The economics of mulch

FRANCIS: You’d better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new
circle, As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles
and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD: No. What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter and to keep the soil moist and loose?

FRANCIS: After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something
which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place
of the leaves.

ST. FRANCIS They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

Here is the link.  The economist cackles and sees a typical confusion between engineering and economic notions of efficiency.  Here is what you must do to turn your leaves into useful mulch.  I need Yana to show me how to work the TiVo.  How am I supposed to "add extra nitrogen" to my leaves?  And get this advice:

The second thing to do to guarantee leaf-composting success is to grind or shred your leaves. We will deal with this in detail later on, but let me tell you right now that it will make things simpler for you in the long run. A compost pile made of shredded material is really fun to work with, because it is so easily controlled and so easy to handle.

I am still laughing.  But wait, I am worse yet.  I don’t even know how to buy or use mulch.  I hire Guatemalan immigrants to perform the entire task for me.  For all I know they are out in my lawn right now, measuring out the nitrogen and adding it to my mulchable leaves, patting them into just the right shapes.  But even at $12 an hour, somehow I don’t think so.

Do recognize that modernity has brought considerable reforestation to the United States.


This reminds me of a comment I heard John Bogle (the Vanguard mutual funds guy) make recently on a radio program. He distinguished between people who are "makers" and those who are "takers" -- makers are the good guys, since they "make" things, like cars and computers, I guess, while takers (stock brokers and such) are supposed to be the bad guys. So, under Bogle's view, those Guatemalans are "takers," since they don't make anything and are doing something you could be doing yourself.

Speaking as a onetime garden, mulch, and compost enthusiast ... there is some confusion here between the domains of mulch and compost.

Many leaves are indeed, by nature, mulch. Just rake them to where you want them.

If you want compost ... you can pursue that with the zeal of any other enthusiasm. Many types of leaves will, left in a pile, spontaneously produce wonderful compost. Other types benefit from additions. That said though, I never had to buy anything. Lawn clippings are high nitrogen (and high moisture) and can often benefit from a few fallen leaves. Ah well, as you can see ... one may develop an enthusiasm, though I never felt the need for one of those plastic contraptions. A pile, or a pile against a bit of fencing, works fine.

The Guatemalans are makers since they produce something (gardening services in theis case). Takers would be people employed in what economists call transaction costs. If there were a broker who negotiated the services of the Guatemalans. He would be what Bogle would refer to as a taker. Sometimes transaction costs reduce the overall cost of a transaction especially in complex transactions (would you buy a home without a title search). Many times transactional agents outlast their usefulness.

I just have (Mexicans) rake my leaves into the spots where I need mulch. problem solved! I produce a surplus of leaves, though, and I think the city uses them for compost after it hauls them away. I guess that means Bogle would call me a maker.

p.s. I'm not sure Bogle is really against all transactional agents, as much as against agents who charge you a lot without adding value. Does any (active) money manager or (human) stock broker add value to an individual investor? The evidence is overwhelming that no, you should just give Bogle (Vanguard) your money and let him invest it passively at low fees.

I actually have a compost story that makes people laugh.

I had a great compost pile when I lived in New Orleans. Compost has to be turned every once in a while.

One fall I put leaves in there - unshredded, because all of this advice cited by Tyler is unnecessary in the sub-tropics. I also lost a pencil that day.

A few months later I was doing a good dig in to turn my compost when I found my pencil - a newish yellow Eberhard-Faber. Then I bent down to pick it up.

As soon as I touched it the paint collapsed into a yellow line. Then I noticed the eraser - or lack thereof. All that was left was the metal ring. It was like a film where an object dissolves into mist.

I had completely composted a pencil ...

So... I am correct in concluding that if I don't rake my yard, it'll all be okay? It'd be nice if god was saying this, as the debate in my house right now is that the blanket of leaves covering my back yard has destroyed the lawn. Please tell me my wife is wrong on this one.

In an attempt to make gardening more palatable to the economist, I would like to mention that I know many north African immigrants happy to subcontract the task of maintaining nitrogen levels, at rates far lower than those demanded by Mexican or Guatemalan immigrants. Typical payment is a bowl of cat food (preferrably dry food; it's better for the teeth) and a warm place to sleep. Amortised cost is about a $1/day. Also performs duty as a hot water bottle and alarm clock.

There are about 20 trees in my yard and in the fall they lay down
a thick layer that covers everything. I just let them lie. The
earthworms eat them and by spring they're mostly gone. The 'grass'
is full of violets, clover, dandelions and a great variety of other
ground hugging plants for which I have no name but which I mostly
like. It's always amazed me that people would want to kill violets
and clover.

I cut the grass and grass-like plants every two weeks in summer.

The "increase" of tree density (from replanting, plantations, etc) is of low quality compared to the areas that are deforested. Old-growth and natural forests are *completely* different, entire ecosystems, and cannot be replaced so easily with a similar number of replanted acreage. You've got to see an old growth redwood forest (3% left!) to really know what forest means...

I think it's funny to focus specifically on reforested farmland as the environmental contribution of "modernity." It that's all it had done, and not also cut down a great deal more old growth foresets, as David reminds us, everything indeed would be roses.

We bought our house from a vetarinarian. When we raked out the compost from the bin, we found it to contain many mammal bones. So there's another compost accelerator.

I enjoy hearing this debate on whether one should mulch there own garden or get someone else to do it. Based on the assumption that the lawn requires continual maintenance, we have to determine who is right for the job. The question you really have to ask yourself is whether it is to your advantage to do the job yourself, or hire out. At first I would have said that it is less costly if I do it myself because my time is free to me. Boy was I wrong. I found out that my time working in my lawn, in fact, cost me more than hiring out. Why might this be the case? Well, as it turned out the afternoon it took me to do lawn work could have been done in half the time by a lawn care company who had some experience. Plus, if I had gone to work that day instead of working in my lawn I would have made twice the amount of money I would have paid the lawn care company. So, by doing my own lawn I had a large opportunity cost. They definitely had a comparative advantage because they had a lower opportunity cost than I did. The lawn care company also had an absolute advantage by being able to do it faster. Now, when I pay 12/hr. I don't feel bad because I not only helped the Gross Domestic Product, but I also helped myself by using my time/resources wisely.

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