What’s Black & White & Green All Over? – Creating Garden Soil from Newspapers
When I bought my house, there was a severe drop from the back door to the back and side edges of my yard. My yard was not even suitable for placing garden furniture. Invariably, the back legs of the furniture would be several inches lower than the front, and there wasn’t a level path anywhere. When walking from any point A to any point B, my body had to assume a slanted position. I was forced to walk diagonally.
My first project was that of creating a relatively level path from the side gate to the back door. Doing that required several truckloads of dirt. Then I tried to stabilize the path by planting several different levels of various ground covers, but it was almost impossible to control the erosion. I realized that I couldn’t afford to buy enough dirt to level the entire yard, and instead, I launched a campaign to create the dirt that I needed. Newspapers were the solution.
Because grass and weed control was initially also a problem, I began by covering my entire backyard with several layers of newspaper. On recycling day, I would raid the trash for an immense amount of newspaper. At the back property lines, I stacked newspaper at least 2 feet high, and this barrier became almost as strong as a concrete retaining wall. Then I began filling the yard by varying layers of grass clippings, compost, and dry leaves. It became a seasonal routine for me. During the first summer, I covered my yard with several sheets of newspaper. In order to stop the lawn’s grass from growing and to prevent weeds from sprouting, the first few sheets of newspaper were overlapped at the edges.
Then I began the soil-building process. I covered the bottom sheets of newspaper with grass clippings 2 or 3 inches high. This is a green layer. On top of each green layer, I placed 2 or 3 inches of a non-green layer of dried leaves and or shredded newspaper. Whereas the sheets of newspaper become rather impenetrable, the shredded newspaper breaks down quickly. Then I topped the non-green layer with another green layer. As the top green layer began to decompose, earthworms began tunneling through the dry layer to feed on the green layer above it; and as the earthworms tunnel through the dried matter, they chew the leaves into smaller particles and they excrete waste that serves as fertilizer. Continuously moving and chewing, the earthworms are actually responsible for the soil’s transformation.
The above image is a patch that has been working for about a year. Last summer, I piled grass clippings here, and during the fall, I covered the spot with leaves. Months later, in July of this year, I needed leaves in a new area that I was beginning to build. After the top leaves were removed, I could see the almost decomposed grass. As I gathered the leaves near the grass layer, I found several huge, red worms. For me, that is a sign that the process is working.
Earthworms are essential for good gardening, especially for organic gardening. Their castings provide natural fertilizer, and gardens rich with earthworms have fewer problems with garden pests. In addition, as earthworms move throughout the garden, they increase its aeration.
The process is slow. At best, I create several inches of actual soil each year. Above that soil, the old layers of decomposing grass and leaves are a good level to begin the coming year’s soil project.
This year, I scattered a couple of inches of soil on top of the previous year’s mix; I added new plants, and I filled around the new plants with soil that I had stored in another area from previous years. Considering that the plants had been in containers that were about 6 inches tall, as I filled in around the new plant, I feel sure that the usable garden’s level increased 6 to 8 inches during this one season. It is reassuring that as the garden has begun to level, the process is beginning to speed along.
As the summer’s grass clippings are available, I plan to begin another level of soil building on top of my current layer. By this time next year, this area will have risen about 9 inches and of that, I will have created several inches of actual soil. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering that the entire garden rises that much each year, the results are more impressive.
It has taken several years for me to build the higher ground behind the planters. Last year, I used some wooden boxes to retain the high ground and began building again.
I have never really enjoyed reading the newspaper. It is not glossy and colorful enough for me. I prefer to read children’s picture books or garden books–books that are filled with beautiful images, and the newspaper’s daily attempt to follow this nation’s political turmoil exhausts me. I don’t even subscribe to a newspaper, but I DO use other peoples’ papers–to create new soil
©Jacki Kellum April 11, 2016
Initially published in my Garden Blog Cottage Garden Living Here