garden prep: how to make a bed, with cardboard

THERE ARE VARIOUS more backbreaking ways to make a new garden bed, but in recent years I’ve often relied upon the magic of recyclables: newspaper and cardboard. It’s not all about being lazy, or getting older and less inclined toward heroic digging, either.

Prepping a bed without turning or tilling may actually help reduce the number of weed seeds that sprout, so in many situations, it’s my tactic of choice. Now’s a great time, if a sunny patch of lawn is destined to house next year’s tomatoes or this fall’s bulb garden, or an existing border needs some smothering of weeds.

how to make a bed with cardboard

THE EXPLANATION below assumes the underlying soil is fairly decent, neither bog nor wasteland nor highly compacted, and that the vegetation growing in it is mostly herbaceous (like lawn, not a thicket of blackberries or poison ivy!).

If the vegetation is tougher than turfgrass or the equivalent, first use a spading fork and dislodge the weedy or woody clumps, and remove them carefully.  This may be easiest after a good rain, or put a sprinkler on the area beforehand. You can see this process of weed removal in the double-digging video below (even if you don’t do the rest of the 24-inch-deep soil improvement the way I used to).

Over the freshly weeded area, or right over turf that you have mown short first, simply layer on newspaper thickly, or spread out flattened corrugated cardboard as the weed-smothering underlayment. Moisten the paper and pin it down with earth staples or weigh it down with rocks, then cover with mulch. (Advice on which mulch is here; that’s mine in the photo above.)

Depending on the time of year and what I am planting, I may cut Xs in the cardboard with my spade and plant immediately, then mulch after planting. This would work with substantial perennials or when making a shrub border, for instance. You can certainly do this if you pre-weeded the area as above.

With delicate little things, or when I’m suspicious that the underlying weeds might need some time to settle down, I wait awhile.

As with all garden projects: Use your judgment. If the soil is dry and you layer cardboard on, rain won’t penetrate until the paper softens, so don’t maroon little plants in the island of cardboard without life support. (That means water the area before smothering, and water the plants regularly.)

With the worst weeds of all, I might fork them out, then solarize the area with black plastic for a month or longer in a hot, sunny season, then remove the plastic and follow the steps of cardboard/mulch.

I also use the cardboard or newsprint system one other way, sort of a spot approach, when an area of an existing bed has gotten weedy, such as the edge adjacent to lawn or good-sized patches between plants.

Again, most important to keep in mind when using paper mulch in any manner: The paper can be hydrophobic–repelling water and depriving plants of moisture. Don’t just “set it and forget it,” or plants will suffer.

is cardboard safe in the garden?

I’M OFTEN ASKED if cardboard is safe, and so was the English newspaper editor and organic gardener Jane Perrone. Jane checked with Garden Organic, the 50-year-old UK organic-garden charity, and got the thumb’s up, and wrote about it. Good thing for all of us who want to smother some more lawn in favor of more diverse plantings, but need a little shortcut.

Note: Use the plain brown stuff, not versions that are printed with colored ink; likewise collect black and white newsprint, not glossy magazines or slick special color sections for smothering duty. Many modern inks are soy-based, but I prefer to err on the side of extra-safe. How corrugated is made.

inspiration from the organic masters

I SUPPOSE I GOT my “lazy” gardener inspiration first from the late Ruth Stout, and here’s her approach to “no-work gardening” (something like what people often call lasagna gardening today—but I so hate that term). I think of it as composting in place, passively, and you know I am a great advocate for rigorous mulching with the right materials (no landscape fabrics or bark chips the size of baked potatoes, please).

Prefer to double dig, or have a spot that needs the more serious intervention? The modern master of it, John Jeavons of Bountiful Gardens/Ecology Action in California, admired Stout, but quite correctly says that her “no-work” methods aren’t suitable for all soils. Learn from Jeavons in his classic book “How to Grow More Vegetables,” (Amazon affiliate link) or this extensive video for purchase.  A shorter course using his tactics is covered in the video below, the first in a series on biodynamics:

So do tell: How do you make a bed?

July 24, 2012


  1. Michelle says

    Do you think solarizing with black plastic would work on zoysia grass? I’d love to plant the easement and enlarge the front garden, but I dread trying to dig all that zoysia sod :(

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