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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. If a sunny patch of lawn is destined to house a crop of summer tomatoes or a fall-planted 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 X’s in the cardboard with my spade or a mat knife 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 clear plastic for a month or longer in a warm, sunny season (or “tarp” it with black plastic), 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. Years ago, Jane checked with Garden Organic, the 60-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.” A shorter course using his tactics is covered in the video below, the first in a series on biointensive growing:

So do tell: How do you make a bed?

  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 :(

  2. Susan says:

    When we ripped out our old carpeting, I cut then in three foot wide strips and used it in a woodland garden. The undersize is a soft tan, so it doesn’t look bad at all. Keep moving them every couple of weeks so tougher weeds don’t come through or seed on top.

  3. Thomas Brophy says:

    I have successfully used newsprint and cardboard to mulch between the rows of my ( mostly) raised bed garden. Then, both to keep these moist, and also for appearance sake, I cover those materials with a blanket of leaves. Alas, I now have a few ducks who love to forage underneath– lots of lovely bugs and worms there– messing up the leaf coverage while exposing the paper. I shall probably have to abandon the paper/cardboard though it has worked so beautifully. Bonus– I seem to have no more slugs!

  4. shannon says:

    I rarely double dig any more. It expends a lot of calories, and you don’t come out even, if you’re trying to feed yourself. Also, worms and roots can do it for you. I like the broad fork sometimes. It’s fun to use and it’s a lot easier.

    1. margaret says:

      I do try, Sheila, to get most of it, and then there is always some that slowly surfaces when it detaches from the soil moisture and I end up finding it in the garden bed. But I do try to get most of it first!

    2. Judy Maule says:

      From my experience, it’s worth taking a few minutes to peel off the tape. I agree with Margaret. If you don’t you’ll be finding the strips in garden and it’s a pest nuisance. Otherwise, cardboard mulch works great.

    3. Ramsay Harik says:

      On the other hand, speaking as one who has put down at least 1/3 acre of cardboard, the tape comes off a lot easier once the cardboard has been wet and weathered for awhile. Leave it too long, though, and you get scraps of plastic all over the place.

  5. Hope says:

    Does solarizing work on a patch of poison ivy? It’s down to nothing now in the winter but in the summer I had a flourishing crop. And the ground is pretty hard right now so digging it out is not going to be terribly successful I suspect, in northern Kansas. I don’t want to give it a chance as the weather warms up.

  6. Ann Jackson says:

    How about bind weed?. My neighbor lets it come over to my side. I pinch it dig it up and still it comes back. Mostly under rhododendron. Just about anywhere it will grow. Any help is greatly appreciated!

    1. margaret says:

      I have hedge bindweed in one spot; more about that at this link (plus how to tell field bindweed and hedge bindweed apart). For field bindweed, start by learning about its life cycle and cultural controls of it at this Univ. of California website that I love (even thought I live in the Northeast). The link.

  7. Clem Zawadzki says:

    I’ve been using cardboard and newspaper to control weeds and set up new beds for several years. @ a recent lecture by a local recycling expert, I asked about heavy metals in in colored newsprint (newspaper, not shiny inserts). She said that there are no heavy metals on the inks. I wish that we could go back to B&W. I also sheet compost on top of the paper. It works wonders – grow tomatoes in very large, home-made welded wire cages and add about 2″ of green mulch (sometimes mixed with brown + a little fertilizer). Am getting half to full bushel of tomatoes/plant – plants are 10′ tall by the end of the season and I have to cut them back by late July to keep them from falling over. Some years I left them to grow and had to crawl through the double-row tunnel on my hands and knees to get to the middle plants. I use more paper to smother any plants that come up. I do peel off the tape.

    1. Clem Zawadzki says:

      Addendum to my earlier comment: I add 2″-4″ of green/brown stuff (shredded, if possible) every 2-3 weeks. By the end of the summer the pile of mulch is ~12″ high and full of tomato roots.
      Regards, Clem

  8. Nancy Marr says:

    What a wonderful discussion. I believe in no-till gardening and use cardboard to start new areas. I don’t mind calling it lasagna gardening. It works!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Just the idea of burying what is essentially plastic in the soil (well, maybe polyester or who knows what, but a synthetic non-degradable material manufactured from such stuff) seems counter-intuitive. Perhaps under patio paving stones but not in a planting bed. It really does create a barrier (for roots, for larger soil life like earthworms, even for organic material to thoroughly break down and incorporate into the lower levels of the soil…and of course for a shovel!). I don’t know what application you are needing it for — raised vegetable bed, under a walkway, etc. — but I have too often seen edges of it sticking out from beneath beds where it was installed years before and it’s nearly impossible to get out without disrupting the entire planting and starting over from scratch.

    2. Ramsay Harik says:

      Also, you will be forever digging up scraps of black plastic. Whenever you plant something new, or weed, or transplant, there it is. Landscape fabric doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to do: weeds grow very happily in the soil and mulch that rests on top of the fabric.

  9. Nigel says:

    What about using spare rolls of wallpaper. Double or treble it up and you get a decent thickness (might look nice as well)

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Nigel, as I don’t know what glues, inks and perhaps coatings are used in the manufacture of wallpaper. Corrugated construction and the current way newsprint is made etc. are well-known, but I have never read about whether wallpaper contains anything unsafe to bury.

  10. Gwen says:

    I put cardboard down on a bed I’d like to renew at the beginning of summer, then piled about 6 inches of old, funky mulch on top that I had removed from a different bed. The time has come, I think, to get going with this new bed, but I’m worried I didn’t plan this out very well. I’m assuming I want to move all that old and funky mulch off, remove the cardboard, and till/add compost to the soil that was underneath (hopefully now not weedy anymore). Am I thinking about that in a decent way? It occurred to me only after setting the whole thing up that I might be leaving the cardboard in place. Thanks!

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