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Paper Your Lawn to Create Garden

By Marlys Bell, Master Gardener

It´s one thing to make a New Year´s resolution. It´s another to achieve it. Before other priorities distract me, I´m making plans to get started on my gardening related resolutions. If I create my butterfly/hummingbird garden, I can also make progress on reducing the amount of grass devoted to lawn, thereby making progress on two of my priorities. Fortunately, I have a relatively easy way to make that happen—by papering my lawn. It is as easy as 1-2-3.

First, after deciding what areas of the lawn I want to turn into a garden, I gather up stacks of old newspapers. Instead of digging up the sod, I spread newspapers over the entire area and let it smother the grass. Over time, the sod and newspapers decompose and become organic matter that improves the soil. The length of time it takes depends upon the temperature, rainfall and what is on top of the newspapers.

I use only newspaper and not the slick, slippery inserts that take too long to break down and may add harmful chemicals to the soil. Although I try to work when it is not windy, slightly dampening the papers (dump them into a wheelbarrow filled with water) will help everything stay in place until topdressing is put on. When laying the newspapers, overlap the sheets by 3-4 inches to prevent grass from growing through the cracks.

Second, to prevent the newspapers from blowing away, over my new garden I spread two to four inches of compost, shredded leaves, manure, mulch, gypsum or whatever organic matter I can find. What I use depends upon: what is available inexpensively, what and how many items will be planted, the conditions of the soil underneath the sod, and how long I plan to wait before planting. If I am planting tightly spaced perennials, I will use topsoil, compost or manure. If planting only a few shrubs and trees, I will use mulch.

Third, I wait as long as my patience and circumstances allow and then start planting. I place the plants in the vicinity of where I want them, pull back the topdressing, dig the hole, and then mix the topdressing with the native soil. If the newspaper and sod, which I dig up by creating the hole, have not completely decomposed, I put them into my compost pile. If my topdressing is mulch, I place two large sheets of cardboard next to the proposed site and place the mulch on one and the soil from the hole on the other. That avoids a mess on the already mulched areas around the new plant.

Sometimes, instead of starting by papering the turf, I plant first and then paper and mulch the entire area of the new garden. I use this strategy when there are large spaces between plants and the soil is relatively decent. It also works when planting native plants, which may not need amended soil. Some of my new gardens that I created last November have not yet been papered or mulched. I can do that the next warm sunny day. It was more important to get the plants into the ground to take advantage of the warm soil and beginning of the rainy season.

If planting vegetables or flowers for a cutting garden, the “lasagna garden method” is also a possibility. It is the same process except that several layers of different kinds of organic material are placed over the newspaper until it reaches 12-18 inches. The seed or plants are planted directly into the decomposed layers on top of the newspapers.

Newspaper has other advantages in addition to eliminating backbreaking work and saving time. It is particularly useful when planting near tree roots—which are close to the surface, which could be damaged by digging up the sod, and also ensures less disruption to the soil structure. The newspaper barrier also serves as mulch that reduces the likelihood of weeds and conserves moisture in the soil. And unlike fabric weed barriers, it also is easy to dig through and eventually decomposes. I also use newspaper instead of weeding. In unpapered areas where the weeds are taking over, I spread newspaper and add more mulch.

No matter if I follow the steps 1-2-3, or 3-1-2, I use newspapers to smother weeds or sod, or to act as a weed barrier. Using this process makes even daunting projects feasible, especially with friends who give you their newspapers instead of hauling them to the recycling center. Take a stack of newspapers into your garden and see how much time and effort they can save you. Just resist the temptation to read every article.

Marlys Bell is a recently transplanted gardener to the Mother Lode from Florida.