Monday, April 17, 2006

Red, Red Mulch

Yesterday afternoon I was holed up at my work table, reading about organic cotton, and conventional textiles and toxic commercial dyes. I was working on the eco-groovy clothing chapter for the new book. Needing a stretch, I wandered out into the front yard. I noticed straightaway that the next-door neighbors had just heavily mulched their flower bed with a kind of mulch that's dyed red; it looks like dyed red hair. It's a garish bright red. Egads I said to myself. Their flower garden is just uphill from our organic vegetable garden, just a few feet away. I picked up a handful of red, red mulch and brought it inside, put it in a cup with a little water. After 30 seconds, I poured the water into a white cup. The water was dark red, opaque; the cup was stained red. I went back outside and looked at one of the mulch bags lying in their yard. It said "Red Colored Mulch." Manufactured by P&L Bark Nursery in Pageland, SC.

I came back inside and looked at one of the textiles articles I was reading. It said, "Virtually all commercial dyes are toxic, made from petrochemicals with heavy metals."

Okay so now what, I wondered. I really like the neighbors, a nice couple with a 14-year-old son. But I definitely didn't want that stuff in the veg garden. So I went and knocked on the door,
next door.

The son came to the door, parents were out. I told him how nice the flowers looked. He bought all the flowers and all the mulch himself, he said, an early mothers day gift. He planted them all and laid all the mulch down himself. (Ouch.) His hands and arms were still red. He liked the red mulch, he explained, even though it cost more than the non-dyed mulch.

I showed him the red cup and explained about the organic garden, and toxic dyes. "But" he said "I thought if the government says it's okay, you know, if they sell it at Home Depot, it must be okay." Well. "I used to think that too," I said. "Then I started reading. Started calling people, interviewing people. Just because someone sells it, doesn't mean it's okay." We talked, in a friendly way. I told him I would be happy to scoop it all up myself, buy more un-dyed mulch and lay it down. I just needed permission to begin. He called his mom on her cell.

An hour later we were all scooping up mulch. In about 30 or 40 minutes we scooped up 8 bags of red, red mulch, enough to fill both roll-out trash bins, theirs and ours. We cleared it out of their flower garden. I offered to buy more mulch, 8 more bags. They declined.

We actually had a very friendly conversation during the whole thing. I was very nice, they were very nice. It probably improved our relationship. I was as extremely affirming of the son as I could be at every step. He deserves it; he's a neat kid.

The next morning I put money to reimburse them for all the mulch into a card, a nice card, and taped it to the inside of their door. Said do what you like with it.

Now they have mulch-less flower bed. The soil is still a little red, from the one watering he gave it before I saw it.

Shouldn't we have more limits on chemicals in the environment? Dye on mulch serves no purpose at all. It's not even pretty. I think about the kid's red arms. I told him to wash them. I hope he did.


Buffy said...

Well done.

Anonymous said...

Wal-Mart, Home Depot, & Lowe's all have policies of sustainability, but they have not been living up to them in the world of mulch. Cypress mulch, for example, has severe environmental impacts in all of the Gulf States. Mulching companies have been clear cutting cypress forests just for the purpoes of creating mulch. There are many claims about cypress mulch, such as that it resists rot, repels insects, & maintains its apperance for a long time. However, a studey at the University of Florida has dicredited all of these claims. In order for these properties to be true the trees need to develop the heartwood which takes around a century. Cypress trees are important for providing habitat for wildlife, storm protection (every 3.5-4 miles drops storm surge by a foot), water quality & quantity, and recreational purposes. To help prevent the destruction of these vluable trees and to tell Wal-Mart, Hoe Depot, And Lowe's to stop selling cypress mulch visit

vonlafin said...

Great story, boy you've got nerve! My worry with dyed red mulch has always been....they usually use ground up pallets, and then dye it red. My question is, what was setting on those pallets before they were ground up? What chemicals leaked on to them? Scares me!! Then add the dye to that, what a combination!

Anonymous said...

That was a lovely post! What an awesome way to get a 14-year old thinking about the environment and our govt's lack of oversight. (Plus a rad way to spend time with your neighbor.)

Well done. Heartwarming, really.

germi said...

I'm SO GLAD this had a happy ending! What a great post - I am a new reader, and I'll keep on coming back!

Mary said...

Yesterday afternoon my 18-year-old son sat on a raised bed with red mulch at a graduation party. His light shorts were spotted with red dye which resisted all my attempts at removal later. It triggered some anger/frustration on my part as I reflected on the number of people who are using this thinking only of the color but not the effect on the earth below it. My 78-year-old neighbor has proudly asked me what I think of his red mulch. I am going to follow your example and tactfully ask him if he has considered the effect of the red dye. It's nice to know there are others who have same concerns. Mary.

