A fiery startup

garden_mats0915Peter Comart relaxes on the porch of his Worcester home, which he rebuilt following a fire that occurred on his wedding day in 2001. Comart is the founder of Garden Mats, a product he invented and manufactures in a barn on his property.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

It’s no exaggeration to say that Peter Comart’s moonlighting experience was launched on Aug. 4, 2001, the day he married Teri Lawrence in the gardens of their home in Worcester. That evening at 7 o’clock, their house caught fire and burned down.

Comart, who works in the Secretary of State’s Office of Professional Regulation, has been an avid gardener since childhood. He stopped tending his 2,000 square feet of vegetable gardens and began rebuilding their 1834 dwelling on an old 40-acre homestead that had, at one time, hosted a Christmas tree farm — evidenced by the towering evergreens in the surrounding woods — and, later, a cabbage farm.

Calling Comart an “avid gardener” is more than an understatement. However, growing up in Rockland County, N.Y., he and his family had a garden he had to weed for two hours every Saturday. “I hated weeding then and I hate it now,” he says. What he loves is looking at a problem with the eye of an inventor seeking solutions.

The year after the fire he spent rebuilding his house, and the next spring, he says, “I was out reclaiming the gardens, and my family was inside having bacon and eggs, coffee, home fries, toast — having a great time talking about going swimming and hiking. I said, ‘You’re kidding! It’s 8:30 in the morning and I’m going to be out here half the day before I can even rototill? There’s got to be a better way!’”

Comart began researching materials he might use for mulch and found a commercially available landscape fabric to use as a prototype material. He has since found a manufacturer to make the fabric to his specifications. It’s heavier, has more UV stabilizers in it, is a black and green weave that doesn’t heat and bake the soil, and it’s more appealing to the eye, he says. His company, Garden Mats, is the result.

Each mat is tailored with openings spaced according to the ideal planting distance for the crop it’s meant for. “The only vegetable I have not marketed a mat for is asparagus,” he says, “although I now have one.”

garden_mats_anya-comart0915Three thousand square feet of gardens (all using Garden Mats) provide food for Comart’s family to eat right away or can, freeze, or store in the root cellar. Comart has customized mats for every kind of crop with openings spaced for the ideal planting distance between them. Photo by Anya Comart

Comart made the mats by hand for a couple of years. Then about 10 years ago, he found someone to help him automate the process (a proprietary procedure). The “factory” is a barn out behind his house, where he and three seasonal helpers work from October to June, taking the summers off for gardening.

Each summer, his now 3,000 square feet of gardens supplies crops for his family to eat right away or can, freeze, or put in the root cellar. “We do succession planting so not everything comes in at the same time,” he says. “Pretty much most of what we grow, we grow for the other six to eight months of the year.” The gardens also serve as a marketing tool, as does Comart’s website, www.gardenmats.com.

Garden Mats (the name was trademarked in 2007) are sold all over the country, used in 6,000-plus gardens (commercial and private), probably 70 percent of them in New England and the rest as far away as Washington, California, Florida, and Georgia. Growth, he says, has been pretty predictable at about 25 percent a year.

As of August, Comart added “international” to his market when he connected with Bleu Lavande, a commercial lavender grower in Stanstead, Quebec, which will be experimenting with Garden Mats for its new gardens.

Best of all is the amount of weeding Comart doesn’t do. “I’m up to about four and a half to five hours for the entire season so far,” he crows. •