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. Lisa says:

    I have used this method for years – even successfully eliminating large patches of poison ivy without ever having to touch it! We had some small trees (about 8 – 12 inches in diameter) taken down due to damage from a heavy snowstorm October before last. Now they are sprouting suckers. I can’t afford to have someone come and remove the stumps, and the trees are near my well, so I don’t want to use chemicals. Can this method be used to rid my garden of the suckering stumps??

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. I don’t think it will work so well on suckers. Plastic (if it’s a sunny area that would get hot) might help bake them and weaken them, but woody stuff is hard. I have had a neighbor come cut my stumps of lost trees up as much as possible, and dug around to find main roots and severed those too, then did plastic and waited and waited. Eventually I am able to use loppers and etc. to get chunks out — but not of giant trees. With big stumps, I wait until I have enough to warrant a half-day with the stump grinder guy…meaning I’ve done that maybe once every 8 years.

      1. Patricia says:

        Drill holes in the stump.
        Pour liquid molasses in the holes. Repeat once a week for 2 months. The stump will dissolve due to the microbes in the molasses.
        I am 20 years organic on my 1/2 acre property in the Fort Worth Texas area.

  2. Kathy says:

    I have been a devotee of Ruth Stout for many years. I did a no work garden/ lasagna gardening in a hay field and the next sring I could put my arm in good soil almost up to my elbow! Unfortunately in later springs the raspberries also found the garden inviting and I have been fighting them eversince.
    Moving to a new home this summer ( Downsizing) and hope to use this garden method again to make an Herb Garden in the back yard. Let the new owners fight the brambles!

  3. Sandra Hess, CPM says:

    RE: heavy clay soil — yes — it works beautifully. I like to use green sand layered in- it doesn’t take much at all and it seems to really make a difference.

  4. LISA says:

    I love your site. I have been using newspaper and cardboard for years with grass clippings for mulch. I have a compost pile and a compost bin tumbler (thanks to my stepmother) so the garden is enriched every spring. I also have been using carpet for several years(it was old carpet from church that we were going to use in our rental unit, but then there was a fire and it got wet and moldy – so we dragged it out and cleaned it and cut it in strips). My husband or children do most of the heavy work as I have a bad back, so the newspaper and cardboard and mulch as well as the carpet allow me to continue to garden. I love the carpet as I am usually on my hands and knees to plant. In my “raised bed” garden, I have black plastic between rows and it warms the soil and keeps down the weeds.

  5. Martha Pendleton says:

    I live in California and have clay soil. We had periwinkle growing in a large patch and it was really entrenched. We wanted to plant California
    natives, so I covered all of the periwinkle with cardboard and then with mulch and let it be for a year or so (I was in no hurry). When the time
    came for us to revamp the garden and make it more friendly to our 27 native oaks, the periwinkle was gone, the cardboard had composted in
    place and everything was ready to plant. The native plants are doing great in that area and, so far, there are no signs of periwinkle or even
    weeds. I think it is a great recycling method for cardboard and an inexpensive, effective way of getting rid of invasive plants. Thank you for
    highlighting it.

  6. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I use newspaper or cardboard, too. I created a large bed along our property line this way when we took down a large tree together with our neighbor. I asked to keep the chipped mulch from the tree to cover all the paper and cardboard. I had to let that bed age because of the freshly chipped mulch but I could have never dug that size bed! I have a stash of cardboard now for a new bed I’m creating on the other side of our property and if it would just stop snowing, I could get started …

  7. Suellen says:

    One year I made extensive “lasagna garden” beds to plant trays of flower plugs. I intended to go into the flower growing business. I made the beds and planted the flowers. What I found was that slugs loved to shelter under the cardboard and totally wiped out a tray of 72 delphiniums. They devoured every leaf! Live and learn I guess.


    1. alan gorkin says:

      don’t give up. delphs are one of the most inviting slug plants for some reason… maybe spread som diatomaceous earth around them next time, or slug bait

  8. Kathleen Norris says:

    Margaret–the cardboard method sounds just perfect for a small bed I want to revive since being abandoned for many years. It’s just been on the back burner for so long now. Even though it was filled in with stones I thru some cosmos in it a couple years ago and it still comes in in Spring, but needs a makeover.
    Tell me, how did you keep those pretty pink gloves so clean in the photo? Just kidding of course–Thanks for great info–Kathie.

  9. Amy says:

    I need to rid an urban rain garden of wiregrass. Does anyone have experience doing that? I don’t think anything but heavy digging out will get rid of it, but I wonder if cardboard after digging out will keep it from coming back. The rain garden is surrounded by all sorts of lovely stuff, including a backhoe company with wiregrass in their “grassy” area, so it might be a lost cause. Would edging a few times a year with sharp equipment keep the wiregrass from spreading into our rain garden?

