A little reading matter results in a more beautiful yard

The leaves are falling fast in my neighborhood -- the reds, the yellows, and plain old browns. But no matter the color, I see in them a rich source of soil-building organic matter for the garden next season. So I'm gathering them in as fast as I can. They will be piled in a hidden corner of the garden alongside a modest stack of newspapers -- that other generally free-for-the-taking organic material, which has been doing some pretty good things for my garden in recent years. Take this past season when my daughters suddenly announced that we were to play host to a summer cookout. The garden was in a state of neglect (all my spare time had gone into building a cottage in Maine), so there was an urgent need to ``pretty up the place,'' if only in the immediate area where the barbecue would be held.

I did so in one hectic day with the help of several flats of already flowering plants, some fertilizer, a little peat moss, and lots of shredded newspaper.

Newspaper is often the only available source of cheap organic matter in an urban environment, which is why its value to the garden is so important. It is a great source of energy for soil bacteria, molds, and earthworms. And now that the good news is out about colored inks (more on that later), it makes so much more sense to use it.

The particular spot near the patio where the ``prettying up'' had to take place was a stony slope where even the grass grew sparingly. Digging it over showed why: After the stones were removed, all that remained a couple of inches below the surface was a pale yellow sand that drained away water as fast as you could pour it on.

The need was to provide a spongy layer of organic matter that would soak up moisture and hold it between waterings.

My supply of finished compost was low, so to provide this sponge I turned to newspaper, which I grind up in a handy little electric shredder. The paper would work just as well if torn up by hand (soak it first to make the job easier).

First I dug a narrow trench along each row where the plants would go and filled this with about 3 inches of the shredded newspaper, which I wet down thoroughly. Then I sprinkled a granular garden fertilizer over the pulplike paper and set out the plants directly on top of this paper, filling in around the root balls with the sandy soil. Thereafter the plants -- begonias, marigolds, petunias, and some impatiens for the shadier spots -- were fed periodically with a liquid fish emulsion (any other high-nit rogen fertilizer would have done) to compensate for the nitrogen the decaying paper might temporarily tie up.

The plants grew rapidly and flowered well. My only regret is that we didn't invite the same guests around in the middle of August, by which time the beds had filled in and were a mass of color. The begonias and marigolds grew particularly strongly, the petunias a little less vigorously, and I suspect that had I been consistent in applying the fish emulsion, they, too, would have been outstanding.

At no time, even during the hottest weather, did the plants ever show moisture stress, though I never watered more than once a week and did not do it at all if we had had rain. Even more significant was the way two window boxes of begonias (treated the same way -- the bottom half filled with paper) tolerated hot weather. With rare exceptions these also received only one heavy watering a week.

I can only surmise that the paper absorbed and held the moisture so well that even the window boxes could go for days without watering (of course, the compact begonias would not transpire as much moisture back into the air as, say, larger-growing petunias). It would seem, too, that the paper prevented or at least slowed the leaching away of plant nutrients from the root zone.

The flower bed was also heavily mulched, and here again the shredded paper was freely used. A 2-inch-thick layer of the paper went down first and this was covered with between a half-inch and 1-inch layer of peat moss to hide the paper and give the surface an attractive appearance. This combination bonds together once it has been wet down with a sprinkler to form a sort of thick board that is not disturbed by wind or rain. At the same time it allows air and water to move through freely to the soil.

A midseason investigation showed that some of the plant roots were growing on top of the soil immediately below the mulch. Several earthworms slithered quickly out of sight, suggesting that the paper mulch was doing much more for the plants than merely suppressing weeds.

Last week I dug up two of the plants to check on the ``sponge'' layer and found it unrecognizable. It turned up only an occasional hint of paper. Again there was ample evidence of earthworms; I can only assume they had processed and combined the paper with the surrounding soil to give the whole mass an appearance of pale chocolate.

Meanwhile, Amalie Adler Ascher, a Baltimore garden writer, has been investigating the printing ink industry for some years and found that it has cleaned up its act, so to speak, to a remarkable degree.

Writing first in the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society's Green Scene and most recently in Rodale's Organic Gardening magazine, she cites Dr. Rufus L. Chaney, research agronomist and specialist in heavy metals in soils and plants at the United States Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Md. While he cannot vouch for the colored inks in the inserts or advertising supplements of newspapers (because they are generally printed by independent suppliers) or for the glossier Sunday magazine sections, Dr. Cha ney says that colored newspaper inks are now composed of natural organic pigments rather than mineral dyes that might include lead.

These new pigments are biodegradable. Moreover, they are also cheaper than the mineral colorings. Thus, while the printing industry moved to remove lead from colored newspaper inks under federal pressure (young children tended to eat the comic sections as well as look at them), there is also an economic incentive for the industry to make the change.

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