Question from Kim:
I read with great interest your article on using newspaper and mulch (I had never heard of doing that before). A neighbor of a friend said she has done it but applied a heavy application of RoundUp first (to kill all grass and start from "scratch"), rototilled and then did the newspaper/mulch combination.
My questions for you are:
1. Should the grass be dead before laying down the newspapers and mulch?
2. If so, can I just stop watering the area till it's brown? (I don't use lawn chemicals.)
3. Is rototilling a good idea before laying down the newspapers and mulch?
Here are my answers to your questions, based on personal experience and other people's stories:
You asked, "Should the grass be dead before laying down the newspapers and mulch?"
The answer is no. The smothering method should kill the grass. It's worked for me and several friends here in Minnesota, for my sister in Idaho, and for author Cassandra Danz in New York.
You don't even need to mow the grass first, just make sure that the newspapers are thick enough to block all light (10-12 pages thick, overlapping each other by 4-6 inches) and that the mulch is heavy enough to block air (six inches of mulch is a great depth and may even be overkill), and watering thoroughly after spreading the mulch will make it heavier and help suffocate the grass.
By the way, there's no need to keep the mulch wet. The initial watering of the mulch just packs it down real well and keeps it from blowing away. You could also walk back and forth over it to compress it further.
You asked, "If so, can I just stop watering the area till it's brown? (I don't use lawn chemicals.)"
The answer is that you don't need to use chemicals, and you don't need to wait for the grass to turn brown. It will suffocate under the layers of newspaper and mulch. You can smother immediately without preparing the area. Though mowing it first might make the newspapers lie flatter to the surface, which will help them to more effectively kill the grass -- but if you mow, be sure to leave the grass clippings on the lawn so they'll break down into soil as the lawn smothers.
The one thing you might want to do before smothering is to dig out perennial weeds that have taproots, like dandelions. They may have enough energy stored in those taproots to be able to push up through the mulch and newspapers. Or (my preference) you can wait and see if any make it through, and dig out those that do.
I used this method to smother most of my front and side lawns, maybe 1200 square feet, and it killed all the grasses and all but a handful of dandelions and most of the toughest, deepest-rooted perennial weeds in my garden. It killed the creeping charlie in the middle of the smothered area, but creeping charlie near the edges sometimes made it out from under the newspapers, at which point I would pull off the strand that had crawled out and spread more mulch and paper over the edge to shut out light.
Finally, you asked, "Is rototilling a good idea before laying down the newspapers and mulch?"
The answer here is also no. Any kind of tilling will bring weed seeds up from the soil, exposing them to light and encouraging them to germinate. Though hopefully they will not see any light through the newspapers and mulch, you don't need to do all that work. Leave those weed seeds under the soil where they will stay dormant. (And if you're thinking why not get rid of all the seeds in the soil, nothing short of heat sterilization will do it, because seeds are found throughout the topsoil and can live in dormant state for thousands -- yes, thousands -- of years.)
Tilling also destroys the structure of the soil, including all the decomposers that live in it and its capacity to hold nutrients and water. Smothering, on the other hand, will improve the soil structure; the grass and newspapers (and eventually the wood chips) will break down and add organic matter to the soil, which the worms will aerate and mix for you.
Imagine that, something you can do that reduces your work and your mowing, recycles, AND improves your garden's health!
Hope these answers help, and best of luck with your garden. I'd be interested to hear how this method works for you if you use it.
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For more information :
To find out more about what's going on in your soil (and why digging and applying chemicals can reduce its ability to grow plants), I'd highly recommend Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, a well-written and visually fascinating book about all the creatures (including fungi) who give life to the soil (and thus to all the plants and animals). We humans and all other creatures depend on the soil organisms to process our wastes and turn them back into the building blocks of life.
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