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Got Weed Problems? Read this!

How to control weeds - LivingHomegrown.com

I think all organic gardeners have their favorite weapons against weeds. One of my favorites (for weedy walkways) is boiling water.

But in this post, I wanted to talk about my latest, greatest, sustainable, oh-why-didn’t-I-start-doing-this-sooner gardening technique.

I learned this tip from my friend, Margaret Roach of A Way To Garden. I have written about Margaret before here. And after following her blog for about 6 years, I have learned many wonderful gardening tips and tricks from her.

But I have to be honest. Today’s trick is really not “new” at all.

I knew of a different version of it and I’m sure you do too. It just took Margaret several years of mentioning her way before I actually tried it myself.

And wow.

My reason for hedging for so long was that this “trick” is very similar to other techniques I had tried and failed miserably at. So, I thought to myself, “Been there, done that”.

Boy was I wrong!

How to control weeds - LivingHomegrown.com

I am now a faithful user of cardboard

That’s it??

Yes, you heard me. Plain old cardboard.

I’m sure you wanted something more exciting or sexy than cardboard. But hear me out.

I now lay cardboard down in my garden beds at the beginning of each season and cover them with mulch.

The result is that my weed problems have been reduced by about 95%.

I kid you not!

What About Other Options?

I’m sure (like me) you had already heard of (or even tried) laying down newspaper or just a thick mulch to smother weeds. The idea is to cover the soil enough to block light from the weeds while still getting water to the surrounding plants. The weeds smother and don’t come up.

Well it works for other people. But for me…not so much.

Many years ago, I tried the newspaper thing and it was a complete disaster! The newspaper showed through in spots and would fly all over the garden every time we had even a slight breeze. It looked tacky and terrible.

And yes, I have used black plastic to solarize areas where I wanted to kill grass. I still do. That works well for large grassy areas, but does not work within my garden beds. Plus, I don’t want plastic in my edible garden.

And don’t even get me started on landscape fabric. It sucks on many levels within my cottage garden veggie beds.

Edible Garden of Theresa Loe - LivingHomegrown.com

My veggie-herb garden

See, my garden beds are planted in a cottage design. I rarely plant rows.

And I rotate my crops which means that I replant the entire garden each year in a new way. So landscape fabric doesn’t work when I am constantly moving and changing my layout.

Why Cardboard is Better:

Then I learned about cardboard from Margaret and my life changed forever.

  • First, the cardboard does not blow down the street. It is heavier and stays put. It does the job of smothering the weeds, grass etc. This is my second year doing this and so far, I have not had to anchor it down.
  • Second, it breaks down so well that at the end of the season you are left with lovely soil and no cardboard. This means that I can change my veggie design with a clean slate each year.
  • Third, the brown paper blends pretty well even if some cardboard corners pop up here and there. It is much less conspicuous than newspaper.

My Test Year – Removing A Train:

Train Garden of Theresa Loe - LivingHomegrown.com

I removed this train garden to plant more veggies

Last year was a real test case for me. I tore out my old train garden that sits in the center of my vegetable/herb area.

It was sad to do, but my kids have grown into teenagers and we just were not using it to run the train anymore. I really wanted that prime real estate for growing more vegetables.

I only have 1/10th of an acre here upon which to grow food. I need and use every spare inch.

As a result of not using the train, weeds had started growing up through the tracks and I had allowed large sections of the garden village to go to weedy.

Sadly, those weeds all went to seed.

After weeding and removing the train paraphernalia, I knew I was one watering away from a bed full of weeds again.

Hoarding & Trying Cardboard:

I decided to try cardboard.

I hoarded cardboard from the neighborhood, pulling it out of trash bins destined for the landfill. I especially searched for non-printed boxes.

I laid them out and covered them with a mix of my own compost and store-bought organic compost. I watered and waited.

How to prevent weeds with cardboard - LivingHomegrown.com

AMAZING.

I did not have any weeds the entire season. The only weeds I got were where I had left gaps along the edges of the cardboard.

How to Control Weeds with Cardboard - LivingHomegrown.com

The only weeds were along the edges where there was no cardboard.

The cardboard slowly broke down and was mulched in right as my season ended.

You may be wondering about trying to use cardboard around perennials. It is pretty easy. As I said, my veggie garden is NOT planted in rows. So I have to cut and maneuver the cardboard around existing plants. It is a bit of a pain, but it works.

 The Pros of Using Cardboard:

  • Easily cut to fit around existing plants and trees.
  • Easy to poke a hole and plant something through the cardboard. Just dampen the cardboard and use a spade to cut right through.
  • Thick enough to truly smother weeds and not blow down the street.

How to Control Weeds with Cardboard - LivingHomegrown.com

The Cons of Using Cardboard:

  • You need more than you think and you have to dumpster dive to find it.
  • If packing tape is left behind, you find it as you cultivate the soil.
  • A hard rain and over zealous watering will expose the cardboard and make it look trashy. You have to keep an eye on that for the first few months until the paper starts to break down.
  • In the beginning, you need to periodically deep water so the water penetrates through to the soil.
  • It needs at least 2 inches of compost or mulch, (I use 3 inches) to truly hide it and keep it in place. You may not have that much on hand. I have to supplement my homemade compost with more to cover my entire vegetable garden area.

