A 'shelter' from storm and sun; Paper mulch forms a haven in which seedlings thrive

This past week some struggling seedlings in my garden have suddenly taken off. They have come into their own, so to speak, because a little round-up newspaper improved growing conditions tremendously.

As a result, the once-fragile seedlings responded by growing into sturdy little plants more rapidly than I had believed possible.

I have long been an advocate of muling. It keeps soil temperatures from fluctuating wildly and modifies the immediate above-ground temperatures too; it allows the soil to take in water more readily; it helps the soil retain moisture by reducing evaporation; it prevents weeds from sprouting; it prevents soil compaction from heavy rains or watering; it keeps plants a whole lot cleaner (no soil-splash), and it provides ideal conditions for earthworms and other soil organisms to go to work, effectively improving the soil for the plant's benefit.

If the mulch is organic it decays to add humus and nutritients to the soil. In short, it makes the garden bed much more comfortable for the plants, both above and below the surface.

While mulching is great for established plants, it can easily smother any tiny young seedlings. So when I sowed a new bed of Swiss chard a few weeks ago, I saw to it that it was cleared of all coarse mulch. Under the burlap cover the seeds quickly sprouted, but once the burlap was removed the tiny seedlings took a beating from the hot June sun.

I was away from home much of June, which meant I could only attend to the needs of the garden on weekends. One lot of seedlings succumbed so I sowed a second batch which didn't appear to be faring much better. Then I thought of the shredded newspaper.

I took wet newspapers (black-ink pages only) and shredded them. This was carefully placed in a 6-inch circle around each seedling and the whole bed was watered. When the water drained away the shredded newspaper bonded together to form a soft cardboard plate around each plant. This provided all the advantages of more conventional grass or leaf mulch but would not blow around and perhaps smother or otherwise damage the seedlings.

The improved growing conditions brought an immediate, almost startling response from the hitherto struggling seedlings. Soon they will be big enough to accept a more attractive mulch of shredded leaves. The newspaper pulp will readily decompose into the soil. It is particularly enjoyed by earthworms.

So satisfied am I with the results of this trial that I have laid out paper mulch strips, leaving an inch-wide planting gap betweeen each strip, for sowings of carrots, beets, and turnips. These papier-mache strips, unless applied very thinly, form miniature canyons where the seeds are to be sown.

So, I place the seeds on the surface of the soil and then sprinkle fine sifted soil on top. Because it is held in place by walls of these "canyons" it does not erode away when watered with a hose.

Another option to spreading out the shredded newspaper by hand is to add water to the mulch, turn it into a slurry, and simply pour the mulch in place using a watering can.

I placed 1-inch-diameter sticks where I wanted the planting rows and simply poured the slurry over the entire bed. When the excess water had drained away, I lifted up the sticks to reveal the plan ting rows.

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