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. Sue says:

    I have been using this method for years for both making new beds and smothering weeds in existing beds. Since I get the Sunday New York Times, that has been my usual base material, with occasional cardboard if I happen to have it on hand. I tend to use the cardboard in an area with particularly stubborn weeds and areas that I know I won’t be planting for a while. I usually top the paper layer with a thick layer of chopped leaves as mulch.

    A question that I have now that my paper has much more color printing on it than it used to is whether the ink from the paper has any harmful chemicals. I used to use only the black and white pages since I was under the impression that the colored inks contained heavy metals. In recent years I have been using newspaper printed with color since I have heard that the NYT is now using soy based inks. Does anyone know if it is ok to use the paper if it is printed with colored ink? I never use these papers on gardens where edibles are being grown, but still don’t want to be unintentionally adding bad things to the soil.

    Thanks for all of the great info!!

  2. Deborah Banks says:

    I used to avoid the paper with colored ink also, having the same idea that it contained heavy metals. I read at grist.org that newsprint and cardboard boxes are safe these days for garden use, but to avoid the glossy inserts, magazines and colored paper, as they have a higher amount of toxic stuff. They noted also that if your garden is in an urban or suburban area, ink is the least of your contamination problems. It’s likely you have other more toxic sources like lead paint, payment runoff, car exhaust, etc. They recommend getting your soil tested for heavy metals before food gardening and not to grow food within 10 feet of a building.
    I like using 6 or 8 layers of newsprint under mulch to start a new garden bed, but sometimes it works as well to just pile garden and grass clippings, old sod, and other garden waste in the area where I want a new bed, especially if I’m not in a hurry. A couple years ago, I successfully started a small bed for primula seedlings by first putting down a thick layer of old wet leaves (from a pile that had been waiting all summer to be shredded for mulch). I put a thin layer of soil over that, scavenged from under the old compost pile, planted my seedlings, and finished with finely shredded mulch. That worked fine to smother out the grass and weeds that had been in that area, but didn’t prevent some daffodils I forgot about from emerging the next spring in the middle of my primula clumps!

  3. Jayne says:

    I’ve made all of my nine raised beds using newspaper covered with compost mixed with peat and manure. My friend lettherebegarden has also made her gardens with similar method! It works and it saves your back!

  4. Debbie says:

    I actually am using cardboard now to help with building a new bed and pathway…getting rid of all the grass in this area will make it easier for my husband to cut the lawn, so he’s happy about that! Thanks for the information, very useful.
    Debbie :)

  5. Colleen says:

    I recently read that they have done experiments with cardboard and have found that termites prefer it to wood!! I found a few termite sin my garden so am staying away from it. I used to use wood mulch but now am going to save my leaves and use them as much instead!!

  6. Anna says:

    I’ve been using this method and it’s so much easier, and the soil looks so great after the bed gets established. Especially when you use this method on poor soil sites, the animals that live in the soil, like the worms and stuff, they all start flooding back turning the soil back into organic gold. This is a fantastic way to prepare beds! Thanks for sharing!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Anna, and good point: earthworms seem to really love this extra layer of “mulch” from the paper. Thanks. Hope to see you again soon.

  7. Terryk says:

    I use the cardboard method also with mixed results. I seem to still get the grass coming up through it. I have mulched lately with sweet peat mulch and this year composted leaves.

  8. Another heavy cardboard user here (our supplier is right across the street, a pool table distributor!). It is a bother to remove the tape and staples though, but worth it in the end. Depending on your climate, if it is moist and hot, cardboard will not act as a weed/grass suppressor for long, a few months perhaps.

    I am expanding my methods to trench composting–digging and composting at the same time: dig a trench, layer your kitchen wastes there, and then cover with soil. Cardboard can be placed to keep it weed free until sowing; next season the area is ready, especially for root veggies, as the nourishment will be right near their roots.

  9. Sharon says:

    Best place I’ve found for plain cardboard is Costco. They have these enormous sheets between layers on the pallets – they’re just there for the taking. I was competing with another gardener this spring, apparently, but I still got plenty to smother a grassy steep-angled bank to create a no-mow wildflower garden.

    1. Sharon says:

      And I’m doing it again 3 years later, because the wildflowers were only pretty in June, and a lot of weeds got into the wildflower bed. Now I’m thinking about putting in some perennial native shrubs and bulbs.

  10. Rebecca says:

    It’s my understanding that termites are going for the glue used in corrugated cardboard. Wetting the cardboard first and dissolving the glue first would be an option.

    1. margaret says:

      Interesting, Rebecca. I do wet it as I mentioned (otherwise it is hard to keep it “down” on the ground I find.

  11. gayle says:

    My friends thought I had lost my mind when I was dumpster diving for cardboard!! So glad to find a group that would understand my craziness!!

    Pulling off the tape and staples is a pain!!

    I now have a source for large brown bags – about the size of a peat moss bales – my neighbor gets their pine shavings for their horse stalls delivered in them – so I have been using those the past two years. Breaks down quicker than the cardboard but keeps me out of the dumpsters!!

    Now thanks to Sharon – I may have to get a Costco membership!!


