make a bed (with cardboard)

YES, OF COURSE I know about the more backbreaking ways to make a new bed, but lately I confess I’ve been relying more and more upon the magic of recyclables: newspaper and cardboard to be specific.

Where I used to double-dig and work in lots of compost before I began planting, now (assuming the underlying soil is fairly decent, neither bog nor wasteland) I simply layer on newspaper thickly, or spread out flattened corrugated cardboard boxes as the weed-smothering underlayment to my bed. I was reminded of this recently on the ever-so-useful blog by English newspaper editor and allotment gardener Jane Perrone. Someone asked Jane, a dedicated organic gardener like I am, about whether using cardboard as mulch like this was OK. Jane checked with Garden Organic, the 50-year-old UK organic-garden charity, and got the thumb’s up. Good thing for me; good thing for all of us who want to smother some more lawn this spring in favor of more diverse plantings, but need a little shortcut.

  1. margaret says:

    Welcome to Hawk. Thank you for your poison-ivy remedy and all the good words. As for white cardboard, I think you lean the kind that’s coated with a magazine-like surface? I save and use the brown corrugated and the plain gray stuff, and recycle and that looks like it’s got lots of extra junk in/on it.

    Welcome also to Joy. I like to let leaves decompose before incorporating them, or at least run them over with the mower first to chop them up. And yes, I have used the cardboard first to smother underlying turf or weeds. Nice to see you both here.

  2. DesignGirl says:

    I’m so excited I found your blog!

    I’m a new gardener trying to learn all I can, and have a big job ahead of me this year.

    I’m just wondering how far down you should put the cardboard or better yet how much soil should I cover the cardboard with? Does it matter whether it’s for a veggie patch or a flower garden?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Design Girl. Put the cardboard on the soil surface (or on top of mowed turf or cutback weeds), not dug in or anything. Cover with mulch, the kind that will break down into the soil eventually (not gigantic chips). You may need to weigh down the cardboard for awhile, and sometimes moistening w/the sprinkler helps everything not blow away). :)

  3. DesignGirl says:

    O.k. remember that I am a total newbie here; do you place the cardboard around where you are growing? I ask b/c I have a garden that is completely over-run and I’m planning to do a veggie patch and flower garden in it. So how would I plant things? In the mulch? Do I plant and then cardboard around the things I planted? Sorry I know there is a lot of questions. I really appreciate your help!

    1. margaret says:

      @DesignGirl: Good questions. If the area’s overrun with weeds or turf, get the cardboard down asap. Cover it with mulch. Start smothering things.

      You can pierce through the mulch and cardboard with a spade or trowel (depending what you are planting) at planting time, digging right into the underlying soil to do your planting, assuming you are using transplants not seed. Then tuck the mulch back in place (without smothering the desired plant!). If you’re sowing seed, which needs a clean slate to get started, I’d pull back the covering and make a clear block or row of soil (loosen and remove weeds, cultivate the space you plan to sow in, which for, say a row of beans might just be a narrow strip of a few inches wide.

      The basic idea: uncover as LITTLE weedy area as needed to get the job done. Keep as much smothered, again WITHOUT burying baby plants in too much mulch.

      An alternative method: Say you wanted to plant 12 tomatoes down a long rectangular bed. You could make 12 holes down the row, getting rid of the weeds in those immediate spots, plant your tomato seedlings, then lay a strip of cardboard on either side of the transplants, covering each side of the bed. Then mulch. If you wanted to plant things in a block or grid, not a row, you couldn’t really arrange the cardboard afterward, so the previous method would be better.

      Sort of depends what you are planting, and what is going to be easiest to do. Either way works.

  4. DesignGirl says:

    Thanks so much for your insight, now all I have to do is wait for all the snow to melt and the temp to move up to the + side of 0 again. We have -30C today in Alberta Canada.

  5. Eileen Nemeroff says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I live in SW Florida and would like to use the cardboard method to prepare a vegetable or flower garden……I just bought a new lawnmower and could possibly use the box it came in for the cardboard. Do you think that type of cardboard is too thick? Also, after I lay the cardboard down do I put organic soil etc on top of it? How soon after can I start planting?

  6. margaret says:

    Hi, Eileen. The only cardboard I don’t use is the stuff that’s really slick with colorful printing that’s laminated and shiny, or so thick it’s impossible to work with. I don’t know the condition of the box, but will it moisten and when slightly damp start to sit nicely on the ground, or is it like working with a piece of unforgiving plywood?

