This summer many beginning gardeners probably tried and failed to keep up with the weeds that were strangling their new hobby. And even those of us who should have been made wiser by experience often fall behind on our "cleaning," especially when we are trying to cultivate flowerbeds as well as vegetable gardens and simply don’t have time to deal with both.
The New Black
In previous years, I’ve tried laying black plastic between rows in the vegetable garden, but it didn’t do anything about the weeds between the plants. So this spring, when I came across black plastic mulch which had 3-inch circular planting holes perforated into it, I promptly ordered a couple sheets for our tomatoes.
Each sheet stretched 25 feet long and 4 feet wide. Because the holes were spaced only 8 inches apart, I couldn't plant in all of them, since tomatoes should stand at least 2 or 3 feet apart in our climate. Fortunately, with this particular mulch, I could just punch out the holes I wanted to use and leave the plastic in place on the others.
Putting the Garden in the Black
I laid the sheets down on the eastern—most sunny—side of the vegetable garden, which a neighbor had tilled for us, and discovered that one of the most difficult parts of dealing with this type of mulch is keeping it down. The wind will creep under the edges of the plastic and blow it around unless it is very well secured. I ended up using quite a few landscape staples to do so.
After setting out pepper seedlings on the front edge of the first sheet of plastic, I added a row of alternating cucumbers, tomatoes, and melon seedlings in the middle, and a row of tomatoes at the back. The second sheet received two rows of tomatoes, though I did sneak a couple okra plants in as well.
The Black Marks for Black Plastic
Early on I discovered that, unless your ground is perfectly flat, you will get a few places where the plastic is stretched above the soil rather than lying snugly against it. That fried a few of my smallest cucumber seedlings which were trapped down in the hot depths.
Fortunately, those were the exception rather than the rule, and most of the cucumbers performed well—even though they are short-lived in our part of the country. It probably was a good thing that they finished and retired early, though, since the growing tomato plants shortly overwhelmed the melons.
Although the mulch did help to keep the soil moist beneath it, we had one very long dry spell in mid-summer during which I had to water the plants. For that, I needed to find the holes and pour water into them, a feat tricky to accomplish with those holes now hidden beneath thriving tomato plants.
So the cons of black plastic mulch include the difficulty with securing it, the occasional scorched seedling, and the challenges involved with watering. As for the pros, let’s just say that the mulch worked. A few weeds would try to poke up through the holes beside the plants, but those were easy to pull, and I simply would toss them atop the plastic to prevent their re-rooting elsewhere. However, the plastic squelched most of the weeds before they could get off the ground, and--despite my late start with the garden--we eventually ended up with more tomatoes than we needed. In fact, the indeterminate plants continued producing until mid-October, when freezing temperatures finally killed them off.
Will Your Garden Look Good in Black?
Since the plastic sheets haven’t torn, I’m hoping I can roll them up and keep them for next year. They would not, of course, be a practical choice for plants such as squashes and pumpkins which usually are set in hills 6 feet or so part. But those giants, when given a head start, easily can compete with the weeds.
I'm guessing the dark colored mulch might be too toasty for vegetables which prefer cool conditions such as brassicas and salad greens. And I wouldn’t recommend it for flowerbeds either, except for cutting gardens, since it isn’t pretty unless you cover it with a more attractive mulch. But it did much of my work for me this summer, which makes it look lovely to me!
Photos: The vegetable photos are my own. The banner image is a stock photo.