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. Littlesister says:

    I did this last year, after deciding to stop recycling my cardboard boxes for one whole winter. By May 1 of 2007 I had enough cardboard to cover my entire 45 x 45 foot deer-fence-enclosed garden. First I checked to remove all tape and staples and then flattened all the boxes and then covered everything with either soil or mulch and you know what? No weeds. I mean no weeds. It was a wonder. I’ll never look at cardboard the same way again.

  2. gardenboy says:

    I love, love, love the cardboard thing. I admit I am a little lazier about it. I leave all the tape and staples on and just pick them up as they reveal themselves at the end of the season. For really tenacious weeds I just put a double or triple layer of cardboard down. In the veg I cover it with straw and in the flower borders I use a fine mulch or sometimes compost. Cardboard is so much easier to use than newspaper, which is the way I first learned this technique.

  3. Joy Burkhardt says:

    Is it still true that you should use only black and white newsprint? Thought color print had some toxic elements in it. … Would love your input. … Joy

  4. margaret says:

    Welcome, Joy. I have read SO many different things about this–about lead in inks and dioxins and so on. Most of the literature from university cooperative extensions concurs that we should not mulch w/the shiny colorful magazine-type sections and ad inserts of that nature, that have so much colored ink and varnishes over the ink to gloss up the pages, but that the typical newsprint with mostly black and white is ideal.
    I have been doing this for many, many years and think I will keep on doing so.

  5. Joy Burkhardt says:

    Thanks Margaret. I think I’ll follow your lead on this. It’s such a pain to remove all color print. I use NYT and I’m surprised at how much more color print there is now. Also is it best to saturate paper before mulching on top. … Thrilled to have found your site. … Joy

  6. andy says:

    Hi Margaret, I have a 100 x 30′ area that I need to transform into a side path and garden. There are a lot of little rocks, good soil, however, there are tons of weeds where there used to be be grass. A 5 acre woods next to our home has been cut down for one year (a moonscape-like nightmare) and a border of poison ivy has grown along our fence as well! I suppose a house will be built there soon. Do you think I can sucessfully use this method? Any remedy for poison ivy rashes?

  7. margaret says:

    Hi, Andy. The tricky part about PI is that it is a very vigorous woody vine, so it isn’t just going to succumb to a little paper anytime quickly, compared to a herbaceous weed of lesser stamina. I would first dig out the plants, before they have a chance to grow more mature and difficult to eradicate.
    Digging out PI is a challenge requiring very careful planning and execution. Disposable surgical gloves are key, along w/long sleeves and pants, and then you must deposit the dug-up plants directly into a garbage bag that then goes inside another and into the trash.
    Remember you can get a dose of the irritating oils from your shovel, shoes, clothing up to one year later…so everything has to go into a hot wash immediately or be cleaned with alcohol (you!) or discarded. This FDA fact sheet is pretty comprehensive, including rash treatment (with prevention being easier than treatment, frankly).
    After digging, I’d paper the area as well (and if you fear the digging then paper the area VERY thickly and wider than the existing patch of PI, and do it again several times as the paper/mulch starts to decay). I have chosen along my roadside, outside my fence, to just lay down thick cardboard a few layers at a time and top it with deep, coarse mulch (composted wood chips) and top that up regularly, and it has definitely helped…but I wouldn’t be gardening in there with bare hands anytime soon as I doubt I killed all the PI.

  8. Joy Burkhardt says:

    I highly recommend Mike McGrath’s website youbetyourgarden.org. He has a fabulous organic gardening radio show on NPR’s WHYY(Philadelphia area) on Saturday mornings. Also available on some other NPR stations. He is a former editor of Organic Gardening and a wealth of information, a little goofy but knows his stuff. Archives and past shows are accessible from the website. … Joy

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Mary Lynn. I have planted the same day, as long as I moisten the cardboard/newsprint layers and also weight them down w/good fine-textured mulch so that the plants I insert in X’s I poke in the paper won’t be left to fend off undergrowth that wants to pop through without a secure layer of protection to help them. Or you can wait until more of what’s beneath suffocates. If it’s really tough stuff (not just lawn, e.g., but giant thistles or something) be sure to dig out the worst offenders and also maybe mow/clip everything short first so your surface isn’t like a mountain range!

