Got Mulch? The Garden Mats Guide to Mulch and Mulch More

Posted on April 8, 2014 by Peter Comart  |  2 comments

wood chip mulchMy dog-eared, thirty-five year-old Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines “mulch” as “a protective covering (as of sawdust, compost, or paper) spread or left on the ground to reduce evaporation, maintain even soil temperature, prevent erosion, control weeds, enrich soil or keep fruit clean.”

Mulch inhibits weed growth by blocking sunlight and halting photosynthesis, which is how plants, including weeds–the plants you don’t want in your garden—make the food they need to live. Mulch also both moderates soil temperatures and retains heat to extend the growing season. It greatly reduces moisture evaporation and watering requirements, and stops macro-erosion due to run-off and micro-erosion due to heavy rainfall or over-watering.

In a nutshell, mulch helps your plants grow and cuts down on your garden work. If you use the right kind of mulch and apply it with some thought, your plants and vegetables will really grow, and you can drastically cut back on the time and effort it takes to garden.

A proper mulching system has all these primary benefits, and many secondary ones: Dark, moist, and somewhat bird-proof soil means lots of worms– aerating, digesting, breaking-down particles of matter, and expelling nutrients. That’s a real good thing!

A barrier that takes in water, but reduces evaporation, can save hundreds of gallons depending on where you live. For those of us that live in the country and end up with a sunny plot far from the faucet–or always seem to have a hose that doesn’t quite reach–this can translate into many, many less bucket and watering can trips.

Once a garden is planted though, the single most time consuming and effortful gardening job is weeding…and weeding…and weeding. If a mulching system effectively stops weeds, then—to me—the other benefits are gravy. If I can weed less, and barbecue on the porch or jump in the brook a few times more, and still enjoy fresh, bountiful peas and tomatoes— that’s a good summer! And if I can go away for a week and not have to do hours and hours of catch-up weeding, that’s good, too.

In the battle to keep down weeds, gardeners have tried just about everything at one time or another. So, what works?  All of the several materials and strategies currently in use have their advantages and disadvantages.

Home or store-bought natural mulching materials, such as leaves, pine needles, bark, saw dust, and straw can enrich the soil and improve soil structure as they decompose.  They are temporary, and if available where you live, they are inexpensive. On the other hand, buying mulch by the bag is expensive: truck-loads are the better buy. Depending on conditions, saw-dust and finely-shredded materials can cake or mat to form a crust that acts as a water and air barrier.  Also, decomposition creates bacteria, which will remove some nitrogen from the soil. The very best of these materials is straw mulch: It is light, holds moisture, is weed-free, easy to move or patch, and is pleasant to work with, and walk and kneel on.

The other home-made or store-bought natural mulch is compost, which again, is virtually free at home, but can cost a pretty penny by the bag. Your home materials must be completely composted and any seeds completely decomposed or you’ll just be seeding your rows with weeds!  Quality compost both enriches the soils and improves soil texture—lightening clay soils and giving sandy soils nutrients and water-retention.

Synthetic, spun-fiber materials bought—off the rack—at the hardware store, seem to come and go, each year.  Few that we’ve tried have made it through a growing season, and none are what we would call ”reusable.” All seem to break down toward the end of a summer.  They lack UV protection and are flimsy and hard to work with.

Newspaper and cardboard are an old standby. If your local press prints with soy-based ink, eight-page layers of newspaper can survive through a season, with some patching–if you don’t have pets (or kids)– and can be tilled into the ground in the fall. Newsprint isn’t a complete sun barrier and evaporative loses are moderate, but newspapers are close to free.  The other problem with newsprint is that if soy-based ink is not used, the ink is full of  toxic chemicals.  Paper or cardboard has a lot of chemicals as well.  So, if you can, avoid paper or cardboard as a mulch.

Cardboard boxes of the kind for shipping appliances may use formaldehyde and other preservatives.  Some of us remember making forts out of refrigerator boxes as kids and coming away with a sore throat or watery eyes. Some cardboards form a water-proof barrier as well. None-the-less, there are people who make it work. We, on the other hand, have seen too many sheets of cardboard lifted off the ground by sprouting weed colonies.

Plastic mulch was for a long time an industry standard in commercial gardening.  And there still are millions of acres of plastic-mulched row crops worldwide. Once laid down, slits or holes are made through which seeds and seedlings are planted. Tearing and UV degradation are typical issues, and re-use is limited. The biggest drawback though is that plastic mulch disposal is a huge environmental issue–unlike with natural mulching materials.

Since you are reading this, you know that we have given a great deal of consideration to the problem of mulching & weed-control materials. It is our business to know what works.  We feel confident that we have created the best weed-control and mulching product currently available.  To us, the proof is in our test gardens and our own experience of saving lots of time that would normally go into late summer weeding.  But the generous testimonials and feedback we’ve received from practical, no-nonsense commercial growers is the best proof.  As Commercial Organic Grower, Kevin Thompson, of Highland Gardens, wrote us: “I always recommend that people mulch. This type of groundcover produces the same results and is especially valuable if you have weed issues. I prefer the reusability and the permeability of Garden Mats over the other agricultural products.”

While we set out to make a product that was good in the garden, we also had the aim of cutting costs and energy use—not only by making home gardening more practical—but by maximizing product reusability.  You can expect to get up to ten years of use out of earth friendly Garden Mats.  That’s because we want Garden Mats in your garden, not in the landfill!

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  1. Susan Jennings says:

    What du you about slugs and snakes? It’s a problem in our garden with plastic roll for mulch.
    Thanks for advice. Susan

    • Peter Comart says:

      We cannot control slugs or snakes. The slugs can be more of a problem than snakes if they eat your plants. But both are a sign of a healthy organic environment. The snakes help keep the mice and other things away.

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