Cardboard gardening: turning lawn into garden bed

In the April/May edition of Birds and Blooms Magazine Stacy Tornio, our editor, wrote ‘Cardboard Gardening’ about using cardboard in a number of useful garden projects including to make a new garden bed. In the article Stacy notes that not only cardboard but newspaper and similar material can be used as a weed barrier.

I am better known for my birding posts and, though I enjoy gardening, I don’t want to spend a lot of time working in my yard because I want to be out in the field looking at and photographing birds. I have been reducing my lawn not only to reduce the amount of time it requires to maintain it, but because I want more garden space to put in plants that draw in more birds, butterflies and other pollinators.  Not only do turf lawns take a lot of water here in semi-arid Colorado but the water is costly and takes time to apply it in a manner that doesn’t waste.

I have previously removed areas of my lawn using various methods which were either expensive, time consumptive or required using a lot of herbicides which I really don’t like to use.  I have used cardboard and newspaper to smother weeds before but this is the first time I have used them to turn my lawn into garden bed and it is right up my alley–inexpensive, doesn’t take a lot of time and avoids use of herbicides. And it fits with ‘no-till’ gardening that I want to move to.

Placing newspaper topped with cardboard over grass

In the photo above you can see the area I want to turn from lawn to garden bed is marked off by wooden boards (these are recycled cedar 2″X2″ boards that used to be a slat roof over my porch). Yes, this is coming to a ‘v’ at the end–I find curving and un-square patterns in my yard more esthetically pleasing.

Since the grass has just started to put on some growth where I live, just a little shearing reduced it all to a short height. We started my placing alternating layers of newspaper over the grass (sorry, I garden like I cook–I don’t measure exactly but I usually put about 3-6 layers of newspaper overlapped with more layers). Then we placed single layers of cardboard over the newspaper, overlapping them liberally.

Wetting the cardboard.

Note: when cardboard boxes are flattened they come out in odd shapes and some of the flaps can be cut off to cover gaps in coverage.
Wetting the cardboard, and underlying newspaper, jump-starts their decomposition and helps keep them in place.

Topping with mulch.

The final step is to put mulch on top–I used a high quality cedar mulch which has better consistency. Since I didn’t get this done in the fall, I may not be able to plant this spring.

Have you used cardboard in your yard?

The final step is to put mulch on top--I used a high quality cedar mulch which has better consistency.

  1. Anna-Marie Martinez says

    You said you didn’t know if you could plant this spring since you did not do this in the fall. Do you have to wait until it decomposes before planting or can I just plant while it is decomposing?

    Thanks so much,

    • says

      Anna-Marie–great question and one that I am checking on. I have always read that it is recommended that this be done in the fall so it will be decomposed by spring for planting. Certainly it is important that the grass dies off before trying to plant something. Since I want to try some no-till gardening here I am going to ask if I can do that even before significant decomposing has occurred. When I find out I post here

  2. Charles B. says

    I have used cardboard for years in my rural garden, both to add new garden areas in previously grassy or weedy areas, but also to reclaim previous gardens that have overgrown. You can plant directly into a cardboard area – just be sure to get the plants roots (if transplanting) into some soil contact. Try to keep the grass/weeds pulled away from where you’re putting a hole into the cardboard. Also, be sure to remove any tape or staples from the cardboard, or you’ll be finding it in your garden for years to come. :-)

  3. verne says

    Hello, I’ve done this for years and it works great. In the fall I outline my bed area with my water hose, put the paper down over the bed area I’ve outlined, then use my fall leaves to ‘mulch’, covering the paper. Come spring, the bed’s ready for planting-just dig a planting hole and plop your plant/flowers in…then I mulch with bagged mulch, or not. I like the look of the natural leaves/pine needles. If you’re anxious to plant before the bed is composted, you’ll need a sharp tool to cut through that paper, and, as shared before, make sure the soil ball of your plant is IN the soil and grass is tucked back up under the paper’s edge. This is why fall is best for this type of mulching, time’s on your side for the paper ‘breakdown’. Good luck.

  4. Ade Twombly says

    My son has a woodworking shop. He has tons of cedar chips. Can I use them instead of bagged cedar. What would the difference be between the fresh clean cedar or bagged cedar mulch? Thanks!

    • says

      Ade, sorry for late reply but I sometimes miss comments that come in after the posting. Cedar chips would be work but they will not break down like bagged cedar mulch as it is shredded. This works fine if you want to plant trees or shrubs but cedar chips can be too large if you intend to plant vegetables especially items such as lettuce. If he uses varnish or other finishes in his woodworking shop you just want to be careful that the cedar chips don’t get contaminated with these.

  5. Leona says

    I built a bed last year, newspapers, hay and compost and planted bell peppers (from seedlings) and the peppers went crazy, huge plants and peppers. The freezer is full with probably more than I can use til the next harvest (on a new bed). I was told to not plant deep rooted plants in the new bed, the pepper was probably deeper than intended but definitely worked. This year I’m trying tomatoes and green beans in the two beds.

  6. Frieda says

    This sounds very interesting. One question: are there any concerns about chemicals used in the manufacture of the cardboard?

    We have used burlaps bags from our local coffee shop like this as well. They work well but are certainly not as plentiful as cardboard boxes would be?

    • says

      Frieda-sorry for the late reply, sometimes I miss comments that come in after I have posted. I avoid cardboard with a lot of printing on it just in case and I am careful to pick boxes that have not contained toxic products (my preference is also not to use boxes that had fruit or fresh vegetables since these may have residual pesticides). Also, no cardboard with those plastic coatings on it. And I remove any packaging tape and labels as I don’t know what chemicals might be in the glue they use (and staples so I don’t jab myself).

