An effective and inexpensive way to mulch your garden is with newspaper. It's affordable, abundant and easy to use. It can be combined with decorative mulch to provide a year-round mulch, or used during cold weather to protect wintering plants. Either way, using your old newspapers to mulch your plants and garden is a great way to recycle. The hydrocarbons in colored ink are too minuscule to worry about and newspapers stopped using lead in their inks decades ago.
TIP: Our expert gardening advisor, Karen Thurber adds, "Avoid using slick pages as many of these are still printed with inks that may contain heavy metals."
The only negative effect in newspaper mulch comes from the increase of carbon naturally inherent in the paper. It may decrease the amount of nitrogen directly beneath the newspaper. This may yellow young shoots or plants, but won't affect established plants, and may be remedied by adding a bit of fertilizer.
Step 1 - Determine What Plants You Want to Mulch and Why
Mulch is typically used to protect plants from the freeze/thaw cycle in the fall, to retain moisture in the summer, and to suffocate weeds in the spring and throughout the year. Newspaper mulch can be used safely on any plants to achieve any of these goals, but don't mulch over seeds, as they can't push through the paper. If you want the mulch to protect against winter frost cycles, keeping the ground warmer during cold nights, newspaper is a great addition to traditional wood mulches. Paper will decompose over the winter and not have to be removed. If you plan to use mulch to protect plants, use five sheets of paper to create a good barrier. The drier your area is, the fewer sheets you need to use.
Step 2 - Mulch Your Plants with Newspaper
Mulching with newspaper is easy. Simply lay the sheets of paper down in layers. Overlap the edges of the sheets so they don't separate. Use a minimum of two sheets, and up to 20 sheets, depending on the purpose of the mulch: weed control (5 to 10 sheets) or soil and plant warmth protection (10 to 20 sheets). You can also shred the paper, tearing it by hand, or cutting it into strips with scissors or a box cutter/razor.
TIP: Karen advises, "Shredded newspapers are available in small bales, in some parts of the country. Contact your local Recycling Center or Solid Waste Management facility to see what is available in your area."
Step 3 - Cover Newspaper with Secondary Mulch
Newspaper can be used alone, but combining it with straw (to prevent weed growth) makes both the newspaper and straw last longer. You're also less likely to have papers blowing around your yard as they decompose and separate. Straw is a popular material, particularly for winter mulching, as it will decompose over the winter and compost itself for spring planting. It's also easy to remove along with the paper and place in a separate compost pile if it doesn't decompose entirely.
You can also cover newspaper with wood chips or grass clippings. The newspaper, if applied correctly, is a more environmentally sound means of stopping weed growth than the traditional black plastic.