Paper (including cardboard and other paper products) is great for use in the garden.
Though there are several ways to use paper in gardening, one of the best ways to use paper in the garden is for weed control.
In fact, it can even be free because you can use all sorts of household paper and waste paper from things like newspapers and packaging.
Paper, paper products, and cardboard are safe to use in the garden.
Paper is a natural product made from wood. From trees. It is a natural fiber and a good source of natural carbon that is also useful in compost and in soil. Paper is a much safer, more environmentally friendly, and natural product than refined plastics and similar weed barrier products. Paper can work with your garden and its soil instead of against it.
It’s biodegradable. Unlike plastic and manufactured weed barriers, paper can break down and return its natural components to the soil. It’s true that the lifespan of paper in the garden is far shorter than plastic and other barriers, but it will last long enough. If used properly it will last a season or more. Cardboard and thicker applications can last multiple seasons.
It improves and restores soil. Paper in the garden builds soil by adding organic matter when it breaks down and works in (either by time or tilling). It can lighten hard, heavy, or clay soils and improve tilth for better growing. Paper can restore organic matter that is lost through the years of planting or from tilling and erosion.
It’s eco-friendly, free and easy recycling. Using paper in the garden is one way to recycle or upcycle this waste product without having to pay for removal and without the need for costly transportation, resources, and utilities spent in the recycling process.
It doesn’t need to be cleaned up! There is no end-of-season cleanup when you use paper or cardboard because it can just be turned in, left to break down naturally on its own, or tilled under when the time comes. In fact, paper is a favorite for no-till and sandwich garden methods for this reason. Because paper improves the soil, it is actually better NOT to clean it up at the end of the season. Win-win for you!
It encourages worms. We all know how good earthworms are for the garden. It just so happens worms love paper, too.
It retains moisture. Paper helps retain soil moisture in a few ways. As a weed barrier, it helps to reduce evaporation and therefore helps keep water in the soil. As it breaks down, and/or when used as a mulch or soil-builder, it adds absorbent organic matter to your soil. This is great for sandy soils, stony soils, and soils that drain too fast.
It helps maintain optimal soil temperatures. Like any mulch, paper mulch and weed barriers help to keep soil and plants roots cool in the summer and warm in the winter, protecting from both damaging freezes and high heat.
It’s approved for organic gardening. Paper and cardboard are both approved for use in organic gardening and crop production. If you’re looking to reduce or end harmful herbicide sprays, chemicals, and other less eco-friendly options, use paper.
It helps control insects and plant disease. Mulches and weed barriers are helpful in controlling some insects and larva and in controlling plant diseases like fungal disease and blight. These diseases spread from soil splash and spores that overwinter in soil, so controlling that splash with barriers like paper helps to prevent and control disease.
What Kind of Paper to Use for Garden Weed Control
Before we talk about how to use paper to control weeds in the garden, let’s look at some good types of paper to use.
Contractor paper rolls – These are rolls of (usually brown) plain paper sold in hardware, contractor supply, and home improvement stores.
Craft paper rolls
How to Use Paper for Weed Control
Truly there’s not a lot involved in using paper as weed control, but there are a few keys to success with paper as opposed to plastic or weed barriers.
Ideally, Lay the Paper First
First off, it is best to lay the paper out and mulch or weight it completely before you plant. Then you can easily poke or dig through the paper to set your plants in. This is much faster and easier than laying paper around the plant.
Laying Out Different Types of Paper
If using newspaper, lay the sheets at least three sheets thick. You can double that amount for a stronger layer if you like. Keep in mind the thicker you lay your paper, the harder it is for water to soak through and the longer it will take to break down. So, it might depend on how long you want the barrier to be there (just one season or for longer than that?).
If you are using contractor paper, garden paper, or crafts rolls, one layer is sufficient for most applications, but for added protection you can double the paper up.
Weighting and Keeping Paper from Blowing
The most important thing is to keep the paper in place and to keep it from blowing away and ripping, both when you are laying it out and after it is laid. There are a few good options for this, and the one you choose will depend on your access to other mulch materials and how you want the paper to function.
Use Mulch to Keep Paper in Place
You can use mulch—like wood chips, straw, or sawdust —to lay over the top of the paper and hold it down. This will also help hide the paper if the aesthetics of the project are important to you.
Watering Paper for Weight
Watering paper or cardboard as you lay it to keep it in place until you can cover it with a second mulch product. Just spray the paper with a garden hose as you lay it down.