      I don’t know anything about using burlap, sorry.

  7. Linda says

    last June we put down paper and cardboard over our lawn to extend our flower bed. We then covered it with several bags of composted garden soil to about 4 inches deep and we immediately put in some transplants from the nursery.
    We planted mexican heather, lantana, pink yarrow and zinnias. They all came up and did well but the yarrow and zinnias did the best. I feel they all would have done better if I had started them earlier than the middle of June because they were really coming on strong by the end of the season. Zone 7 West TN.

    • says

      Hi Linda–I am intrigued that you were able to plant your flowers right after putting the paper and cardboard over your lawn. I guess the trick is to put down a deep covering of composted soil like your 4 inches.

  8. Sandra says

    I have done something similar for years using the cardboard ‘trays’ my nursey puts the veggie, annual, etc transplants in at purchase. I break down the short sides flat and lay them down on the path to keep away weeds and I have a place to walk that is not muddy, especially in spring. Also, use them under vines such as squash, etc. and in fall they are brittle and ready to turn under as I prepare the garden bed for a cover crop of winter rye. As another post warned: take out staples or they find your fingers! Also use newspaper covered in grass clippings as plant mulch in veggie garden.

  9. MBD says

    I used the cardboard boxes from moving to smother a patch of invasive bamboo. Looked pretty low-rent, but worked over 2-3 years, along with whacking it down and covering really bad areas with old plywood. It won’t be used for food, unless I plant raspberries there. It was a great way to recycle, and to avoid using herbicides.

  10. says

    This is just so interesting… have never heard of this…You don’t remove the grass and the grass/weeds won’t try to grow back in the bed??..

  11. says

    Karen- yes, you put the newspaper and and/or cardboard right over the grass (best to mow it low first) and the grass will be smothered. Now, you know how grass is so it will keep trying to get back in–I put an edging between my lawn and the new bed to reduce the grass routing into the bed. I will likely use a deep mulch when I plant to reduce the grass and weeds from the new bed.

  12. Debbie Heiliger says

    oops, I put the black fabric on top of the cardboard and then “some” mulch. Sounds like I will need to remove the mulch and fabric, then reapply the mulch. I wanted to make sure the weeds/grass didnt come back. Who knew? Will this work?

  13. wanda says

    Have been using cardboard and newspaper for years beacasue i have a crushed ankle. i have beautiful plants. they are hardy,
    I do not put much down first i put the paper down then either soil or cheap com manure from home depot and then i plant and put hardwood mulch on top all in the same day. done deal. been doing it for years the paper kills the grass or weeds and decomes the manure feeds and the mulch helps hold the moisture. I do not put any holes in so no weeds come thru. happy gardening.

  14. Nina says

    I would like to try this to expand my really narrow flower bed along the back fence. I also saw an article about using the cardboard/newspaper with a raised bed. I would like to try the raised bed in my garden which has been taken over by mint which I stupidly planted in my garden a few years ago. It is taking up a corner of my garden and has invaded the columbine which I originally planted in that corner of the garden right after the Columbine H.S. tragedy here in Colorado. I will have to sacrifice the columbine plants. Does anyone know if using the cardboard with a raised bed on top will successfully kill the mint? Will the mint roots eventually poke back up through the cardboard? Should I try to dig up the roots as much as possible? I’ve thought I might need to do that, pour boiling water on them and then vinegar and salt. I’d appreciate any advice as I’m not a great gardener, but I truly love trying my best!!

    • says

      Hi Nina–boy, mint is pretty tenacious. I pull up mint plants in my yard every year. I think it would be a good idea to pull up the mint plants and, if necessary, dig up roots that don’t come up. Unless you have the garden-strength vinegar, I don’t think it is worth the effort. If the mint does poke through the cardboard and newspaper barrier you can add more cardboard over it then more mulch.

  15. Shirley Zink says

    I use newspaper for garden plants and put mulch or pine straw over that. The newspaper is easy to cut through to put the plants in later or I put in the plants and then put down the paper and mulch. Doesn’t last as long as cardboard, but I just put down more as needed. I use old indoor-outdoors rug strips leading to the water faucets, keeps feet clean, but lets water through and lasts a long time. Looks neat or cover them with mulch.

  16. Nancy says

    I was wondering if this would work for clay soils? That is all I have – clay. I did start to compost in a compost tumbler, but was wondering if I could lay the cardboard directly on the clay soil with the newspaper and mulch? Thanks

  17. rob peterson says

    This spring I built a large raised flower bed in my front yard. On the bottom I lined it with screen to keep out the moles and then laid down 2 inches of cardboard. I own a pizza shop so I get plenty of cardboard with my supplies. I then filled the bed with my soil mix and planted flowers. It’s doing great! I am now going to turn one quarter of my backyard into a flower garden and have already laid down my cardboard, boardered by red bricks. I will cover it with soil and mulch to over winter. Can’t wait to plant in it next spring!

  18. Jeff says

    I want to do the cardboard/mulch method in a large area of lawn. I just planted 4 trees within the area I want to convert to a bed. Will this hurt the trees (prevent them from getting enough water) or will water pass through the cardboard?

  19. 39daffodil says

    There is a book called “Lasagna Gardening” by Patricia Lanza that is all about your method of cardboard gardening. She puts cardboard or newspaper down, then peat, soil, compost, mulch, etc. to build the spot up and then plants. DO NOT put holes in the cardboard, that defeats the purpose and lets the weeds come up the holes.

  20. 39daffodil says

    I have made many new gardens using this method and it works very well! The cardboard and newspapers decompose in time, and as a bonus you get many earthworms that help aerate the soil too. Any weeds that dare to pop up just pull right out easily because the soil is loose and crumbly.


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