Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Self-effacing mulch man works hard, wastes nothing

Cliff Radel's Cincinnati

Mulch madness is upon us. And Doug Evans feeds the frenzy.

He is the Mulch King.

No one in Greater Cincinnati makes or sells more of the ground-up ground cover than this 41-year-old self-made monarch of mulch.

And, this is the season to sell it. Spreading mulch in Tristate gardens is a rite of spring.

"All of this will be gone by the Fourth of July," Evans said as he surveyed his domain. He had just parked his red, 1-ton pickup atop Mount Mulch.

Towering 30 feet from its square-acre base to its steaming summit, the peak is the tallest in a mountain range of aged, oak-scented shredded tree bark spread over much of Evans Landscaping's 90-acre Anderson Township complex on Round Bottom Road.

[IMAGE] Evans Landscaping owner and president Doug Evans at his mulch stash in Newtown.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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The spread is all the more impressive considering Evans' beginnings. He started his business in 1978, when he was a high school sophomore, with one pickup and one employee - himself.

Now, his fleet numbers 100 trucks and he works with a crew of 150. During mulch madness, 500-1,000 loads of the stuff leave the grounds every day.

"Some people say mulch smells funny," Evans said.

Leaving his truck and bending on one knee, he scooped up two handfuls of mulch and took a whiff.

"Smells like money to me."

Big money.

Evans estimates he sells 600,000 cubic yards of mulch a year. That would fill 5.4 million standard, 3-cubic-foot bags. Such bags sell for around $3.95 at garden centers. So, do the math.

That much mulch leaves competitors in the dust. And in disbelief.

Dick Posey sells mulch in South Charleston, Ohio. He's a past-president of the state's Nursery & Landscape Association.

To him, 600,000 cubic yards of mulch "is probably more than the entire state of Ohio uses in a year."

That may be. But, Evans serves more than the Buckeye state. The landscaper's trucks operate out of nine locations, occupying 427 acres, and make year-round deliveries to Kentucky, Indiana and southern Michigan.

"Doug's a friend," Posey said, and started laughing.

[IMAGE] Doug Evans sorts through some firewood cuttings with longtime driver Tommy Hinkston (right) of New Richmond at Evans Landscaping's 30-acre operation in Newtown.
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"So, tell him there's a fine line between bull---- and lying. And he crossed it with that figure."

Posey's message made Evans smile. Then he sent a message.

"Tell Dick, I've got the paperwork to back it up. We're just a small operation."

That response was vintage Doug Evans. To the point. With irony.

The Mulch King is a hands-on kind of guy. Hard-working. Good-hearted. Insists on sharing the spotlight with his employees.

His mulch covers potted plants in Over-the-Rhine window boxes and estates with Lindner, Schott and Chesley on the mailbox. But you wouldn't know it from talking with Doug Evans.

He stands in well-worn work boots, not on ceremony. He hates titles. He refuses to answer to Boss. President. Chief. Or even Mister.

He simply sees himself as his company's HBO - Head Bobcat Operator.

Even though he has a team of highly qualified workers, Evans still pitches in, operating a Bobcat to fill a customer's truck with mulch. He'll drive a dump truck of topsoil to a job site. He'll grab a shovel to help dig a drainage ditch.

That is, as Evans likes to say, "the old Cincinnati German way." He learned the value of hard work from his parents, Tom and Nancy Evans. Now retired, his dad sold steel for Ryerson and his mom worked in Lazarus' buying and customer relations departments. His family tree contains the names Wiederstein and Berninghaus.

To Evans, the old Cincinnati German way means:

• Work hard.

"There's nothing better than a good day of hard work." He opens the doors at 4:30 a.m. and rarely leaves before 7 p.m., six, sometimes seven, days a week. "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

• Give back to the community. Expect nothing in return.

"He'll read a story in the paper about a sick child or a school that needs something. He'll tear up," said Stephanie Evans, his wife and mother of their three children, Brooke, 5, Lang, 4, and Reece, 18 months. "The next thing you know he's giving them something. But he never wants anyone to know about it. He doesn't even want a thank-you."

• Waste nothing.

Residence: Newtown.
Occupation: President, Evans Landscaping, nine locations specializing in mulch, topsoil, sand, gravel, pavers, stones, garden design, lawn seeding, pond and lake building, demolition, site clearing, snow removal.
Date of Birth: March 3, 1962.
Education: Turpin High School, class of 1980.
Family: Married to Stephanie Evans, nee Hall, since 1996; three children: Brooke, 5, Lang, 4, Reece, 18 months.
Outlook on life: "Too many people say, 'I wish I would have done that.' I don't look at life that way. If you want to do something, you better do it now. You're not guaranteed any other time than the present."
"He peels off uncanceled stamps that come in the mail and reuses them," said Evans' "right-hand person" Annette Verdin. "Drives me crazy."

You'd expect nothing less from a man who describes himself as the ultimate recycler. He reuses stamps. He recycles tree bark.

"One man's trash," he believes, "is another man's treasure.

"The stuff in mulch - tree bark, wood scraps - used to be burned, dumped in landfills or bulldozed into creeks.

