Garden Mats – A Product Being Born
I’ll never forget the garden of 2002. Teri and I had gotten married the previous August. This was our first garden together since the wedding—and the wedding day fire. Yes, our house burned down at 7:14 p.m. on August 4, 2001, on our wedding day during our reception! We didn’t even try to harvest the garden that year. Our entire focus was on the burnt rubble of an 1834 Cape that we had to rebuild.
As one would expect the garden was a jungle that next spring. First I pulled all of the big weeds and what remained of the big plants that the deer didn’t eat – corn stalks, Brussels sprouts cabbage, kale, squash vines, cabbage. I pulled and yanked on anything large that my hands could easily grab. Next, I prepared for some serious rototilling. Even with my trusty thirty year old Garden Way rototiller I knew it would take maybe four or five passes over the whole garden. I was not looking forward to it. But as the previous months had taught me, you do what you have to do.
In previous years, the days of my “bachelor” gardens had been a labor of love. It seemed back then somehow I had plenty of time for gardening. I remembered recovering this particular garden site from an eroded, Depression-era pasture, a one-time garden, and a backyard dumping ground. Like the house and surrounding land, I’d worked on for years, all the time thinking that someday I might share it with a spouse. The soil was finally rich and deep and dark from years of added peat moss, leaves, straw, compost and manure. It was well-worked over the years. And I did what I could to keep it free of weeds. I was proud of my efforts and grateful for what that plot of land had given back to me. I was also mindful of what it would give to my new family in the years ahead.
So, on this pristine Saturday morning in early April, here I was, eight-months married. The house was more than half way completed thanks to the countless evenings, late nights and weekend warrior work that Teri and I did that winter. Standing in the garden for the first time in eight months, I was aware of the never ending list of things we still had to do in the house in order to move in by June. I was acutely aware of what I would be doing in the house if I was not in the garden. Yet I also knew that if I didn’t get the garden started, we probably would not even have one this year. On top of that, I was also aware of what I was missing inside. My two step-children, Isaac and Maija, were making a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and home fries with Teri in our bare-bones, sub-floored kitchen. Instead, I was going to reclaim the garden. It was 8 a.m., the sun was bright, the big stuff was pulled and I now had at least a couple of hours of rototilling to look forward to before planting.
As I passed back and forth over the earth with the rototiller I thought: What should I plant first? It was a toss-up between peas and potatoes. Both like to be first — planted early in the cool spring just as soon as the ground can be worked. I usually do peas the first day, and potatoes the next. But this year it was potatoes first, and the theme I had in mind was both international and patriotic – traditional Scandinavian reds, American whites and Peruvian blues.
After a couple of hours of rototilling I went inside for a cold glass of spring water and then down to the root-cellar to get my seed potatoes. As I went down to the root-cellar to retrieve my seed tubers I began to reflect on life.
Here I was – middle aged – and I had been gardening since the days I was in knee pants when my mother made my sister, brother and I weed with her for two hours on Saturday mornings. As much as I hated weeding back then, little did I know that those two hour sessions (and more) would continue for the next forty years.
Experience taught me to prepare my seed potatoes a day or two before planting. The day before, I had gone to the root cellar and cut my larger potatoes (6 – 8 ounces) in half or thirds, so each piece was blocky, rather than wedge-shaped. I cut them this way so there will be as much flesh as possible for each eye: this stored food is what the plant lives on while sprouting. Each seed potato should be about 2 ounces and have at least one eye. After cutting, the seed tubers had sat overnight in the cool dark root cellar to callus or cure.
On the way up from the root cellar my mind wandered even further. As I returned to the garden I thought about past gardens. I started to do some math. Roughly, I figured I had spent thousands and thousands of hours planning, planting, weeding, and maintaining gardens. Here I was again, about to do what I had done so many times.
I drove four stakes in the ground to make two rows that were thirty-six feet long and three and a half feet apart. I strung string between two stakes at either end and dug two thirty-six foot long trenches or drills, five or six inches deep, and three and a half feet apart. Three and a half feet is a bit wider row than normal, and somewhat of a waste of space, but I wanted the rows far enough apart to run the rototiller in between so I didn’t have to weed so much. A lot of gardeners still do that. An extra wide row also provided plenty of loose dirt that I could use to hill up over the new plant growth.
Next, I dressed the drills and planting beds with compost, and inserted one seed potato every twelve inches using my tried and true 12” measuring stick. It was noon by the time I reached the end of my last row and covered it over with a light layer of dirt using a hoe. This final step is always accomplished with a sense of completion, comfort and joy.
I was ready for a nap. I also knew that the work required to grow potatoes was just about to begin. Within days I would be hobbling on my knees again, down each row, clearing weeds until the potato sprouts broke the surface. After a couple of weeks, it would be time to hill, and then the on-going cycle of weeding and hilling, weeding and hilling, and weeding and hilling! That would go on until fall.
Gardening seemed different at the moment. It had an added importance now that I had a family. It was huge commitment to provide for four, not just one. And I realized it would not be just a challenge, it would be a necessity given the continual rise in food costs. Again, I started to do the math.
