Mulch madness

When I first began converting my lawn into gardens for fruit, vegetables and herbs, a neighbor told me about a free resource that rocked my world: the city of Asheville’s leaf-mulch pile. The massive, steaming mound at the corner of Broadway and Catawba quickly became a much-loved part of my life.

I dumped wheelbarrow loads on my raised beds, blanketed the roots of my fig tree to help it survive the winter, and spread the nutritious “black gold” everywhere. I layered leaf mulch with kitchen compost, mixed it with straw, and piled it high on wet cardboard to kill grass. Worms prospered, the soil became richer and richer, and plant life flourished. My gardens held rainwater and stayed moist — keeping rain out of the city’s storm-water system, decreasing my water bill, and giving the plants plenty to drink.

As I pitchforked leaf mulch onto raspberries, garlic and fava beans, I relished the fact that this miraculous substance came from yards all over Asheville and was free to all. I have always been grateful for such shared resources. Originally, the term “commons” referred to lands and waters where anyone could forage, grow food or hunt. In ancient Rome and Britain, and in indigenous societies around the world, these shared inheritances were held in common rather than privately owned.

Among the generally accepted modern commons are public lands, the oceans and the atmosphere. But today, the concept of the commons has expanded to include commonly held systems, places and even ideas: community gardens, parks, public libraries, radio waves and herbal lore. Participants at the 1992 Earth Summit defined commons as “the social and political space where things get done and where people derive a sense of belonging and have an element of control over their lives.”

Asheville’s leaf-mulch pile was a wonderful example of a local commons. And by building healthy soil, conserving water and supporting plant life to help clean the air, it increased the value of the shared inheritance we will pass on to future generations. I loved introducing other gardeners to the pile, and over the years, I forked many truckloads with friends and neighbors.

The mulch also built community, nourishing a sense of connection among city residents. It offered a tangible experience of sharing resources and being part of something bigger than your own little piece of yard. Every fall, as I pulled out tomato plants and piled on the mulch, I delighted in the idea that somebody somewhere in Asheville was raking leaves that would feed my garden the following year.

And then one day the leaf-mulch pile was gone. Mulch devotees had known that the pile was slated for closure, but no one seemed to know if, when or where the city planned to open a new site. The Sanitation Division told me that mulch from leaves collected by the city was now available through Riverside Stump Dump, a private company. I called them and learned that leaf mulch costs $20 per cubic yard — roughly $50 for a pickup-truck load. I was dismayed: our cherished commons privatized! Leaf mulch commodified!

But the loss of commons entails much more than the disappearance of a pile of rotting leaves. Historically, conquering empires seized the commonly owned property of indigenous peoples for private profit. Here in Western North Carolina, the Cherokee Nation held most land in common until the U.S. government forced it to establish a system of private land ownership just 150 years ago.

Today, battles are being waged around the world over ownership of and access to water, land, energy, services and even genetic material. Ecologist Vandana Shiva points to a “series of enclosures” of commons in the Third World under colonialism, beginning with land and forests, then water and finally biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. Seeds saved for generations and medicinal plants growing in the wild can now be patented by private corporations and sold on the global market. As privatization is imposed, the values that sustain commons as the center of community life are eroded.

This loss has had devastating ecological and social consequences. With multinational corporations and financial institutions like the World Bank leading the charge, what was once stewarded as common property is now plundered for private gain — a major factor in the deepening global environmental crisis. And the enclosure of commons often happens at the local level.

You can see why I was so riled up about the leaf-mulch pile. As I geared up for spring in my garden, I contemplated $50 truckloads of mulch and fumed about the enclosure of our compost commons. How much would it cost me to build soil this year? What was next — corporate ownership of worms? Would other Asheville public services soon be up for sale to the highest bidder? But before I took to the streets in defense of free mulch, I decided to find out more.

The Sanitation Division assured me that recycling organic material is a priority and that the Stump Dump arrangement is only temporary. Within a few months, Asheville aims to have both leaf mulch and ground brush available at the city facility on Azalea Road. But the staff person I talked with said that mulch from the new site “may or may not” be free, depending on how much it costs to manage the system.

The story of Asheville’s leaf-mulch pile can still have a happy ending. City Council should commit to creating, funding and protecting commons. One small step would be making the new mulch site free and open to the public. But Asheville could go further with its compost commons: Other cities sponsor food-scrap and even animal-waste composting, nourishing soil, water and air while enriching community life. The preservation of commons is a gift to future generations, and resources held in common benefit everyone. Long live the mulch pile!

[Asheville resident Beth Trigg is a writer and gardener who has worked on social, economic and environmental-justice issues in the nonprofit sector for the past 10 years.]

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