Gardeners love perennial plants, but dislike their perennial battle against weeds. Weeds, including grasses growing across paths and into beds, don’t just ruin the look of your garden path, flowerbed, or vegetable garden. They use up nutrients and water, and compete against the desirable plants for root room and light, reducing yields of fruits, vegetables, and blooms. With their rapid rate of growth, they can quickly choke out bush and tree seedlings, too.
Gardeners need a strategy in controlling where plants grow – including desirable plants such as spearmint, verbena, and lamb’s ears. We love their spreading habits, but when they spread out-of-bounds, they can become a problem. Mulch mats are the best way to control where plants can grow, and where they can’t, completely without chemicals, plant hormones, or poisons. Once they are in place, weeds are blocked out.
What is a Mulch Mat
But what exactly is a mulch mat? Usually sold in rolls, it is a physical barrier that is placed on the prepared soil. There are mats for every need, from light-duty for small, new gardens, to heavy-duty for large, problem, or commercial gardens. Mulch mats can be made from numerous materials, most often recycled rubber and non-woven manmade cloth, much like a reusable grocery tote. There are even biodegradable mats and mats that come in circle shapes for placing around tree trunks, and long, narrow strips for the edges of beds. Water, air and micronutrients can easily go down through the mulch mat into the soil, but weeds, grasses, and invasive plants can’t push up and through the mat.
Starving weeds and grasses for light and room sounds wonderful, but you may be wondering how the good plants can grow when using these mats. It’s all the preparation and placement of the mats.
For new flowerbeds or garden areas, the soil is worked and properly prepared – tilled, smoothed, leveled, fertilized, and watered – and the mulch mat is placed over the growing area. In these types of annual gardens, biodegradable mulch mats and the lightweight mulch mats are the way to go, since vegetable crops typically need to be rotated from spot to spot and can’t be grown in the exact same place each year.
Some gardeners use the “row method.” This is the easiest way when direct sowing a garden. They like to leave a gap of a two or three inches of uncovered soil between their vegetable or cutting garden rows, and place their seeds or seedlings there. Others, who are going to place seedlings into the garden, completely cover the area, overlapping the rows of mulch matting slightly, cut “X’s” where seedlings will be placed, and then place seedlings directly in those spaces. Still other gardeners, mainly battling grass, just place the mulch mat along the perimeter of the garden area, and in this case, the heavier recycled rubber mat may be the best choice.
When heavy, recycled rubber mulch mats are used, or thick biodegradable mats are chosen, no additional traditional mulch material, such as shredded bark, needs to be applied on top of it. But when lighter-weight mulch mats are used, such as the non-woven poly material, then gravel, bark mulch, composted leaves and paper, or pine straw needs to be placed atop the mats. This will both hold down the mats in high winds, and protect it from UV light, which causes the mat to degrade and not last for as many years.
It’s easy to retrofit flowerbeds with mulch mats. Rake out any existing mulching material, such as composted leaves, shredded bark, cocoa-fibers, or gravel. Place the mulch mat around existing plants, cutting and piecing as needed, and overlapping if using the lightweight mulch mat. It’s best to use the lightweight mat within the garden, and edge it with the heavier mat. Make sure to push the mulch mat up around the trunks of bushes and specimen trees in your garden. If you like to intersperse annuals among your regular perennials, use the same method for planting seedlings in a vegetable garden, by cutting an “X” into the lightweight mulch mat, or a small circle out of heavyweight mat, and place the plants in those areas only. Replace your mulch, and you will find you have very little weeding or edging to do for years to come.
Trees planted out in the lawn really benefit from having a circular mulch mat placed around them. The circle has a slit cut into it, letting it be slipped around the young tree. It looks just like shredded bark, adding beauty while keeping grass from growing near the tree. For odd-shaped areas – for example, when planting three small trees together in an “island” effect — use the lighter-weight non-woven mat, and place shredded traditional mulch over it.
Mulch mats are easy to use, require no upkeep during the growing season, and dramatically increase yields by keeping weeds away from your valuable plants. More time can be spent enjoying the garden, instead of hoeing, weeding, and pulling grass.