  10. Mary Lynn says:

    Dear Margaret,
    Your site is fabulous and an inspiration! I’m eager to start a new bed. With the cardboard method, how long do I need to wait after layering the cardboard and mulch before I can start planting?

  11. Mary Lynn says:

    Thanks for your quick reply. I haven’t seen much mention of landscape cloth. What say you to using it?

  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, Dennis, a fellow music-lover. That plant’s an annual (tropical) called Persian shield, or Strobilanthes. Loomis Creek in Claverack sells it, as do many good nurseries.

  13. dennis r says:

    margaret, i found out about you on wkze (my favorite station!)
    referencing your ‘how it looked then” page; garden picture 20…..what is the name of that plant/shrub? the variegated one w/ green edges & ribs filled in w/ pink/mauve….very interesting specimen.
    dennis r
    zone 5

  14. margaret says:

    Welcome, Mary. I would first mow/cut down the underlying weeds, then pile on some organic material (rotted leaves, compost) for a couple of inches, then layer on the cardboard, and then start layering on more organic material up top. You can’t overdo it with compost, or rotted leaves, especially in a heavy clay soil. The idea is to try to get worms and soil microbes and such to jump in and do the work here of improving the soil as the organic material decays.

  15. Mary says:

    Hi. I just found this website and am very interested in the cardboard garden. I have really, really heavy clay and it is hard work to remove the sod and turn the soil (before adding compost of course). Any reason why I shouldn’t use the cardboard method? How deep should I pile soil/compost on top to create a home for perenials? Thanks

  16. Jan says:

    Just discovered your blog (saw the NYT article) – so glad I did!!
    I’ve a question about the cardboard method. Everything I’ve read about gardening says before you plant, you have to dig down at least 10″ to loosen up the soil so the roots can spread out. So, do you dig through the cardboard? or do you build the garden on top of the cardboard – basically making a raised garden?

  17. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jan. I used to dig and prep deeply for many, many years. I just don’t do it any longer; I use the smothering method, then top up with a few inches of high-quality composted mulch (like composted stable bedding or composted leaf mold) and keep the top replenished. That stuff breaks down into the underlying soil. Then I cut X’s in the cardboard and plant…or if it’s not too complex a design, I plant, then spread cardboard around the bed topped by mulch. With vegetables, for instance, that’s very easy, as you usually plant in rows or blocks. With come designs of ornamentals, it can be a little tricky.

  18. margaret says:

    Welcome, Pat. I often do this, sort of tucking the newspaper around the crowns of the perennial rather than totally smothering them. It is a little more work to position the paper (sometimes helps to moisten the thick layers so they stay put, as mentioned) but worth it.

  19. Pat says:

    Just wondering if I can put newspaper and mulch on top of end-of-season perennials? I have grown a quick garden when I received plants from a company too early then planted but just have not had time to move them but the weeds are now starting to surface and some going to seed.

  20. Pingback:The Beet Goes On « A Chicken In Every Granny Cart

  21. margaret says:

    Welcome to The Beet Goes On. I have buried many a New York Times here on my property, too. Thanks for visiting, and come again soon.

  22. Hawk says:

    For poison ivy I make a tea from the inner bark of an oak. Shred the bark, bring water to a boil, cover, turn off heat, let steep for awhile. Bottle in amber bottles & refrigerate.

    The tannic acid in the bark works great. Apply with a cotton ball several times a day. Should clear up in a couple days.

    How about using white cardboard?

    Thanks for the useful info!


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  23. Joy says:

    I used leaves underneath cardboard last fall to winterize my vegetable garden beds. Perhaps I should have put the cardboard down first…??? The garden didn’t “perform” that well.

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