Gradually, I began to question whether a garden was even worth all this effort. So many people I knew over the years gave up vegetable gardening because it ate up too much of their time – away from spending time with family or kayaking, hiking, biking, vacationing, or just reading a book. If I did the numbers, what would be the cost of not doing a garden? I asked myself, why do I devote such time and labor when we can buy a 50 lb. bag of potatoes at a cost equal to or less than I can grow them (if you include the labor)? The prospect of planting Peruvian blue potatoes was suddenly giving me the blues. What was I doing? Unlike my thirty year old tiller, a few choice body parts were asking the same question; not just my back and shoulders, but my brain as well. For the first time in my life the thought of spending hours upon hours, week after week gardening (weeding) was not so appealing. And what was “I” doing while my new family spontaneously slept-in, hiked, biked, swam, kayaked and enjoyed a summer sprinkled with leisurely breakfasts?
I reflected on one of the things a good friend has said to me many times, “The only thing we really have control over is our time.” Which is right.
For the first time in my life I was standing in the middle of my potato patch thinking, “There must be a better way!”
After decades of gardening I was very familiar with mulch. Mulch is absolutely the best way to control weeds, reduce erosion, retain moisture, maintain even soil temperatures, and enrich the soil. For years I used straw mulch, but found that to be fairly expensive, and unless you have a lot of straw, weeds eventually return and take over again. I even used leaves, but you have to have a ton of them and they take a fair amount of time to collect. Leaves also mat together and prevent water from reaching the soil, which is not good. Like many others I also used black plastic, but stopped because it was so bad environmentally, and it does not let air and water through. Plus, it is not UV protected so it breaks down quickly in sunlight. Although there are some fiber fabrics out there, they are flimsy and do not last more than a season or two. I have even heard of people using old newspaper or cardboard for mulch. But knowing the chemicals, not just in the ink, but the paper production, I could not fathom the idea. And I have no idea how burlap bags are made, but people also use them too I have heard.
Over and over I kept telling myself: “There must be a better way!” I thought, surely, there must be some material that has all the properties of mulch and would last a long time.
Finally it dawned on me. I recalled my elementary school education and the things I was taught that a plant needs in order to grow: water, air and sunlight and soil. That was it! The solution was simple. Eliminate sunlight! If I could find or develop a material that blocked sunlight, but let air and water through, that would be perfect. I decided to do a little research.
That was how the idea for Garden Mats was born. I began to think about all of the additional features and benefits I would want if I could buy a product that stopped weeds. Ideally, it would need to have a long product life and look appealing. It would have to act as mulch: stop weeds, retain moisture, reduce erosion, maintain even soil temperatures and enrich the soil. It also would need to have pre-measured holes already cut out – no more measuring. There would have to be different patterns and plant spacing to allow you to grow a large variety of vegetables. Most importantly, it would have to enable someone to garden 100% organically. And perhaps just as important, it had to be affordable. I thought it would be great if the product was able to pay for itself in the first year in time saved from weeding (calculated at $10 per hour).
I knew it would take a few years to figure it all out, but at that moment, I also knew this was a very simple idea that was well worth pursuing. And I recalled what my mother always told me: “Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Making an idea a reality is another matter altogether.”
Flash forward, eight years later. Garden Mats have transformed the way we and thousands of others organically grow vegetables. We now grow red, white and blue potatoes without trenches, and best of all, no weeding and hilling, weeding and hilling and weeding and hilling. There is no un-hilling at harvest time either. I just peel the Garden Mats back, dig my potatoes with a fork, and they pop right up.
Here is what I do now. I till my soil very deep with compost and some manure. I like to get down a good eight inches or so. After that I lay out three Garden Mat #5’s, end to end. This mat has 3 rows of 4” holes, laid out in a grid pattern, 12” on center. I love that I don’t have to measure any more! I just put a seed potato – callused, of course – in each hole to a depth of about 5” or 6” in the soil. And, then? Then, I am done. Until it is time to harvest! Yuppers, it’s that easy.
As for those secondary advantages, potatoes like cool, moist, but not soaked, soil. Hilling increases the above-ground surface area exposed to the sun’s rays, so hills heat up faster, unless they are really big. Garden Mats require no trade-off between weed-reduction and increased heat absorption. Ground soil stays cooler, longer.
Garden Mats wipe out early spring weed growth that rob plants of nutrients and they continue to block weeds over the entire growing season, which is exactly what they are designed to do. Garden Mats encourage more uniform sprouting and growth from seed tubers, which I attribute to proper spacing, a more consistent cool soil temperature and improved water retention. I no longer struggle with the nagging problem of potato hills drying-out, crumbling, and eroding. Garden Mats have totally eliminated hilling and weeding.
I no longer dread coming home after we spend weekends playing, going to Caspian Lake kayaking, or when we spend a week at the ocean in Maine, Rhode Island or the Cape. Those frantic catch-up weed sessions are now a thing of the past. I remember saying to myself one day: “Never again will we return from vacation to a jungle of weeds!”
Thanks to Garden Mats, married life is better.