Much energy is focused on finding a mulch covering for a future Back to Eden garden. Usually this involves finding a source of wood chips. However, the Back to Eden method also says that you should start covering your soil or lawn with a layer of newspaper before the wood chips and compost. The reason for this newspaper layer is to suppress weeds or grass and keep them from getting at all the lovely compost and organic mulch before you can let your plants take it all in.
Common “Base Layers”
Many gardeners have access to expired newspapers. You can do what I did, which is go around the suburban neighborhood the day before recycling day and ask neighbors for newspaper (I enlisted my kids and their Radio Flyer wagon to help here). Other BTE gardeners have been able to get huge amounts from newspaper recycling facilities.
Probably the best source of newspapers is from printers themselves who can give you or sell you end rolls. I have a friend who gets them for $5 a roll from our local newspaper. These rolls are the best because they are much easier to lay down on the ground since they are one large piece. It is much harder for them to blow away in the wind if you throw a handful of dirt or compost or a place a few rocks on the paper to keep it from drifting away.
Another popular option instead of newspapers is to use cardboard. If you are like me and just purchased a new property, you want to get your garden started and you have a ton of cardboard boxes laying in the garage taking up space. Cardboard is typically much thicker than newspaper so it will be a more effective barrier of moisture and sunlight to the weeds and/or lawn it is covering.
Finally, a common weed barrier is landscaping cloth. Available at your local home improvement store, it typically is not used in backyard food gardens, but I will mention it here because it is commonly asked about. It is usually for landscaping projects to keep weed maintenance to a minimum. The cloth is porous and supposedly will block sun and weed starts, but will let moisture through to the plant roots that the gardener wants to have.
Which is Best?
So which is best? Newspaper, cardboard, or landscaping cloth?
This is probably a little shocking to those of you who have already built your Back to Eden garden and followed the instructions given in the film or by Paul himself. But if you have enough wood chips or other covering, I wouldn’t recommend using any of these materials. Granted, I would choose newspaper over cardboard hands down if you don’t have enough wood chips. But, the best option is to just use as deep of a layer of wood chips or other organic mulch covering as you can.
I have used cardboard, newspaper, and skipping them both and just using wood chips. I experimented with each as I was gradually converting more of my traditional tilled garden to a Back to Eden garden. I have found that if you can get away with skipping the base layer, do it and just put down more chips. For my garden, 6-8 inches of wood chips was plenty (instead of 2-4 inches). And yes, I had quack grass pretty bad starting out.
Why is nothing best?
The reason for using only wood chips is that paper, cardboard, and landscaping cloth will create a much more impenetrable barrier for water and air to reach the soil below. Both plants and the soil are a living organism and require these basic necessities to live just like you and me. The soil microorganisms will simply die if they are starved of water and something to breathe. So it is kind of a catch twenty-two. You need to starve the weeds and grass, but not the soil.
A rigid barrier like cardboard inhibits the work of earthworms and larger insects, which are responsible for making tunnels that build your soil structure and allow water and oxygen to better infiltrate down to plant roots. These little critters will be perfectly able to continue their tunnel building in only wood chip mulch. Newspaper breaks down much faster, so it isn’t nearly as hard on the soil as cardboard. If you don’t keep the cardboard wet, it can get dry enough that it starts to repel water. In this case, water will move to the lowest point in your location and may pool up and cause other problems.
Another good reason to stay away from cardboard? Termites. Linda Chalker-Scott, PhD is a extension gardening specialist in Washington and has done a lot of research about using wood chips mulches in landscapes. She has even toured Paul Gautschi’s garden in Sequim (she told me this on Facebook). In several publications that she has created for gardeners (here is one), she addresses the fear that wood chips will attract nuisance insects like termites. She has found that termites actually will prefer cardboard over wood chips. Umm, no thank you.
A final note on paper products. Make sure they are clean if you are going to use them. Remove all tape, shipping labels, etc before using them and make sure the inks used on them are biodegradable. Even though soil bacteria and fungi are incredibly effective at breaking down toxins, better safe than sorry.
Landscaping cloth is similar to cardboard, but easier to apply since it is not rigid. While is has holes in it to let moisture and air pass through, those holes get plugged with soil particles quickly and the barrier essentially becomes impenetrable. Even worse, it won’t break down like cardboard eventually will. At some point you will have to pull up the cloth and wonder why you paid so much money for something that doesn’t do what it should and requires a lot of labor to install AND remove.
If I were ever to use landscaping cloth (for instance if someone gave it to me for free, it can get spendy), it would be as a buried vertical barrier placed at garden boundaries to keep rhizome-spreading weeds from infiltrating the interior. It may also help keep digging rodents like moles out for a short period, but not forever. However, I probably wouldn’t do this unless I had a trenching machine to dig a narrow ditch to put the cloth into. It wouldn’t be worth the effort to dig by hand in my opinion. Other than that, putting landscaping cloth down really isn’t an option for placing in gardens anyway.
Soil health is paramount, so go with the option that best suits your situation and allows for the quickest time to start regenerating your soil. The tradeoff between chips-only and using newspaper or cardboard is a quicker path to increased soil health (and healthier more productive plants) versus better initial weed suppression.
If you have a lot of nasty weeds like Bermuda grass or quack grass, cardboard may be the best option. Those two culprits along with Creeping Charlie are usually mentioned in BTE Facebook forums as gardening enemy #1. It may be worth your while to let the garden area sit for an entire year under cardboard or several layers of newspaper and wood chips before planting in it. Depending on how aggressive your weeds are should tell you which is better.
If you have to use newspaper or cardboard, the trick is to match the material to your weed and lawn suppression situation. Choose the one that will last just long enough to suffocate them out, but will also decompose fast enough to let your soil breathe. My experience suggests that just using the Back to Eden recipe of minus the newspaper is the best option in the long run.
The Mulch is the Real Hero
A weed covering like newspaper or cardboard is temporary when you are starting your garden. But remember that the real “hero” of the Back to Eden method is the wood chips (or other organic mulch) that gets layered on top. The wood chips will continue to act as a weed barrier after the cardboard or newspaper decomposes, but will also be the material that provides the new compost to your garden that your soil and plants will thank you for years to come.
Photo Credit: naturalflow licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.
Check out Linda Chalker-Scott’s book “How Plants Work” on Amazon. It is a fantastic read.