Old newspapers may find new niche -- in the garden

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Will yesterday's newspaper supersede grass clippings, spoiled hay, and other vegetative mulch materials in the home garden? And will home gardeners find it simpler to line their crop rows with newspapers?

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden now is debating whether to have its Westchester County research center explore the use of newsprint in the garden. Associated in the project would be the Taconic Men's Garden Club, whose ''seed squad'' members would provide experienced hands-on cooperation.

Already it has been determined that while old newspapers make a good, practical mulch, magazine pages may not. Magazines are usually printed on higher quality paper. Thus, they are better avoided because of the strong chemicals used in digesting the wood pulp and combining clays. Colored inks are especially inappropriate for garden soils.

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At the same time, it is becoming clear that kraft paper can be used in more or less the same way as newsprint. Kraft paper, of course, comes to the home gardeners in the form of multiwall shopping bags filled with groceries.

It also has been determined that any paper intended for use as gardeners' mulch is all the more effective if it is first shredded into strips. Such shredding expedites the natural biodegrading of newsprint laid on garden pathways.

Hand-operated mechanical shredders are on the market to speed up this operation. Newsprint may also be sliced with a sharp knife or pair of scissors, or simply torn by hand.

As experienced gardeners are aware, one does not put down mulch of any sort until the seeds or transplants have begun to show signs of growth. Mulching prematurely not only may deter the start-up of annual weeds, but also inhibit the warm-up of the soil.

That's why mulching materials, if left in place over the winter to protect, say, parsnips or parsley from the heavier frosts, are always pulled back in early spring to give the radiant-heat rays of the sun a chance to penetrate and raise the temperature of the seed bed.

In case of a sudden overnight frost, such mulch can be quickly replaced.

Similarly, as the season advances and you wish to keep the soil stable and cool against the hot sun, you will find it simple to add another layer of newsprint to the mulch.

It can be argued that newspaper mulch is not as neat as peat moss or wood chips. Yet newsprint is at least as neat as plastic, and certainly far neater than rampant, ragged weeds. Like newspapers, plastic sheeting will billow and blow away in the wind if not anchored to the ground. Stones will weigh either one down. But stones, too, may look disorderly.

The solution? The common coat hanger.

Take a wire coat hanger and bend the hook straight. Then bend the straightened part at a right angle to the plane of the hanger. The former hook now can be stuck through layers of newsprint down into the soil. The triangular part of the hanger spreads flat over the newsprint to hold it to the soil.

While newsprint cannot act as a soil nutrient, it nonetheless will benefit the structure of the soil.

Newsprint contains no useful nitrogen, phosphate, or potassium. Much the same is true of the kraft paper used in bags. Neither feeds your crops because neither can bring any appreciable nutrition to the soil. However, neither can be faulted as a mulch, especially when you consider that both are free.

Ultimately, of course, the old newspapers or supermarket bags, having served as mulch against the weeds, can be dug into the soil. There, the soil organisms will take over and slowly convert them to humus.

You might bear in mind that, as you try out the idea of mulching with newspapers, you are actually a participant in broad-scale tests and trials now being conducted by soil scientists.

Should you feel like sharing your findings and impressions with other gardeners, get in touch with Dr. Craig R. Hibben, chairman of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Research Center, 712 Kitchawan Road, Ossining, N.Y. 10562, or Alfred Angelini, Taconic Men's Garden Club, 77 Croton Dam Road, Ossining, N.Y. 10562.

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