Garden Grove said...

We live in a world of stupid, and you and your underlings personify the idiocy with which people with any semblance of common sense are fed up.

Because of this, I'm buying 16 bags of Red dyed mulch and I'm going to spread it around to as many places as I possibly can.

If I were a 14 year old kid that had just laid 16 cubic feet of mulch, just to have their enviro-frek of a neighbor come over and tell me that it's a bad thing, I'd have punched her in the ovaries so she couldn't further bear any retard spawn. Now, there's a way to save the environment.

Anonymous said...

The title of this should be "much ado about nothing". If the person had spent half as much time researching red mulch on the Internet as he/she did writing this breathless prose, he/she would have found out that mulch isn't dyed with some noxious petrochemical dye, but simple iron oxide. So unless their organic garden is going to expire in the presence of some rust, the whole effort was for naught. It must be exciting to live in a world where everything around you is full of toxins, and all of industry is conspiring to poison you.

Anonymous said...

What do you expect when red dye is put in a cup with water? Of course it will stain the cup. And that's all that it could possibly prove, at best! There is no independent verification of any of the author's assertions, so that is all they can possibly be: assertions.

Good grief, get a life!

Anonymous said...

I am also concerned about things I expose myself to, expecially since I'm in my 50's and the liver is probably been overworked since the day I was born.

Anyway, I liked your concern, but after reading the last couple "nicer" replies, I have to agree that it takes more than stained cups, skin and clothes to changed my mind. I asked the nursery where I purchased my red mulch how it was made and it is pallets dyed with Georgia red iron oxide from their red soil. I'm happy - for now.

Anonymous said...

Great story??? Lovely post???? Are you KIDDING??? Why don't you self righteous tree huggers care about your neighbors feelings and not your ridiculous claims of "poison" red mulch. This story is neither "heartwarming" or "lovely". It is an exhibition of PREACHY SELF SATISFIED ARROGANCE and IGNORANCE. Why don't you call up PETA now and ask them to save the aphids your neighbors are killing by spraying their roses? STUPID!

Anonymous said...

Wow, some of these responses are so over the top. There are some really mean people out there. It's fine to disagree but why all the vehement drama?! Beyond that, it's amazing to see people so brazenly adhering to such an unenlightened, obsolete perspective. It's hard to believe that in this era, people continue to deny the level of toxicity in our environment and it's impact upon our welfare.

Anonymous said...

Why is it "OK to disagree", but as soon as someone does, their viewpoint is labeled as an "unenlightened, obsolete perspective"?! I think that most people are tired of the "peer reviewed" scientific hoopla being passed off as fact, especially when there is emerging evidence to the contrary. Also, I think that you should have said "it's impact upon our well being", instead of "it's impact upon our welfare". Welfare is just another word for the liberal propaganda agenda.

Ukchana said...

I looked it up myself because my dad (an old hippie from the 60's) told me that it would poison us being under our tomato plants.

Turns out that's not true. It's dyed with iron oxide - many websites list that as the source of the red coloring.

Being that you're posting this on the internet, you should try to avoid embarrassing yourself and concentrate on fact-checking before you post. Even better - fact check before you start dictating how other people run their lives.

It's dangerous to be willfully ignorant, no matter what your beliefs are.

Sally Kneidel, PhD said...

Thanks for your comment, Ukchana, but not everyone agrees with you that red mulch or dyed mulch is harmless.

"Red mulch is composed of either mixed hardwoods or recycled wood waste, then dyed a red color to cover the wood impurities. One variety of red mulch is CCA Mulch that is created from chipped up wood by-products from demolished buildings, decks or other construction projects. CCA is a wood preservative, Chromated Copper Arsenate, that includes arsenic, a known carcinogen. CCA mulch has been dyed to cover up the inconsistencies, but not all dyed mulches contain CCA. To determine if the colored mulch you are purchasing does not have CCA treated wood look for the voluntary label by the mulch and soil council stating certified mulch."

The above quote is from the Garden Web forum at

Chris said...

Quoting another layman's opinion is only slightly worse than just making something up without any actual research. And citing random websites that also offer no citations is at best pointless. Red Iron Oxide is very inexpensive and, as noted, it does a great job of staining everything it touches. I am a ceramic artist and the glazes I use that include red iron oxide will permanently stain any article of clothing it touches.
The problem is with the materials that go into the much which can be included in any color of mulch, including natural if it sits long enough.