Mucho Mulcho

mmmm.... mulch

A friend of mine recently told me a story about sitting in her fenced backyard and accidentally overhearing a conversation her new neighbour was having with someone on the other side of the fence. While working in her flowerbed this new homeowner complained loudly about “all of the bark s*#t” lying around. (I’d say that one is most likely not gardening material.) My friend commented on the irony of the fact that the previous owner had put so much effort into properly mulching her beds every year, and here was someone who obviously had no clue about the benefits of her efforts.

At the risk of insulting everyone’s intelligence therefore, here is the definition of mulch: any protective cover that is placed over the soil to retain moisture, reduce erosion, provide nutrients, and suppress weed growth and seed germination.[1] The one benefit this definition doesn’t take into account is that the effort of spreading 3 cubic yards of mulch over all the flower beds is a perfect opportunity to teach kids to take up a shovel and work.

Is it just me, or has “work” become a bad word in the context of children? I’m not talking about child labour, which is undeniably horrific. I’m talking about the notion that little suburbanites should be catered to and not be expected to pull their weight in the family. Most of us would agree that it’s only right for a teenager to be expected to mow the lawn, but how does that happen unless children learn to work when they are young? The norm today is for adults to run themselves ragged working, while their children do nothing but play all day.

Children are more capable of channeling their energies into meaningful work than one may think. This isn’t to say that they enjoy the prospect of work on a regular basis, but as long as they live under our roof, that’s beside the point. Kids as young as three or four can be taught to do a variety of chores around the house, from cleaning up their own piles of laundry to cleaning out the dishwasher (remove the knives and breakables, please!). Children can set and clear the table, and be expected to tidy up their own messes, particularly at the end of the day. At our house, we divide up the regular responsibilities so that both of the older children are involved, though in different capacities (given their differing levels of ability). I will admit to it being more work to teach children to do chores rather than just doing them ourselves, but oh, how sweet it is when you can just tell them to clean out the dishwasher after breakfast and go have a shower!

What we are finding is that our rather large lawn and ever-expanding flower and vegetable beds are a perfect opportunity to teach them the value of breaking a sweat doing manual labour. Yesterday was mulch-day, which is exciting for several reasons: the kids get to ride along to pick up the mulch from the local soil depot, where a big front-end loader dumps the load into the trailer. Exciting every time. Next, they may get a turn shoveling the mulch out of the trailer (how often do you get to stand in a trailer?!). After the initial excitement wears off, however, there are still 3 cubic yards of mulch waiting to be spread around the yard and that translates into a lot of hard work for several long hours. While we don’t expect our children to stick with it for the entire time, we do encourage them to put in their best effort.

We have found that special treats for the workers are a great way to keep them engaged. A cookie or freezie break here and there helps. And let’s not underestimate the value to the entire family of jointly getting behind the proverbial plow and being able to celebrate together at the end of a long day’s work. These are good memories we are building with – and for – our kids. Amazingly, our 6-year-old stuck with the task until the bitter end yesterday. In fact, while working side-by-side we had some great conversations, including one about the value of hard work. Curious to see what he would say, I asked him whether he thought that a big job like this deserved a reward or not. As though he had previously prepared himself for this question, he replied, “even if there is no reward for doing a job, we can still feel good about a job well done” (I could almost hear his grade 1 class reciting it in unison).

As it was, our neighbours invited us to use their pool afterwards, which was quite possibly the best reward of all for everyone. Anyone who has ever spread mulch on a humid day knows that there’s nothing like jumping into water once you’re done. This applies to adults and kids alike!

[1] Source: Accessed:July 3, 2011

4 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Alison said,

    I have been meaning to tell you, but obviously get sidetracked every time I see you, that your garden looks beautiful. Every time i drive by I admire your ever growing flowerbeds and think “wow their garden looks beautiful this year”.
    Please be sure to pass this along to Teddy, Sam and Caleb as they obviously have a great deal to do with it 🙂

    • 2

      Debbie said,

      Thank you, my friend! It’s a work in progress. Wait until you see what we’re planning… We’ll definitely need little monkey muscles for that one 🙂

  2. 3

    Wendy S said,

    We don’t have many gardens at our place. I seem to oversee anything that doesn’t jump up at me and scream “Hey injustice has been served!” This year however, the boys were adamant that they wanted a garden. So together, we dug out a small portion of the backyard, pulled the grass, turned the soil. Oma provided several hearty flowers. It is a great way to teach not only the value of work, but responsibility. If they did not water the flowers, there was a visual consequence (the flowers wilted). Together we worked and pulling weeds. The boys also love pretending that our place is a farm. They give hay (dried grass) to the “cows” and prune the dried branches out of the pine trees. It must be a latent gene emerging from my roots!

    • 4

      Debbie said,

      Good on you all! Given the opportunity, most kids’ natural inclination to interact with the natural environment flourishes. Unfortunately, when given the choice between screens and dirt, kids will usually pick a screen, won’t they? Let us be vigilent as parents to provide those opportunities to get dirty!

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