So what about you…

What is your best defense against weeds?

Tell me in the comments!

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.

39 Comments:

  • T says:

    Thank you!! This is exactly what I need and fortunately I happen to have a stash of cardboard – just hadn’t made it into the recycling yet!! We are just recovering from some invasive blackberry bushes – and replanting our vegetable garden – and I think this will help us finish the job and stop the weeds!! I just found your site today and I am looking forward to reading more! Thanks again, T

    • theresa says:

      So glad you found me too. It has sure saved me a ton of work! Good luck with your garden project.

      ~Theresa

  • This is my favorite way to smother weeds! I have used many, many empty diaper boxes in the garden. 🙂

  • Jan says:

    YES! I agree. Haven’t done it yet though. My husband is of the old farmer”s way… just keep tilling the weeds … I keep trying to make him understand that it only buries the weeds and seeds for awhile only to have them germinate and POP UP again in a couple weeks.

  • Edith says:

    The thick cardboard will be a food for the worms. The worms release some of their slime that contains hormones that make the plants grows. It’s a brilliant idea. Thank you.

  • Anna Bender says:

    I’ll stick with newspaper and layers of dried grass clippings during the growing season but I’ll probably replace the paper with cardboard in the off season.

  • Mary says:

    Great idea, I will pass along to my customers. Thank you.

  • maxie says:

    I have just started using cardboard and love it. Another thing we did was move our compost pile. Our garden is 50 ft long x 30 ft wide. In one corner of the garden we had some concrete block left over from a project, so we made a 10′ x 10′ x 2′ high, compost pile in one corner of the garden. This area is a low spot so when it rains a lot, it stays wet for quite a while. We have discovered that this speeds up the compost process. In the spring I plant in the compost pile (we have a smaller compost pile we use during this time of the growing and harvest season). In the big compost pile, we have what we call “volunteers” – plants that grow from seeds we throw in the pile. This year it was cantaloupes that decided to reward us with the sweetest fruit we have ever tasted. In the winter we put a piece of black plastic over the large compost pile to allow the temperature to rise in the soil. This spring we had a surprise where the plastic had bunched up and was holding rain water. We pulled the plastic back and there was a water moccasin. We killed him and looked for more, since he was on the small side we thought there may be more, but there was not. That was a relief. I did not intend to make my comment so long, but I hope through what I have shared will inspire someone to try some of my ideas. I hope everyone has a really great weekend.

  • franki says:

    Old carpet. Previous owners had white berber installed and at 30 years old, it’s pretty not-white. Hoping because it’s not dyed it won’t leach anything bad into the soil. I used it initially under a big orange tree and found it doesn’t get moldy or yicky after a couple of years. Put it wrong side up and it blends in quite well. My husband is removing carpet room by room. Killed the back lawn last winter & placed carpet over it as it became available. There’s been a delay in getting carpet removed so I tried cardboard over the rest. Will it really break down? This is heavy stuff that a big appliance came in.
    Our soil is heavy clay so I wasn’t planning on turning former lawn into garden. Instead, place several big containers/planters in the area.

  • linda bunte says:

    I luv cardboard too! Use approx. 4 layers — one layer doesn’t work — and to overlap layers. Having trouble getting cardboard from grocery stores and places like Lowes, which sell it to recycling companies. But yes, I keep looking for it and asking for it. Newspaper is too thin. Thanks for informing and sharing!

  • Kim says:

    My suggestion is go to a bike store and get their large bike boxes being thrown away daily. Each box covers a huge area when opened and the cardboard is nice and thick. They were happy that I was taking it away.

  • Julia says:

    This seems a brilliant idea and one I have been reading about in Charles Dowding’s book on organic gardening. I also read on the Prairie Homestead blog about using hay as mulch. I can’t wait to try it out. My only reservation is that I garden here in the UK on the fens on 2 allotments where it is very windy and I worry that the hay blowing away. Cardboard sounds a much better alternative. I can’t wait to see the funny looks from the old men who garden around me and are stuck in their ways and frown on anything different.

    • theresa says:

      Julie – you must come back later and tell me how it goes! (Especially the reactions to your garden neighbors – ha ha)

      It is true that hay will blow away more than the cardboard. The trick is to use enough mulch or soil over the cardboard to hold it down. Keeping it moist the first few weeks is important too. After that, it starts to break down enough to stay put. If wind is really bad, I would use larger pieces of cardboard with rocks on the corners where you can. Good luck!

    • Stan Smith says:

      If the winds are a problem you can use long sticks laid over the top of the mulch & cardboard that are held down using “stakes” made out of branches that look like a “Y.” Clip one side shorter than the other and push them into the soil through the cardboard (you may have to soak it a bit). They will hold down the sticks, which hold down the mulch, which holds down the cardboard, which holds down the weeds. They’ll pull out easily if necessary or break down eventually … a very long eventually mind you!!!

