Forget Tilling: Use Newspaper for No-dig, Low-weed Gardening

Forget Tilling: Use Newspaper for No-dig, Low-weed Gardening

Alisa Opar
Published: 09/09/2010
 

According to popular wisdom, fall is the best time to till your garden. But a growing number of gardeners are doing away with tilling altogether. Instead, they’re using a low-labor method that relies on newspaper and compost.

 
The result is a truly green veggie patch: few weeds grow (the layers of newspaper smother them), negating the need for herbicides (some of which are toxic to birds), and the nutrient-rich compost reduces the need for added fertilizer (excessive application can cause nutrients to runoff into waterways, polluting them and harming aquatic creatures).
 
Anne Raver tried the approach, putting down a layer of newspaper four sheets thick directly on top of grass to smother it and weeds, then adding a few inches of compost and planting through it.
 
She explains the benefits (and the process) in The New York Times:
 
The advantages of not tilling are many. Weed seeds are not brought to the surface of the soil, where they readily sprout and grow. You don’t churn up earthworms and countless other organisms that will aerate and enrich the soil just fine, thank you, if you feed them compost and leave them alone. And since gas-powered tillers not only pour hydrocarbons into the air, but also release CO2 when they churn up the soil, leaving them in the garage is a good way to cut down on your carbon footprint.
 
The video above, by the University of Maryland, gives a quick intro into planting a no-till garden using store-bought compost.
 
If you don’t mind waiting six month or so to plant, consider trying ‘lasagna gardening’. Like the method Raver employed, lasagna gardening also involves no tilling, placing newspaper down and putting down layers of organic material on top, which break down over time to make compost.

Here’s a brief how-to guide to lasagna gardening from the University of Connecticut Home and Garden Education Center:
 
1. Begin as with the layered bed by cutting down any existing vegetation to one-inch or less and removing persistent weeds.

 
2. Cover the area with a thick layer of newspaper or single layer of cardboard. Wet paper or cardboard is easier to work with. Be sure to overlap the edges by a few  inches to stifle weed growth.
 
3. Put down an 8-inch layer of coarse organic material. You can use chopped leaves (shred with a lawn mower, shredder or machete), straw, wood shavings, spent garden plants (disease-free), sawdust, pine needles and whatever else you can get your hands on.  A mixture of materials is best. Moisten them as they are spread.
 
4. Follow this with a 2-inch layer of organic materials high in nitrogen (grass clippings, hay, kitchen wastes, seaweed or manure based compost). If a high nitrogen source of organic material is not available use one cup of bloodmeal, cottonseed meal or a urea fertilizer for each 20 square feet.
 
5. Finally put down 2 to 3-inches of a low nitrogen mulch such as shredded bark.
 
If you get started now, by spring you'll have rich, fluffy soil...in which you can grow the ingredients for a real lasagna.