    In your climate, cardboard will break down even faster than here. I plant right away, but I moisten the cardboard and weight it down with mulch and even stones if it’s likely to go anywhere. I simply cut Xs through the surface and tuck plants in. But it really depends what you are planting (how many things, and how large they are…a tiny annual might not like being engulfed by the heavy material at first, where a shrubs might stand up just fine to it).

  7. Jennifer says:

    I’ve been using the newspaper method for a while now, but I started using cardboard this year. The bigger the box, the easier it is to use! I work in a warehouse, so I get all the empties I need.

    The bed I made last year with newspaper was incredibly easy to weed this time around. Not much made it through, but some crabgrass did creep in from the yard. The biggest expense I had was the mulch.

    I find that if I make a “hole” in the mulch, put in a couple of handfuls of rich soil or compost, and poke a little through the underlying material, the plants do really well. I just planted a cutting bed from plug trays yesterday using cardboard, garden soil and mulch.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jennifer, with such helpful further details on my favorite bed-prep method. Thank you. See you soon again.

  8. maura.otoole says:

    Hi Margaret, I just found your blog because I was searching for a solution for my very shady back yard that has piles of leaves, sticks and acorns (not to mention weeds) all over it. I was trying to rake today and I just gave up. I am wondering what you think about putting cardboard down on the leaves and sticks and acorns, there is quite a bit of this debris. (there are a lot of big oak trees and other trees around the yard)?Thanks a bunch!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Maura. I suffocate herbaceous (green, tender) things including grass and most weeds with cardboard and mulch, but sticks and acorns are woody and tougher and I think you have to clean them up first. Another drawback of leaving them: the acorns will sprout oak seedlings. Sorry to say I think that the annual spring cleanup probably cannot be skipped. If it were just leaves, they’d decompose beneath the cardboard…the twigs and such won’t. Any chance you can get the branches out and run the leaves over with your mower? Oak leaves dry to a crispy texture and disintegrate into small bits when mown/shredded. So maybe pick up sticks and then mow? (If you are positively littered w/acorns I’d gather some of those, too.)

      You might want to look at this recent post to see what I mean about reducing leafy debris that way.

  9. ron says:

    Hi Margret. Heard you speak at Loomis Creek and am now an inspired newbie. So inspired, that those weeds ain’t gonna know what hit them! Question about the cardboard: I assume that it just composts away over time. How much time? Must depend on the amount, of course. But can you offer estimates?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Ron. Depends on the cardboard, and also the season: how wet or dry, how hot, etc. It basically degrades faster in warm and moist seasons than over the winter. I find that it lasts here through a garden season (like spring to fall) but even after 2 months or so it is very much changed to a soft material, if you poke your finger in under the mulch to check. In new beds, if the plants haven’t grown in by Year 2, I simply spread more sheets of newspaper or cardboard here and there in the biggest still-empty spaces and mulch on top of that again, for more protection. And I always top up the mulch even once the cardboard is deteriorating beneath, as that becomes your secondary layer of weed-suppression. Hope that helps.

  10. Ellen Kirby says:

    I love the carboard/newspaper method. i use it when I want to add new shrubs or trees in our lawn. We first dig the holes for the plant and amend the soil but we also mix the amendment with the VERY hard clay. Clay is not all bad; its filled with good minerals. We plant, then layer the newspapers all around the area we have defined for a group of shrubs. We wet the newspapers then we pile pine needles on top. This works extremely well as it suppresses the weeds but also takes advantage of the lawn grass as sort of a cover crop.

    The other way we use this method is for suppressing weeds in the paths between our raised beds. We then pile straw over the paths. if/when we change the configuration of the raised beds, we can plow all of that under and improve the clay soil.

    I haven’t tried the cardboard and am very glad to see that idea.

  11. Lucinda says:

    Hi Margaret, I live in Melbourne Australia. I have a vegie patch that has not been used for a few years that is overrun with the very invasive cooch grass (I think it may be called couch grass in America). The cardboard method sounds like a good way for me to tackle this bed and get it ready for planting. However given that the cooch grass has runners I’m concerned that it will just seek out any holes I may have created in the cardboard for planting and will continue to be a menace in my vegie patch. Just wondering what your thoughts would be on this? Thanks heaps.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lucinda. Yes, the most tenacious weeds will try to find opportunities, you are right, but you can top up the openings with hay or straw (like in this post about Ruth Stout and her deep mulch method) and at least fare better that you would in any other manner, if you must use the bed now. I have to say with my worst weeds here, we sometimes dig them out first and then do the cardboard, unless the area is just too large.

