YOU launch your garden with the best intentions, full of zeal and ambition. But you go to Rehoboth for July or take off in August.
You are addicted to the superior flavor of your own home-grown tomatoes and your self-esteem hinges on being able to serve them to your guests. But you do not have the time or the inclination or the sturdy back for the weeding required.
Such conflicts need not be insoluble. One answer lies in a product that is abundant, cheap and organically acceptable: newspapers recycled as mulch.
One gardener who has been covering his vegetable patch with newspapers "for years and years" is Harry Gelboin of Chevy Chase, a biochemist at the National Institutes of Health who has a heavy schedule of conferences.
"I go away sometimes for weeks," he says. "But I don't want my yard wiped out by weeds. For me, the newspaper mulch is an absolute necessity.
"It looks its worst the first few days. It looks awful. But after several weeks, after a few heavy downpours, the paper is not so visible. Still, if you want your yard to be a showplace, don't use this method."
Gelboin lays down flat stacks of newspapers, four to seven pages thick, and never those that have any color and thus may contain harmful chemicals. (A recent study by the University of Connecticut found that while black-and-white newsprint has only "negligible amounts" of lead--which is poisonous, particularly to children--newsprint with color on it and magazine paper has dangerous levels of lead.) He then shovels some dirt on top, so the wind doesn't blow the papers away.
But he is careful not to throw so much dirt on the papers that weeds could take root.
"After it rains a few times, the paper becomes sticky and almost cements to the ground," he says.
At the edges, he uses rocks. Whenever possible, he folds the papers so he can bring them flush against the plants and leave the minimum amount of space for weeds. "If you are careful, you can do it at the time of sowing," he says. "You can fold the papers on both sides and leave just enough of an open strip for a row of beans to sprout."
Gelboin estimates he has cut weeding by 90 percent.
He says the newspaper mulch holds for at least two months. "By fall, the paper decays and I plow it under," he says. He is embarrassed that he cannot prove scientifically that his soil has improved as a result. But, he says, it is a plain empirical fact that his vegetable patch--with tomatoes, peppers, beans, broccoli, beets and different types of salad greens--has been "very productive."
"Newsprint is basically ground wood," says Bill Krueger, a researcher at the Institute of Paper Chemicals in Appleton, Wis. "Mulching with newsprint is like mulching with wood."
Krueger says that newsprint is good for the soil both when shredded and spaded under, and when used in sheets. "There is nothing harmful in plain ordinary newsprint," he says. "Newsprint is the cleanest thing you've got."
Besides keeping weeds down, a mulch conserves moisture, shields the roots from extremes of temperature and offers ideal living conditions for our friends, the earthworms. The only potential drawback of mulching is that mulches often attract slugs and sometimes mice.
When mulch decomposes, it adds nutrients to the soil and loosens it up. Most mulches lighten clay.
There are mulches that can gussy up the smallest and scrubbiest yard. A covering of straw or hay brings into the city the scents and the colors of open meadows; a carpet of shredded bark, pine needles or wood chips can conjure up a woodland idyll.
Grass clippings are a compromise between the practicality of newsprint and the esthetics of shredded bark. Dry your grass clippings in the sun before spreading them, and do not use grass that has been chemically treated.
Leaf mold--or just plain shredded leaves--is another solution suggested by its availability. Peat moss, preferably mixed with sawdust, is inexpensive, and gives a healthy, rich, black-earth look.
Among the more unusual mulches are peanut hulls (they are attractive to rodents, which may search for an unshelled nut), chopped-up corncobs and cornstalks (may generate too much heat), aluminum foil (disliked by insects) seaweed (intriguing in appearance and rich in minerals), marble chips (a bit formal if not stiff) and brick chips (for a funky, urban-decay look).
The best time to lay down your mulch is after the soil has warmed up and before weeds really get going--which points to those few choice balmy days of spring.