Whether or not the morning newspaper is handing you the whole truth about what's going on in the world, it can be the best friend your garden plants ever had. When formed into little tents, newspaper mulch can protect your crops from the glaring sun. As mulch, recycled newspaper is one of the best weed-controls available. You can even blanch celery with the Daily Gazette! As a matter of fact, I find newspapers so useful during the growing season that I collect them year round.
For me, using newspaper mulch is a longtime dream come true. I had always envisioned warm, golden cantaloupes peeping from beneath the umbrellas of their massive vines, spreading a green blanket over a rich brown surface, with complete weed control! But that dream never materialized . . . until I discovered mulching in general and newspaper mulch in particular.
The main benefit that any gardener can realize from a good newspaper mulch is weed control. (Once your layer of papers is in place, you can forget about that section of the vegetable patch for the rest of the season: You're done with hoeing and weeding.) But newspaper mulching also regulates the temperature of the soil, adds fertility, and conserves moisture. (This last point alone can be a real benefit when every gardener's eye is searching a cloudless sky, and unmulched plants are slowly turning brown.)
Most crops — melons, beans, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, etc. — should be mulched when the plants have reached a height of 4 or 5 inches. Prepare the ground around the crops to receive the covering of paper by first hoeing out any weeds that are as tall as (or taller than) the cultivated plants. (The smaller weeds will be smothered by the mulch.)
Early morning and late evening, I've found, are the best times for laying down a mulch. The wind is usually calm then which makes it easier to spread out a complete row of papers before weighting them with hay. (At other times of the day, a gusting wind can send carefully placed newspapers flying. Grabbing here and there, trying to halt their flight, I have often wished I were an octopus while watching my papers tumble across the garden and plaster themselves against the far fence!)
If you want to mulch closely spaced crops such as beets or carrots, you can forget about the weeds which grow between individual plants within a row. The fanning foliage of such closely spaced crops discourages weed germination well enough to do away with any need for slitting each sheet of paper and fitting it down around each separate plant. (It would be tedious indeed to attempt to equip every tiny carrot seedling with its own little newspaper collar! ) Instead, just peel a 5- or 6-sheet layer from your supply of papers and adjoin the ground covering up against the stems of the plants at one end of the row. Then continue putting down similar layers of newspaper along that side of the row, allowing 2 or 3 inches of overlap for each new section of the mulch.
As soon as possible — and certainly before the wind starts to blow — weight down the layers of newspapers so they'll stay put for the rest of the season. If you have a quantity of old hay, cover the newspaper mulch with a light layer of the dried vegetation. Otherwise, use clumps of dirt, or stones. And, of course, when you've finished papering one side of the row, you should mulch the other side in the same way. (All the papers will be left in place till the following spring rolls around, and then plowed under.)
Widely spaced crops — tomatoes, squash, etc. — are handled a little differently. For them, you should lay down your papers so that they overlap both between and across the rows and completely fill all the spaces between the plants. To do that, put down the first layer of five or six sheets of unfolded newspaper alongside one end of the first row, with the long side of the section of mulch parallel to the plants. Next — opposite each plant — tear a 1-inch-deep V-shaped notch in the edge of the newspaper. Then adjoin the layer of mulching against the plants, so the bases of their stems fit into the notches. Finally, cover the ground around the rest of the row in the same way, on both sides, and weight the newspapers. Now the entire surface of the earth around the row is covered with newspaper, leaving absolutely no space for weeds to grow.
Corn requires special treatment. The plant has a very shallow root structure compared to its mature height, and sometimes needs a little help in standing up to summer storms. (I learned this the hard way one morning, after a night of wind and rain, when I went out to find all our corn leaning over at a 45 degree angle.)
For this reason, you really should "hill" your corn before you mulch it. When the plants are 6 to 8 inches tall, use a hoe to scrape up soil from each side of the row and pile it into a little mound around the roots of every plant. (This will give each stalk of corn better support.) Then mulch the corn with notched layers of newspapers as described above. When the plants are 16 to 18 inches tall, peel back the mulch, hill the plants a second time, and reposition the papers. (If you're going to mound soil up around the stalks only once, do it when they're 16 to 18 inches tall.)
Thanks to recycled newspapers, then, my weed-controlling dream has now become a reality.
Newspaper Elsewhere in the Garden
I also use newspaper for other things. In the spring, for instance, I protect tender young transplants from the broiling sun with little tents constructed from the material. To make these protective enclosures, I place a single folded sheet over each plant, like a pup tent, leaving the ends open for good ventilation. Then I anchor the bottom edges of each cloche with clods of dirt.
You can use newspapers for blanching celery too! Just gather a plant into a close bunch, wrap it several times with a 5- or 6-ply layer of newspaper, and tie it off with a few turns of strong cord (I use old baling twine). Then, at harvest time, simply cut the celery stalks off at their bases, and peel away the paper tubes.
I'll grant you that newspapers sometimes can be awkward and bulky and difficult to read. I'll admit that they never fold in the right places and that they forever flop over into the butter dish at the breakfast table. But for gardening . . . well, maybe the inventor of the newspaper was an organic gardener all along!