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Tatami Mat Mulch

While some weeds are my favorite garden volunteers, there are times when I don't appreciate them. Last summer, for example, when we returned from Hokkaido I was greeted by a garden nearly hidden in tall weeds. Somehow despite the heat and drought they managed to thrive. Sheltered in part by my rambling squash vines, I'm sure, they resulted in more than a few hours in the hot sun removing them. And more than a little embarrassment, as the farmers keep an incredibly tidy farm and my garden is definitely...different.

An alternative solution to more black plastic mulch, hand-weeding, and periodic chemical spraying presented itself one day when I chose an alternate route for running errands. A number of farms dot our area of Tokyo, and those lying to our east are still relatively unknown to me. Exploring almost always results in finding a new vegetable stand or a lovely farm tucked just behind the main roads or adjacent to an apartment building. It was while toodling along on the north side of the tracks that I spotted a small field using old tatami mats as mulch. "Brilliant!" I thought, and promptly parked my bike to snap photos.

Tatami mats are a traditional floor covering in Japanese homes, although these days usually only in one room. (Here's a great article on attempts to revive the industry in Japan.) Woven from straw and edged with strips of decorative cloth, the mats are pleasant for sitting, standing. or sleeping. And as they fade from their initial green to gold, they infuse a room with warmth and light. Changed out yearly, old tatami mats pile up, and what better way to recycle them than as a water permeable mulch that can be composted?

Yesterday my gardening friend and I picked up the mats from our local tatami master. He knew immediately what we were after and why, and took us back to his workshop. There alongside the long table where he weaves the mats were two bundles ready to go. Made up of about six individual mats each they were surprisingly light. My friend carried one and I balanced the other on my bicycle and we were off.

My garden measures roughly 18 meters long by eight meters wide, so I need a fair number of tatami. By Tokyo standards it's a massive space, and so the tatami master didn't really believe me when I told him how much I wanted. As it is, the two rolls of mats laid end to end (no overlap) cover two of the four paths running the length of the garden. Some trimming will have to occur as the paths are a bit narrower than the tatami, but I'm excited to see how this latest experiment works out.

Got a favorite garden recycling story? I'm all ears!


Anjuli said…
I loved the tatami mats in our little apartment in Urayasu- they did bring warmth to the room- a certain 'cosy' feeling.

Will look forward to seeing how your recycling of the mats goes...keep us updated. My only example of recycling in my garden is coffee grinds from the nearby starbucks- I think I'm the only one who goes there and picks up their massive packs of coffee grinds which is offered "for your gardening needs"- FREE (oh I like that word) :) has done well for my little flower bed.
Coffee grinds are great, Anjuli. They're a fantastic source of nitrogen, and mixed with any eggshells you use in your home (buried a wee bit)you'll be giving your plants a nice little long-term snack.

We love our tatami room, too. By day it's our office/den/yoga space, and at night it's our bedroom. The tatami form the cushy floor we sleep on.

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