“Art imitates nature.”

This growing season was dry. A number of trees, not to mention my garden, suffered. Upon seeing them losing leaves in early September, I asked my local state forester to look at my trees, both ornamental and native. His suggestion? –whenever possible mulch around the trees. Studies show that mulch both improves fertility and water retention, so trees will better endure the stresses of life, such as drought or even disease.

Somehow in mulching you feel as though you are learning from nature, doing what it does to care for plants and trees. I’ve always loved mulch in the garden, and so I’m using it now with reckless abandon around trees.

Aristotle says that art—the studied use of human reason in various kinds of doings and makings—imitates nature. One way he explains this is that we go about achieving certain practical ends like nature does or would go about achieving those same ends. There is great significance in this complex reality. It points both to how we can be docile in learning from a natural order, and at the same time how we can participate in that order in a rational, creative, uniquely human way.

A forest constantly replenishes its own soil with each year’s carpet of leaves. The forest floor is often simply a multi-layered mulch of leaves in various stages of decomposition. Isn’t this remarkable? What life has knit together—those amazing leaves!—now is gently unwoven by time, releasing nutrients with the happy assistance of other creatures, including those having two, four, or eight legs.

Something feels so right when we can grasp and make our own the processes as old as life itself. I must say I had a peculiar pleasure in covering the grass (and weeds!) around my trees with a thick and tidy quilt of mulch, just in time for winter. Indeed this blanket will also lessen the ground-freeze stress coming soon to the trees.

Here are a few practical ideas. Most any organic matter can act as mulch—-straw or hay, leaves (whole, or especially shredded), grass clippings, or saw dust or shavings (if from natural wood, as opposed for instance to plywood or treated lumber). For trees wood chips are an excellent choice, both for aesthetic and practical reasons. These can often be obtained for very little cost from power companies and tree care companies (because of their limb trimming), or municipalities (such as my own Town of Front Royal) that mulch branches at some central location. Of course chips and other mulches can also be purchased from garden centers.

If you have a number of trees in your yard, here is a great option for you. Take a length of chicken wire or any mesh fencing (such as 15 or 20 feet), or even a few pallets tied together, and make a pen. With the wire this can be as simple as unrolling it in a circle and putting in a couple of stakes to support it. Take all your leaves in autumn, and grass clippings throughout summer if you can collect them, and throw them in there, stomping down as necessary. This is probably a very convenient way for you to dispose of your leaves. If you think of it, you can aid the process by soaking with a hose a few times during the summer, but this is not necessary. Take the long view and before you know it, in a few years, you will see how well the forest takes care of itself, as your leaves turn into a beautiful, layered compost.

Using this compost in garden, foundation plantings, or in a ring around trees, you’ll know you were able to take care of your own little corner of the world, learning from nature’s plan for life.

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