Black plastic 'mulch,' carefully installed, produces carefree garden plot

As a garden ground cover, black plastic has two reputations: * High efficiency in maintaining soil warmth to speed the growth of seedlings and in keeping weeds under control.

* Low aesthetics that usually turn a garden into a backyard of ripped flapping plastic and unsightly scrap wood to hold the plastic sheets down.

Can't black plastic be efficient andm aesthetic at the same time?

Of course it can, and Anne Law of Brooksville, Maine, offers a prime example of how to blend the two. She turns a black sow's ear into a silk purse.

"It takes longer to lay plastic at the beginning," she says, "but that's just about all you have to do for the rest of the season."

How she lays the plastic helped win her second place in the large Hancock County garden contest. The judges graded her garden for aesthetics, nutritional balance, healthy plants, and weeding. She grows all the familiar vegetables --tomatoes, peas, buttercup squash, zucchini, broccoli, spinach, beans, rhubarb, asparagus, Swiss chard.

What the judges didn't have as a category was ease of maintenance.

Anne uses the plastic (available at hardware and garden-supply stores) both for weeds and paths. "I don't like to bend over," she asserts. "With the plastic you can sit on it to work."

To lay the plastic, first she smooths her plot, carefully eliminating rocks and pebbles that could rip the plastic if stepped on. (Wandering cats she can't do anything about.)

Then she rolls out the plastic for her paths and planting sections. After this she digs about 4-inch-deep trenches around the edges of the plastic and tucks in the sides, making sure that about 3 inches of the sheets overlap one another where they meet.

Finally, she covers the edges of the plastic with earth. This stretches the plastic down and keeps a tight blanket over the soil to help prevent moisture from escaping.

It is also the secret that pleases the eye. "I believe a garden should have a sense of aesthetics," she declares. "It's part of the pleasure of having a garden."

By giving the plastic a snug fit and burying the edges instead of weighting them down with sticks and boards, her garden becomes a picture of living neatness, a pleasure to see and walk through, not to mention work in. A painter , Anne transfers her sense of beauty to growing vegetables.

The other advantages of well-groomed plastic are just as welcome and fit into her overall guidelines for gardening. Plastic helps to keep slugs away. "You can see them," she says. "You can't with a hay mulch."

All you have to do to plant is to punch a hole in the plastic for the seeds or seedlings. After a initial watering, very little is needed as the season progresses because the plastic holds in the water.

She believes too, that gardens should produce more than gardeners need. Extra food may always be given away, sold for extra income, or heaped onto a compost pile. It need never be wasted. A larger-than-needed garden also assures an ample food supply in case a few plants don't make it.

Plastic cuts down on the watering, mulching, weeding, and debugging and makes a larger garden easier to maintain.

The plastic may be kept in place for the next season after the old plants have been removed, although she herself favors rotating the crops so that soil nutrients are not depleted.

What is especially important as far as Anne Law is concerned, however, is that if beautiful vegetables are to be grown with black plastic, they become more beautiful throughoutm the season if the plastic, too, contributes to the beauty of the garden.

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