Mystery mulch: Gardening amid debris

It's too bad Virginia Paul isn't an archeologist; if she were, she might be excited about the changing nature of her front yard. Just the other day, for instance, she found a decorative piece of hardware that a friend thinks could be 200 years old. If that were all she'd found, it might have been intriguing.

But because Paul claims antique hardware is only the latest–and least distressing– object that has recently surfaced, she was anything but intrigued.

In late April, Paul and her husband, Rajendra, hired Albemarle Super Wash and Lawn Maintenance to spread mulch at their house on Still Meadow Road. Andrew King, Albemarle Super Wash owner, walked the property with Rajendra and estimated that the job would take 20 cubic yards of mulch and roughly 20 man-hours to spread. Both men agree that Rajendra insisted on a fixed price so that he wouldn't have to pay by the hour in the case of a slow worker. Rajendra claims that the only other requirement he and Virginia gave King was that the mulch match their neighbor's in "quality, color, and texture." According to Rajendra, King never mentioned different price ranges or grades of mulch.

King, however, claims that Rajendra said he would pay no more than $700 for the mulch and labor. Since King estimated the job would require 20 man-hours at $25 an hour –which comes to $500 –King says he only had $200 left over for the mulch. As advertised on the company's flyer, King sells 20 cubic yards of what he calls "homeowners grade" mulch for $195, so that's what he used. The Pauls, however, claim they were told the mulch would be "dark, high-grade, [and] double-shredded"–a far cry, they say, from what they got.

The Pauls signed King's contract on Thursday, April 29, and the job was finished the following Monday. According to the Pauls, except for some large pieces of wood, everything seemed okay at first. But then it rained, things shifted and settled, and, by their account, distinctly un-mulch-like objects began to surface. In a May 8 letter to King, Raj wrote, "We were delivered what looked like landfill with bits of hard plastic, sharp broken glass, sheet plastic pieces, rubber, cloth, ropes, twine."

"This is an unsanitary and hazardous condition in which to garden." He says that his wife, bending down to plant seeds, "narrowly missed a three-cornered piece of glass under her knee."

The Pauls claim that King declined to respond to Raj's letter, and that although he eventually agreed to come by and examine the situation, he never appeared. King agrees that he could have been more responsive, but says that this is his busy season, and he tends to get overwhelmed by work.

I went to Albemarle Super Wash, which King runs out of a house at 1036 St. Clair Avenue. My first question: "Why are there bars on all the windows, four locks on the front door, and a closed-circuit camera aimed at the street?" Answer: because King also sells guns, including AK-47s, from his heavily fortified headquarters in an otherwise bland residential neighborhood.

(By the way, in case you're picturing a burly, balding guy with decked out in camouflage, think again. King, who has a B.A. from Virginia Tech and looks to be in his mid-30s, is tall, thin, attractive, and Asian-American. He's also utterly charming.)

But back to the mulch. As to the mystery objects, King says he has "no idea" where they came from, but says he'll talk to the supplier. He also expects he'll end up taking the Pauls to court for nonpayment. The Pauls, in turn, expect they'll take him to court; they want King to remove the mulch and replace dead shrubs–which were killed, they claim, by mulch that was spread as much as 6 inches deep in spots.

I'll be updating this stand-off when and if there's a resolution. In the meantime, if you're looking to get your lawn mowed and round out your supply of assault weapons, Albemarle Super Wash offers convenient, one-stop shopping.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.