      The other tactic is to “solarize” the soil and kill off weeds before using the beds again, with two or three months of clear plastic covering and the heat of warm-season sunshine. You sort of cook them to death under the plastic; details on soil solarization in this university bulletin (among other places).

      Hope to see you soon again.

  12. Tom says:

    If I am creating a new bed in my lawn (blue grass) how do I address the edge of the bed that comes in contact with my lawn mower? Should I dig out a natural border? I’m looking for an easy (read lazy) way to do this. Also how many layers of cardboard? If this stuff just amends the soil why not use multiple layers. Have you ever used 2-3, or 5-10 layers? We are just essentially composting right on top of the ground. I wouldn’t even cut grass down under the cardboard only objects that push up the cardboard. I think it may be helpful to use landscape staples to hold the cardboard down. You know multiple layers creates multiple air spaces. This is probably essential to decomposition.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Tom. Where the bed meets the lawn (rubber meets the road?) is the tricky part. I confess I mow right over it in the name of time, as I have a lot of mowing here, but better would be to trim the edges separately (mow near to them then clip or whack the edges on another pass). I do that careful version before garden tours and a few times a season, but cannot do it every week.

      A mowing strip of sunken pavers (or even landscape timbers) can be installed (even with ground level, on a bed of gravel) and you just mow over it — the inner wheel of the machine rides on the strip, instead of the bed. But my ground here is uneven, and also that is expensive to install (lots of pavers or bricks). Search on Google and you will find examples (including images).

      As for the cardboard, too many layers will just make runoff — rain won’t permeate the soil and you’ll just suffocate things or deprive them of moisture, I think. I would use a layer at a time. The idea is to create a barrier to smother weeds but not a barrier to moisture and so on. I agree, the staples would be a big help (with thick layers of newspaper I just moisten it a bit once it’s in place and it stays).

  13. fern says:

    I’m surprised no one has brought up the problem of slugs. Cardboard in the garden seems to be a slug magnet, especially once it gets wet. Any comments?

  14. nelson says:

    HI My wife asked me to find out how long it takes paper and or cardboard to rot down. IM AFRIAD THE ANSWER NEEDS TO BE EXACTYou dont have to tell her i do.Thanks for listening nelson

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nelson. Depends on the weather/climate and how thick you put it down. Here in my northern garden in spring, as the temperatures are warming up and rain is usually more regular, maybe 6 sheets thickness of newspaper will decompose by midsummer. In cold or dry times, slower. Cardboard lasts longer (but don’t use the kind that’s coated or printed on — just plain matte corrugated. I have seen that last all season (I can tell if I poke the mulch away) — so many months. So what I am saying is the more heat and moisture you expose it to, the faster it decomposes. Wish I could be more precise, but several factors are at work all at once (the materials, the moisture, the temp).

  15. Mary Lou says:

    I am trying to winterize a vegatable garden in Oklahoma (a LOT of wind). I want to use cardboard or newspaper, sawdust, cow and horse manure. The Burmuda grass has grown into the garden. Do I need to pull up the grass first? In what order and amounts should the layers go?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Mary Lou. There is no precise formula and no particular rules; everyone does it a little differently.

      I am confused with “winterize” — do you want to protect some perennial crop from damage? Or are you trying to prep ahead for next year?

      If it’s to suppress the weeds, generally if it’s in the vegetable garden I prefer not to use paper products that may have inks on them, and I use straw a lot instead.

      If you want to smother an area where you will grow food, I’d just keep that in mind — that coated (slick) and printed (especially colored inks) papers can contain unwanted ingredients (heavy metals). Plain, unprinted corrugated cardboard is probably a little safer; don’t use magazines or printed boxes (with labels etc.) at all.

      More details, please, what your goal is? You can email awaytogarden [at] gmail if easier.

  16. lori says:

    Hi I havea house in NW CT and inherited several beds that were grown over with weeds. Last fall, i tried to reclaim the beds. I covereredtheam with newspaper, cardboard and mulch. I expected this to breakdown to create new topsoil, especially with this winter

    question: how do i get this to be plantable top soil for a flower garden.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lori. Depending on the kind of weeds (how tenacious) and how well the smothering is going so far (take a peek) you either just forge ahead and cut X’s in the paper/cardboard and plants through the holes, or wait until things are killed off after longer suffocation, so to speak. In lawn areas I have even planted right away…but there will be some grass that pokes through that will need weeding. With weeds with runners and so on, I am more inclined to wait longer.