"Now, it's a renewable resource."

Making that resource requires a huge operation.

The back yard of Evans' Anderson Township site resembles a mulch theme park.

Dump trucks and trailers circulate among bobcats and 14-foot tall front loaders. They follow clearly marked paths. Big-wheeled behemoths move in a carefully orchestrated dance between $500,000 tub grinders and cranes. Conveyer belts move mulch from one mountain to another, steaming from the heat generated by decomposing vegetation, and colored gold, brown and indigo.

It's tough, dusty work. And Evans loves every bit of it.

"Ever since I was a little kid," he said, "I've liked playing in the dirt."

Above the shop

Doug Evans has wanted to work outside since he was 5.

Never gave serious thought to doing anything else.

He didn't go to college.

"Everybody told me, 'You have to go to college. If you don't, you'll never amount to anything.' I don't like anybody telling me what I have to do."

He started his landscape business when he was 16. He bought a red Ford pickup for $500 and hauled his first load of mulch.

Two years later, he graduated from Turpin High School, class of 1980. He owned three trucks and had three employees.

"I used to keep all my records in three cigar boxes. One for money, one for bills, one for paid bills."

Six years later, he took $40,000 from his cigar box and built his first retail complex in Newtown, a five-minute drive from the mulch plant.

"I lived above the shop for four years," Evans said. "Want to see?"

He left Mount Mulch and drove up the road to the Newtown store.

After climbing a set of steps outside the office, he opened a door and announced: "This was home."

His old one-room apartment now houses bags of grass seed.

"I used to sleep up here in my gym shorts," Evans said. "Trucks were always getting stuck on the train tracks down the road.

"The police would call in the middle of the night. I'd hop out of bed, get on my front loader and move the truck before the train came.

"I was never late for work. People knew where to find me. And, nobody robbed the place with me - and my dogs - as night watchmen."

Behind his old digs sits a 70-acre lake. Bass swim close to a white sandy beach. On the far shore, a family of beavers keeps house. A walking trail, carefully landscaped, surrounds the lake. Life's good for this former gravel pit.

"I call it Lake Stephanie, after my wife," Evans said as he unlocked the door to the family's lake house. Every Sunday, Evans, his wife and children spend the day at the house on the lake. They're joined by relatives, employees, friends and their families.

From the lake, Evans can see the home he shares with Stephanie and the kids. It graces the crest of a Newtown hill.

"You can tell which one's mine," he said. "It's the last one in town to get mulched."

From his home's back yard, he can keep an eye on his business and dream about building lake-front communities in the Tristate.

He's closed-mouth about turning that dream into a reality.

"It's all up here," he said, tapping an index finger to his forehead.

Evans has been just as quiet about his charitable donations.

"Doug does a lot of things for the community that the community doesn't even know about," Stephanie Evans said.

"Let's keep it that way," her husband said.

Stephanie wouldn't hear of it.

The next day, back in the office by Mount Mulch, Evans reached into the drawer of a filing cabinet and pulled out a thick folder.

He carried it to his truck and drove to the Iron Skillet.

In the restaurant's parking lot, he opened the folder. It was stuffed with thank-you notes.

Some on formal stationary. Others on lined school paper. Some written in flowing grown-up handwriting. Others in the labored printing of school kids.

Each note thanked him for something.

Mulch for a playground. Landscaping for Cincinnati's police memorial. Flowers for churches.

A light rain began to fall on his windshield.

A tear rolled down his cheek. Evans coughed and cleared his throat.

"This really got me," he said.

He picked up a newspaper clipping about a seven-year-old girl who died from a rare brain disease. The article noted funds were being raised to plant a tree in her memory. Evans gave a tree and had it planted for free.

He wiped his cheek.

"You hungry?" he asked.

Not waiting for an answer, he bounded from his truck and headed for the restaurant's back door.

"What's good?" he shouted to owner-chef Laszlo Molnar.

Evans inhaled the aromas wafting from a pan of roasted chicken.

Molnar knows first-hand about Evans' generosity. In 1997, the nearby Little Miami River flooded.

Evans sent a crew to the Iron Skillet. The restaurant's contents, even its bar, were loaded into the landscaper's trucks and stored in his barns. No charge.

Molnar remembered another gift from Evans.

"He gave me tickets to the Shrine Circus."

Every year Evans buys 2,000 tickets. He gives them all away.

"He must have some connection with the Shriners," Molnar said. "But he never says why he does it."

When Doug Evans was 5, he was working outside, helping his dad. His father was cutting the grass and bagging the clippings. He left the lawn mower running as he emptied the bag.

"I put my hand where it didn't belong," Evans said. "I don't blame my dad. It was an accident."

Evans lost two fingers on his right hand.

He was rushed to the hospital. While he recovered, he had visitors: Shrine Circus clowns. "They cheered me up," Evans said.

He coughed and cleared his throat. "That's something I'll always remember."

Buying tickets is his way of saying thanks. And counting his blessings.

Cliff Radel, a native west-sider, writes about the people, places and traditions defining his hometown. E-mail:

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