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Build Great Garden Soil the Easy No Dig Way

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Whether you are installing ground covers or planting a new flower garden, soil preparation is often a major hurdle. Not only do you have to eliminate weeds and/or lawn grass, but you also need to spread organic matter over the site and dig it in along with other soil amendments. Spreading compost and digging it into the soil is a major workout, and is great exercise, but it can be very bad for your back. By planning ahead and waiting a few months between preparing and planting, it’s possible to eliminate most of the back-breaking work.

No-dig Supplies and Scheduling

At the very least, you’ll need a pile of newspapers and a pile of mulch such as shredded bark or bark chips to use this method. If your soil is extremely clayey, compacted, sandy, or poor, add a generous supply of compost and even some topsoil to the list. Watch the weather, too. You are going to be spreading newspaper, so select a day when it isn’t too windy. Use this smothering method any time, but you’ll need to plan on waiting several months before planting. Smother a bed in midsummer for fall planting, for example, or in fall for planting the following spring.

Start by marking the boundaries of the garden bed you are installing. Use stakes and string, or outline it with a hose. Step back to examine the size and shape, then adjust it if necessary. If you already have a fairly clear idea of where the new garden is going to go and what shape it will be, you can also skip this step and just start dealing with the weeds. Just be sure to check the shape of the final garden and adjust it if you need to.

If there are tall weeds or grass on your site, set your mower to as low a setting as possible and cut them down.

Smothering Weeds

The goal is to spread a thick layer of newspapers topped by a thick layer of mulch. The best way to accomplish this is to spread the newspaper in sections using scoops of mulch to keep the newspaper from blowing away. A layer of newspaper 8 to 10 sheets thick will eliminate lawn grass and most weeds. Use a thicker layer if you have especially vigorous weeds on the site. You can also use cardboard, but that will take longer to rot, making the interval between mulching and planting longer. Use only the sections printed on uncoated (not shiny) traditional newsprint. (Recycle the glossy advertising sections.)

Lay down a section of newspaper, then toss a shovel full of mulch in the center to hold it down. If there is enough wind to cause the newspapers to flap around, temporarily flatten them even further by spraying them with water from the hose. Continue laying down newspaper sections and weighing them down with mulch until you’ve covered the entire site. Be sure that the newspapers overlap one another so they cover the site completely.

When spreading, you can simply use folded sections of newspaper (about 11½ inches by 22½ inches) or open up the sections (23 inches by 22½) to cover more space with each section. You may find it’s handy to open up all the sections of the newspaper you’re going to use and stack them before carrying them out to the garden. Then count out eight or ten sheets to spread at a time.

After covering the site with newspapers weighed down with piles of mulch, cover the rest of the site with a 3- to 4- inch layer of mulch. Then leave the site for at least 3 months before planting.

No-dig Soil Improvement

You can improve any garden soil—completely organically—using this method. Mulch alone works fine on a site with acceptable soil, but plan on adding more layers if you want richer conditions for your plants. Adding additional organic matter is also a great idea if dry shade is a major problem in your garden. Start with a layer of newspaper, then top it with any of the following: topsoil, compost, well-rotted manure, chopped leaves, or other readily available organic matter. You can make the layers as thick as you like. A garden mulched really thickly is often called a lasagna garden. To give the garden a finished look, top the site with mulch. Then just wait.

The majority of weeds underneath all that newspaper, mulch, and organic matter will simply rot. If you do see weeds, either pull them or rake back the mulch, cover them with more newspaper, then replace the mulch. Another thing that happens during this process is that beneficial soil organisms like earthworms begin to stir up the layers. They’ll take organic matter down through the newspaper layer, and bring up soil from below. Keeping the pile well watered hastens the process.

The end result is lovely weed-free garden soil that’s ready to fill with flowers, ground covers, or other treasures you would like to grow. What better use for newspapers that need recycling?

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