  12. I learned of this method from the permaculture folks and have been doing it for years. I expanded my rural garden to include a field of fescue, now a large “lawn” that I have been slowly planting up with hedges, trees, perennials and raised beds. In our Oregon climate it is a short season before you have to weed out the grass and other wind blown weeds from the mulch atop the cardboard, but it otherwise works well. Margaret, you cautioned to use this method (or at least to expect success from it) only on areas that were not compacted and poor. My experience has been a little different. The ground around our newly built Rastra house (hence no concern with termites, etc) was terrible clay and terribly compacted. I placed a layer of cardboard and then a thick flake of wheat straw over that and waited until Spring. By Spring the soil underneath had been worked happily by the worms and was soft and crumbly and moist. I imagine it is as poor as it ever was, but it currently supports Astilbe, one Alchemyst Rose, several bamboo, an Oregon grape, a climbing White New Dawn rose and ……weeds.

  13. Cheryl says:

    I started using cardboard several years ago based on a tip from a local gardener and avid daylily hybridizer. I found that it really works! I used it to kill all the grass and weeds in an area between the driveway and the house that I couldn’t get to with my lawn mower. I put the cardboard down in the fall, covered it with a thick layer of mulch from our town’s composting site, and by spring, the cardboard and the grass were completely gone. I was then able to plant some beautiful hydrangeas, hostas and other shade tolerant perennials in that area. I’ve gone on to use that method elsewhere in the yard. I find that the cardboard does a much better job than newpaper – it seems to smother the grass and weeds better and decomposes quickly.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cheryl. I agree and prefer cardboard myself. Thanks for saying hello and sharing your lawn-erasing capers. :)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kate, and thank you for the Trader Joe’s version of bed prep. :) And thanks also for your kind words. See you soon!

  14. naomi d. says:

    Thanks for this – a neighbor and I were discussing this topic over breakfast this morning, and then I saw the topic in your email. I am fighting torpedo grass all around my house. The roots can go two feet down. It’s almost like a tiny bamboo, but more aggressive. It’s driving me nuts (as is, coincidentally, the nutgrass) but I’m determined to make these areas mine! I’m thinking I first need to solarize the area, as suggested, but should I first double dig, in a, probably, fruitless attempt to first get the torpedo grass roots closer to the surface to burn? Or do I instead take a flame-thrower to the area? I’m forwarding this on to the neighbor; thanks again.

  15. bett says:

    i have been a dumpster diver for cardboard for many gardening years. it keeps the weeds down on my acre. i put grass clippings on top of the cardboard & it looks good. within a year there are lots of worms & wonderful soil. when diving for cardboard, i take a little step stool with me as I am 5 feet & it makes it easier to get in the cardboard only dumpsters. Amusing, i am sure to see this as i am 70. ……. Another tip for really tough weed thugs is to use old carpet purchased from the thrift store. Leave the carpet down for a year. This will eradicate the worst weeds.

  16. Terri F says:

    I am using a covered earth worm “bin” which is really the soil in the ground, a 6 inch tall box built up around it, the kitchen and garden waste dumped in, sprinkled and then covered with a plywood sheet. I have never seen so many worms, nor such beautiful soil easily prepared. I highly recommend this method if you have about 4-6 months of prep time. It adds to the soil as you prepare. Open the bin once in a while if you are gardening nearby, to give some fresh air, remoisten, and close. Worms do the work!

    1. margaret says:

      I love this idea, Terri F. Thank you. They do love their protected hiding places, don’t they? And how hard they work, as you say.

  17. carol says:

    I found that newspaper doesn’t break down here in dry, dry, dry Texas. I was still finding petrified sheets of it years after using it to start some of my beds. Cardboard disintegrated just fine, though . . . maybe because the earthworms love it so much.

  18. Laura says:

    I’ve been doing this for years and as I get older, I appreciate more of Ruth Stout’s advice. Every fall I expand my vegetable garden another few feet (who needs grass, really!) and lay down several layers of the Sunday NY Times, top it off with chopped up leaves, some compost and let Mother Nature take care of the rest. In the spring, sometimes I have to dig through a bit of newsprint but as long as I’ve added compost, my tomatoes, beans, and other veggies are thrilled to have more room to expand.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Laura. I love Stout’s book and her voice is always there to remind em: keep it simple! The New York Times should be proud to be used in our gardens. :)

  19. MiSchelle says:

    I’m rejuvenating some of my veggie garden beds with the lasagne garden method. I have been fighting weeds in these beds for years (they had been abandoned and gone to weeds before we bought the house) and I’m ready to try something new. So, suppressing the weeds with cardboard and layering straw, leaves and compost this year should result in weedless beds come Spring!

  20. Annette says:

    When we moved here 1 1/2 years ago, I used the cardboard from our packing boxes to subdue the weeds. Now I have a huge problem with slugs! When I lift up the cardboard, I find multitudes of mollusks. And of course my garden has lots of lacey leaves. I can’t decide which pest is worse.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Annette. The cardboard shouldn’t last more than part of a season — like a few months or so. Was it more than one layer thick or something that caused it to remain intact rather than breaking down as it should do?

  21. LInda says:

    Has anyone tried the cardboard method with heavy clay soil? I was working my mom’s beds last spring and it was almost impossible because the soil was clumped. I wonder if mulching with cardboard over the winter might help?

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