      The method doesn’t “create topsoil,” so to speak, but helps the desired plants have the advantage over the covered-up ones. The breaking down of the mulch (assuming it’s farily fine-textured and can break down, not some big bark chips or anything) is what eventually makes for crumblier soil underneath, but this takes time and repeat applications; not instant after the one fall/winter under the first layer of mulch.

      Does that help?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Robert. No, the honeysuckle will regrow from the roots I fear, as will most woody shrubs and vines. You will probably have to cut it down multiple times and cut through the roots with a lopper or hand saw once it weakens and you can get at them.

  17. leicester says:

    i have mistakenl;y placed the colored part of newpapers with the ads etc as part of my mulch for vegetable garden. Is there a way to test my soil and find out whta problems this may do to ,my soil?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Leicester. You could do a full analysis and see if there are concentrations of metals (inks can have some metals in them sometimes). I get my soil test “kits” (a mailed and instructions) from my county or state cooperative extension by mail.

  18. Tree says:

    I live in the Pacific NW and want to start a new garden spot in a grassy pasture area. I am wondering if right now (during the rainy time of year) would be an appropriate time to use the cardboard method for clearing out the existing grasses before spring planting? There is currently some standing water in this area, due to all the rain and a somewhat clayey soil.

    I am also wondering what is the best material to place over the top of cardboard, for a no-till planting in the spring?

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Tree. You can start the smothering anytime…EXCEPT for the fact of all that water you describe. Not only will it be hard to prep now with water there, but a spot that has standing water in one season or another is only going to be appropriate for plants that can handle those conditions (wet-meadow plants, for instance; shrubs like buttonbush or winterberry holly and so on). “Wet feet” in winter is hard on many garden plants.

      As for a mulch material, my faq page on what makes a good mulch is here.

  19. Russ says:

    I like the cardboard method, but getting cardboard can be a pain, esp. nice clean stuff. Then I went to a local lumber yard and found they have large amounts ( 100’s ) of 4 foot by 4 foot sheets of completely clean stuff. They we happy for me to carry it away. Your results may vary. Let us know if this works in your area and what stores.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Russ. Good idea. The local farm and feed store here also tends to get big sheets of it wrapping things and I go scavenge. :)

  20. Emily says:

    This is a great thread! I have a space full of weeds ( sumac, mint, dandelion, crabgrass, musk thistle, etc. ) My plans are to pull as much as I can up, till in manure, then cover it with cardboard and mulch. I am wondering how much of the roots I need to dig up before I put down the cardboard? Or will the cardboard smother the root systems? I need advice! : )

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Emily. The smothering is great with turfgrass (a piece of lawn) and some basic lawn weeds, and the like. Very little prep but a close mowing needed. Things like sumac (woody) or really tough herbaceous things like thistles can be tricky, and mint seems to live on to eternity. :) I would take the time to dig as much as you can — especially not to till things like the mint before you dig out as much as possible (every little piece of rhizome the tiller sends flying can make a new plant, I fear). Notice I say dig since pulling will leave deeper roots behind. Dig the worst stuff. Worth the trouble with the tough weeds you have.

  21. Donna Mollaun says:

    Oh no! I’ve been adding (not coated) shredded newspaper in my compost. Some has had colored ink here and there — not the cartoon pages, but you know what I mean. How much harm have I done?

    1. margaret says:

      I would not worry one bit, Donna, in the great scheme of things. Just don’t use colored inks going forward; they can contain more unwanted ingredients than plain black, but don’t always. I only worry about the really colorful stuff, not the occasional splash of color in the newspaper’s logo or anything.

  22. Fanchon Jane Griffin says:

    I want to make a new flower bed where presently there is grass. This is late Octoboer. If I spread cardboard, newspaper, compost ( in that order) over the grass, will the cardboard be disintegrated by Spring so I can plant. Or will I have to cut holes in the cardboard to plant?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Fanchon. Yes, or you can even cut holes now and plant. Fine either way. I like to wet the paper down a bit to speed things and make it easier to keep it in place, resistant to wind. The compost may not be heavy enough so I use a little bit coarser composted mulch, but use your judgment.

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