Sunday, March 27, 2011

Offensive Weaponry

or The Many Uses of Mulch

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I have an on-again, off-again relationship with an outgoing, middle-aged, silvery-gray haired cat named Sir Marley, who belongs to one of my neighbors.  What I admire most about him is his taste, as he clearly prefers my garden to anyone else's in the area.  What I admire least about him—well, we'll get to that in a minute.  When he is sitting in a shady corner of the garden with his feet curled under him, blinking contentedly and purring quietly to himself, I am quite fond of him.  Then there's the rest of the time.

Sir Marley and two other neighborhood toms are currently trying to decide just whose territory my garden is, and "mine" does not seem to be one of the options.  That is, they may let me think of it as "mine" in quotes, but my thinking has nothing to do with their reality.  True, watching Sir Marley sit outside the gate, guarding it against all comers, while one of the other cats slips in over a wall, has its entertaining side.  But when I am working in the garden and the scent of tomcat (so nicely enhanced by all that warm sunshine) overpowers the much more pleasant scent of sand cherry blossoms...we stop being amused.  Transplanting young seedlings into freshly turned earth with your bare hands only to discover that it's not all earth has its downside as well.

Kindly hold that thought for a moment—well, maybe not that particular thought, but the general idea of bothersome catness—while I blather for a minute about mulch.  At long last, I finally managed to pick up 120 pounds of pecan shell mulch from one of my favorite independent garden centers.  (Three cheers once more for helpful young men, and for my Dad, who just gave me a nifty hand truck!)  Mulch, of course, is a fine thing, especially in a dry climate.  It suppresses weeds, shelters helpful decomposers, and adds organic matter to the soil; it cools the earth and keeps it moist; and it keeps the dirt from blowing away altogether, at least until the mulch has blown away first.

Pecan shell mulch, with bonus woolly speedwell
Pecan shell mulch is wonderful for other reasons, too.  Since New Mexico is in the "pecan belt"—the tier of southern states where pecans are grown commercially—the shells are locally sourced, from a product that would otherwise go to waste.  (I hear they're good instead of hickory or mesquite chips in a barbecue, too.)  Only local garden centers carry them, and at least one of them will re-use the bags if you return them.  It's also an attractive mulch, with a distinctive regional look.

Now, to all those virtues, add the fact that it seems to be prickly enough underfoot that cats dislike it.  I would never have thought of mulch as an offensive weapon, but it seems appropriate somehow—in keeping with the spirit of organic gardening, where everything seems to multitask, and where the best offense is a passive, even indirect defense.  Problems with aphids?  Plant flat-blossomed flowers to attract lady beetles and lacewings.  Cabbage moth larvae?  Put out a shallow dish of water to draw predatory wasps.  Cats?  Well, obviously, put down some mulch.

I can't decide whether it's more like Quakerism or chess, which is a little disconcerting.

We'll see how well the mulch works over the long run as a cat deterrent.  This is only round (what are we up to now, three?) three.  Hopefully, Sir Marley will do more contented blinking and purring from the bench and less of the other from here on.

Otherwise, round four may be a dog...

Pecan shell mulch, with ironic catmint


  1. Our house smelled like that for roughly 15 years. Scooter didn't seem to like living with 5 other cats. Or was it 6? It's not easy being crazy old cat people.

    Now we're down to one, but a month ago, just as the penultimate cat started careening to his final rest, a replacement - a duplicate black cat - started hanging around the house; he/she lives in the basement now and stares in at the porch door a lot.

    So far only the basement smells


  2. Stacy I loved reading your post. Sounds like the pecans have found yet another helpful asset. You should share that with your gardening friends. Does the mulch have any scent?

    Your friend Lisa

  3. Greg, somehow I don't think mulch is the solution in your case... Do your cats make each other go through some sort of hazing ritual in your basement or something? They all seem to start out in the cellar and move their way up.

    Lisa, thank you. Yes, who knew pecans were as versatile as all that? :) The mulch doesn't have much of a scent--a little when you take it out of the bag, but nowhere near as strong as cedar.

  4. BTW has anyone explained, that if the tomcats are neutered - they don't smell, or fight, or raise litters of unwanted feral cats?

    I mix our own pecan shells in with the bark mulch ... and Chocolat sleeps there happily in a nice warm bowl he scoops out ;~)

  5. Diana--I've actually been tempted to kidnap the cats and take them to my former vet for a little guerrilla surgery... We have spay/neuter laws now in ABQ, but I think these cats may be old enough to have been grandfathered in. I do have cedar mulch in one bed, which Sir Marley has turned into a little nest--one of those purring and blinking spots I leave for him. :)

  6. I have never heard of pecan shell mulch. It is quite attractive though. I love the warm brown color. Does the color bleach out quickly.