    • Lucy says:

      Hay can be a problem… when it is baled, inevitably, weeds are baled with it. So you might be introducing a weed problem.

  • Andi says:

    I was wondering what you do at the end of the season once the cardboard has disintegrated. Do you move the mulch away to lay more cardboard and then re-mulch over it? Do you rototill everything in and restart each year? We have a fairly large garden since we’re on 2 acres and so we are trying to lay more permanent walkways in there. Since sending my husband this post he has become obsessed with finding cardboard. He can’t wait to try it out. Thank you for your wonderful blog! I love it!

    • theresa says:

      Hi Andi – I usually only lay down the cardboard once per year. Most times, this is just before planting. But in really weedy areas (near boarders of property where weeds blow in), I sometimes lay a second layer of cardboard (cover it with mulch) and let it set over the winter.

      There is no wrong way to do it. Just once a year will REALLY cut down on the weeds. You will love it.

  • Carol says:

    We have raised beds, so the weeds & grass that drive me crazy are the ones in the paths in between. Used cardboard at the bottom of my beds, but wish I had taken more time in laying cardboard over the whole area. Attempted to cardboard and mulch paths afterwards but that got too expensive. I think I could endure layers of cardboard held down by large rocks I have available while I plan alternative ways to border my raised beds.

    • theresa says:

      Carol,

      Do you have any wood chipping services in your area? I’m wondering if you could lay cardboard down on the paths and cover it with wood chips? In my area, there is a recycle center that offers the city wood chips for free. I would not use those chips within flower beds or vegetable beds because I don’t know what plants are in the chips. But I would have no problem using the chips along pathways. It might be a cheaper alternative to mulch. Just a thought.

      • Carol says:

        Thanks Teresa. Actually, even where we had laid cardboard and mulch, the weeds and crawling grass came up before the end of last summer. My ideal would be to grow low growing herbs around each raised bed after the cardboard kills the weeds and then have a path maybe straw. We raise rabbits so straw is always around. I am slowly working to lay heavy layers of cardboard.

  • Willene says:

    We live on a lake in Texas and a few years ago, after a hurricane, we found lake grass growing in our lawn and flowerbeds. I have read the only way to get rid of lake grass is to move away from it. The roots go so deep I call it torpedo grass. Even when you dig it up by the roots it comes back again and again. Layers of dead grass really help and pine straw works very well also to slow it up. This year after cutting back our shrubs and trees I ran it all through a chipper and then put it back in our beds hoping to prevent lake grass from growing in new areas and getting rid of existing areas. If you or anyone else have any suggestions, I would appreciate it very much. I plan to try cardboard also.

    • theresa says:

      Gosh Willene – That sounds horrible. I would give the cardboard a shot, but I’m not sure if it will kill it if runs so deep. Maybe someone else reading this will have an idea for you. {fingers crossed}

    • Lucy says:

      Usually, these are actually sedges…go to Amazon and buy a wedge killer. Worked for me!

  • Uma says:

    I am planning to use card board to smother some of the weeds in the backyard. My worry is about termites. Does anyone here who have any experience of finding termites while using a card board mulch?

  • Sandy Gullion says:

    We are now using cardboard in our garden for weed control since the weeds that grew last year were over our heads and had thorns like a rosebush. We couldn’t get in there to get our tomatoes.
    We are putting down cardboard in the walkways and newspaper under the compost because I don’t think the beans will be able to grow down through the new cardboard. But we cannot figure out what to put on the cardboard to hold it down. Straw is too light and we are apprehensive about using mulch because of attracting termites and causing the soil to be too acidic. Any suggestions on this?

  • Veronica says:

    For those of you who used cardboard what has been your experience with cardbaord attracting termites? Garden Professor web site claims cardboard is a very tasty treat for termites.

    • theresa says:

      Although I have heard this, I have never had a problem with termites. But I’d love to hear if anyone has had issues.

      I was listening at a lecture recently where several garden experts were speaking, including a garden professor. The professor told the audience not to use cardboard. The other 3 experts disagreed with her and told her they have done it for years with no issues. Not sure who’s correct on that one. But the experts noted that they also use wood chips in their gardens and in pathways and they compost wood chips. But never got termites from those practices either. If I ever have issues, I will post here about it. Hopefully others will chime in on their experiences…

  • Arlene says:

    My son has an auto body repair shop just down the road from me so there is a never-ending supply of cardboard boxes for me to try this weed killing idea!just need rocks or something heavy to hold it down ?

  • Colleen says:

    We had moved in February so i have a TON of cardboard! I get over run with weeds every year. In insane. So, today i laid out the cardboard and covered it with a thick layer of hay. Tomorrow I’ll add more hay. Im interested to see how well this works. Im going to start some fall veggie plants inside this weekend and im hoping we’ll have some rain before i need to put them out in the garden to make the cardboard easier to cut through

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