden areas to steal tasty shredded bark.

I would love to solve the mystery, but, as with any disturbance in the ecosystem, there is always a chance that the solution might be worse than the problem. I really don't want to tangle with thwarted raccoons, angry garden spirits, or even enraged "Disco Belles." Not long ago I noticed that some of those long rose canes had begun to arch menacingly toward my bedroom window. If I persist in the mulch investigation, I will have to do the prudent thing and take my loppers to bed with me every night. That would be hard on my marriage.

Sometimes it's better to let sleeping mulch lie.

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