  10. Carole Vargo says:

    What can you do to get of Bermuda grass in beds? I have put down paper and cardboard and the stupid grass grows out from under it or through the holes. Does anyone have any suggestions? I am trying to get rid of as much lawn as possible and have more beds. It is a never ending battle!

  11. Carole says:

    Sorry, Margaret, I just saw your post above my question. Glyphosate will not work for me; too much wildlife in my yard. I think I will try landscape fabric with my new beds, although I’m sure the little buggers will find a way under or out of it. Thank you for the link to the Sunset article.

  12. Susan Nichiolson says:

    I bought Ruth Stout’s book back in 70’s and have been gardening with newspaer and cardboard since them. She is one of my gardening ideals and so inspirational. The system works wonderully and you can use less mulch also. I hate the term lasagna gardening too.

  13. Carin says:

    Hi! I know I’m late to this discuss, but really like all the good information you have supplied! I have a question about the cardboard in the garden though. I live in GA and it is mid-February and I would like to plant in my garden in mid-April. But the garden has become overcrowded with weeds over the winter (it’s the only green thing in my back yard of course, all the grass is dead but the weeds are healthy and alive!) I have laid down large cardboard pieces that are weighed down by rocks. Do you think just the cardboard will have any impact by the time I am ready to plant? I don’t want to put down mulch yet because nothing is planted…Ideally I would just like the cardboard to kill the weeds and then pull up the cardboard in April. Any suggestions?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Carin. I often plant right through the cardboard, cutting X’s into it to insert the plants. The idea is to let the cardboard (plain brown corrugated, not with lots of colorful stickers or other printing on it) rot in place, not pull it up.

  14. Vivek says:

    How many inches of mulch do you put on top of the cardboard/newspaper? I’ve seen references that go anywhere from 2″ up to 10″. I’m using composted stable bedding for my mulch (thanks to your recommendation!).

  15. Sara says:

    If you’re in a hurry, you can just put topsoil on top of the cardboard. You should wait long enough for the weeds to die before you cut into it to plant, but you could probably get away with seeding on top of a few inches.

  16. Lynn says:

    I covered a whole perennial bed this year with cardboard-had become over run with milkweed and after 3-4 years of trying my best to pull it O gave up the fight and covered the whole thing. Am wondering if one year of covering is enough-am ok with adding more cardboard and giving it a second year-what do you think?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Lola. The question would be what the white ink is and also whether they are coated (waxed etc.) in some way. No source I can find (like Staples, Fedex, U-Line…) tells what ink is used.

  17. I have another method which I use for winter squash and Pumpkins. From time to time I spot a neighbor replacing the wall to wall carpet in there house. The workers usually cut it in 3 or 4 foot wide strips and roll it up to remove it. That is a good spacing for pumpkins. so I cover the planting area with hay from my field and roll the strips out side by side. During the winter the dog urine washes out [seems to be the most common reason for replacing the carpet] and the critters protected under the carpet cultivate the soil.
    In the spring I transplant into the seem between the rolls and my patch has no weeds and the pumpkins stay nice and clean. Interestingly on the carpet the pumpkins keep turning themselves and come out nice and round with uniform color.

  18. Ronnie says:

    I’ve done the carboard method and it definitely helps keep the weeds down. I started my vegetable garden last fall by laying down sheets of cardboard and covering them with grass clippings along with mulched leaves. In late spring I sprinkled the top with compost and planted my veggies through the cardboard. I topped it off with crushed egg shells I saved up all winter, they help keep the slugs down. In the fall I’ll probably repeat the process on top to put the vegetable garden to bed for the season and expand it in size a little at the same time. I might dig the bed in a little first though, just to help add more organic material to the soil beneath the bed.

  19. Clint Ramos says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Is this a method I can do in the Fall and leaving the whole set-up through the Winter and unveil the new beds in the Spring?

    I’m looking to start new beds but don’t really want to start planting until after the snow melts.



  20. Carole says:

    Hi, I’m looking forward to starting a veg patch this year – even more so now I’ve discovered this method exists, I was dreading the digging! Part of the area I want to use is covered in ornamental stones – do I need to remove them first or is it OK to just layer the cardboard over the top of them?

  21. john hawkley says:

    Hi, I grow giant pumpkins and I have just started four plants in a 3,000 sq. ft. patch. I planted a fall cover crop, added 30 yards of compost, gypsum, and some other amendments. I had a tractor come in and till the whole patch two weeks ago.
    Every year by the time I get to the outer areas with the plants the soil has dried out and I feel like I have lost all the nutrients that I work so hard on. Can I use cardboard to preserve the condition of the soil for a couple months? Water first ?

    Thanks, John

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