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Reuse newspaper as mulch for your garden

Question: I have heard and been told that newspaper is a good mulch to keep weeds from growing in the garden. I can't help but think that the ink may not be the best thing. Can you shed any light on the subject?

Answer: Newspaper ink has changed a lot over the years. Petroleum-based ink used to be the norm and it contained lead, cadmium and other heavy metals that are certainly not welcome in the garden. Newer ink formulations are soy-based and far safer (for both the garden and us). These inks are used on the matte newsprint pages while the high-gloss inserts may still contain petroleum-based inks and should be avoided in the garden. Studies at the West Virginia University Extension Service confirm this. Researchers there also found that when using newspaper mulch in strawberry production they had a significant reduction in weeds and fungal and bacterial diseases and an improvement in the fruits' color and shape.

Home gardeners can use newspaper mulch to control weeds and diseases too. It also retains moisture, adds carbon-based organic matter to the soil as it decomposes, and is a great way to recycle. Plus, a study at the University of Vermont found that a heavy layer of newspaper mulch, when left intact, controlled weeds for two full seasons.

You can use newspaper mulch in the vegetable garden, shrub beds, perennial borders and on walkways. Pretty much anywhere that weeds grow, which, of course, is everywhere.

At the beginning of the season, spread newspaper 6 to 10 sheets thick over the area. You may find it helpful to either wet the newspaper first or spray it with a hose immediately after placing it. The water keeps the paper from blowing over to the neighbors or wicking moisture from the soil. The newspaper is then covered with a more attractive organic mulch like shredded bark, compost, mushroom soil, chopped leaves, straw, hay or grass clippings.

For areas with existing plants, keep the paper and organic mulch two or three inches away from the trunk or crown of the plant. For mulching the veggie garden, I spread out the newspaper and organic mulch before I plant. Then I clear away a small area of mulch, cut X's in the paper, and plant my tomatoes and peppers right through it. It's much easier than spreading the paper around all those little plants. But it will work either way. The photos show the garden of my neighbor, Joe George. He mulches his tomatoes, summer squash and peppers this way and uses last fall's shredded leaves to top the newspaper.

The newspaper can be left in place through the winter: It will help protect the soil from erosion and freeze-thaw cycles. Then, you can either till it under in the spring or, if you use no-till methods, add a new layer of paper and organic mulch to the top.

You also can follow the same technique using unbleached, brown craft paper or plain, unprinted corrugated cardboard. They take even longer to break down and are effective for three or more seasons when left in place.

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