Why I love mulch!

18 Dec


Way back in 2010-11, parents formed a group to work together on improvements to the Children’s Play Area (the “backyard”), which had become more popular because parents had — with the approval of the CV Board — installed a fence “to keep the kids in, not to keep others out!”

We knew we wanted some play equipment, but we went back and forth on (1) exactly how much and what kind and (2) how it would fit in with our in-progress larger designs for the space.  I work (part-time) for public interest environmental groups and was excited to implement something that would fit (in a very small way!) into ongoing efforts in the city to better manage stormwater runoff AND to have a more natural area in which for my kids to play.  The group as a whole decided to take a more natural approach, and mulch was part of that vision:

  • Why not a bigger play structure with built-in synthetic safety surfacing? Because of the size of play structure and required safety surfacing, play equipment would have significantly reduced habitat for species, which the committee sought both for benefits to our kids, as well as to our community (we have intentionally planted native butterfly habitat in the Children’s Play Area and kids are introduced to several species of butterflies, other insects like ladybugs and their larvae, and earthworms — kids have even photographed and video-recorded Black Swallowtail butterflies making their chrysalises on 2 occasions!). In addition, the required safety surfacing would have likely required us to cut down the large tree that dominates the play area, eliminating natural shade and visual beauty.
  • Ok, so no huge play structures, but why not synthetic, permeable safety surfacing? It might have required less maintenance (hard to know), but in addition to habitat value, we thought there might be some benefits in terms of soil quality from bringing in mulch. We tested our soil, and although all our tests from the backyard came back under NY standards, soil lead was elevated from background levels (as it is throughout NYC and other urban areas); we learned that bringing in healthier soil, compost and mulch could help improve our soil quality (when the mulch decomposes, it creates new soil), and potentially make lead and other toxins in our soil less available to people and the broader environment, though that’s harder to know.
  • We have plenty of trees in CV and if the soil is a problem, why not just put in as much synthetic stuff as possible? Increasing impermeable surfaces (like playground equipment and most safety surfacing) means more runoff into NYC’s combined sewer system. During large rainfall events, the system is overwhelmed and sewer waste combines with stormwater to flow untreated into the East River. By improving our soil and being thoughtful about what we plant, we may also increase our soil’s ability to capture stormwater flow and reduce demands on NYCs stormwater system. Grass and soil don’t work as safety surfacing (too hard!), and when you plant native plants and add mulch, you may actually improve the ability of soil to allow for the infiltration of rainfall. I’d love to create an actual rain garden or bioswale . . . but that takes more careful planning and money . . . but maybe? Someday? Maybe kids could even help with design and implementation.

At this point, my kids and I aren’t out in the backyard as much as we used to be, and my kids pretty much refuse to garden with me, especially now that they are entering their teen and preeteen years.  But they spent many happy years as toddlers, preschoolers, and early elementary schoolers looking for earthworms and seeking butterfly eggs, larvae, and chrysalises. My daughter did a science fair project in second grade trying to determine when birds were more likely to be in the play area — early morning or later afternoon (before or after school, basically). We’ve found an impressive patch of four-leaf clovers, picked them with friends and pressed them for posterity.  There are lots of other things they’ve liked about the backyard over the years, but the small ways in which it has allowed them a means to interact with their natural environment in the heart of NYC have felt particularly special.

Harvesting snap peas in June 2013

The happy girl who discovered the caterpillar right before it formed its chrysalis!.

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6 Responses to “Why I love mulch!”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Volunteers Needed for CV MulchFest 1.6.18 | Concord Village EarthLab - December 19, 2017

    […] Volunteers are needed the morning of Saturday Jan 6th.  To sign up, click here . To learn more about the magic of mulch, check out Ansley Sampson’s essay. […]

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