    We use pinebark in this area, as we live in the pine forest belt. People used a lot of pine straw too but it has been outlawed in the town of Raleigh due to fires. Pine staw burn very quickly once die. Plus is breaks down very quickly and I find it unsatisfying as a mulch.

    Ahh... the smell of Tom in the air.

  7. lifeshighway--From what I've seen, the color does fade in full sun, but not as quickly as cedar mulch does. I've heard you can have "problems" the first couple of weeks with birds coming to pick out leftover bits of nuts, but either I ended up with some really clean mulch, or the birds around here aren't hungry. Or the cats keep them at bay... :)

    I can see fire being a real problem with pine straw in dry summers... Does it make the soil too acidic, too?

  8. I too did no hear of pecan mulch. They have cocoa bean mulch here and it is not good for the animals to eat because of the chocolate. But they find it tasty. Loved Sir Marley's story. So cute and worth a smile.

  9. In Montague they use the peach stones as mulch. A good use for a byproduct of the fruit canning/drying industry. Then, your weeds are peach trees!

  10. I fully commiserate... my garden is 'the' spot for all our neighborhood cats. Before buying the house, it was their hangout, and that was when there was NO garden, just a big wasteland. Once fluffy garden soil appeared, the cats were in heaven. I adore cats, but don't enjoy cultivating beds & borders that have been used as a litter box. Tried everything, and finally came to accept that I was powerless;-)
    (BTW Cocoa shell mulch is often suggested here, but ... no change.)
    aka Alice's Garden Travel Buzz

  11. Good luck Stacy! I worry about the feral kitties that might come from Sir Marley's encounters and the harm they all do to wildlife . . . especially birds. The spraying would be hard to take too. I love cats but no longer have them . . . since my two fixed females died years back. I would only ever have one inside now due to the wildlife that live here with me. I just cannot see how that would be kind to the cat though. Occasionally a neighbors might visit but I do not encourage a lengthy stay. It is interesting how you are using the word weapon. I think it would have to be more chess in this case. ;>) I only have living mulches here and some are not invited. Lovely texture and colors to the pecan shell mulch. Speaking of lacewings . . . I have just be taking some pictures of one. They are beautiful, delicate creatures and great predators. Oh dear . . . a dog may just dig up your mulch but would be a sweet companion. The drama that would unfolded between the two toms and your dog might be good material. As always, I enjoy reading your post for your wit and lovely writing style.

  12. Ha. Every day I touch rabbit scat in the garden. I just say to myself "the sun has surely made it safe by now." Yup. We have a sweet neighborhood black cat. Well he was sweet thsi winter, a love bug. Haven't seen him in a while but he eats the small bits of food I put out. I'd like to have a garden cat (we don't let ours out because of ticks, hawks, cats, caterpillars, sticks, sunshine, etc).

  13. GWGT--my sister lives in the southeastern part of New Mexico, and she says the pecan growers down there are desperate to give the shells away, just to get rid of them. Cocoa mulch would give me cravings...

    Diana--now those are weeds I wouldn't mind!

    Alice--I suppose having your privy turn from a wasteland into an oasis with the equivalent of a luxury toilet would be a bit too much for cats to resist. I may end up coming to your own conclusion about powerlessness at some point!

  14. Carol, thanks for the good luck wishes--I expect I'll need them. I can see where you'd choose not to have cats again--they don't mix well with the kind of wildlife habitat you've fostered. I was spoiled by the last dog I had, who wasn't a digger or destructive at all. He enjoyed standing in the oregano for some reason, but that was the worst of it. I'm looking forward to your lacewing photos!

    Ah, but Benjamin, the rabbit pellets are such good fertilizer! It's the least the little munchers can do, after nibbling all the greenery. If you would like to have a garden cat, I can suggest three that I would love to see make the trip out to Nebraska...

  15. Hi Stacy,

    please post large consignment of pecan shell mulch to Sussex, UK immediately. One of the gardens I "do" has a neighbourly cat who has taken to my small patch of onions and garlic. I've devised a cat's (!) cradle of garden twine affair over the bed, thinking this would deter him. But this cat (I call him Nemesis - though now he shall be knighted. Arise, Sir Nemesis) delicately high steps over the string to do his infernal catty business. I've tried giving him very hard stares and even shaking my fist but to no available.

    A dog standing in the oregano gets my vote every time.


  16. Dave, the hard stares and shaken fists haven't worked? You astonish me. I have the feeling the pecan shell mulch won't stay prickly underfoot for long, alas. Weird--the repellent spray I got as a backup plan is almost all garlic oil. Apparently, Sir Nemesis wouldn't find that a threat either. He's a tricky one.

    Isn't it awesome to know that all it takes for knighthood is to have someone engrave "Sir" on your ID tag?

    I'm with you on the dogs.