Published on 07/08/98

Plants Can't Read, but Enjoy a Good Newspaper

When you finish reading this article, your plants would enjoy it, too. No, the words won't mean much to them. But the paper they're printed on will.

A University of Georgia scientist says two or three newspaper pages can make a world of difference to your garden and landscape plants -- and to your water bill.

"Recycling the newspaper under mulch is a trick I use in my own garden," said Gary Wade, an Extension Service horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "It's amazing how much water that can conserve."

Summer is always stressful in Georgia gardens and landscapes, Wade said. But this year is hotter and drier than normal.

"A number of areas around the state are restricting outdoor watering," he said. "In other areas, water rates get higher as your usage increases."

Even where water is still plentiful and cheap, he said, it makes sense in such drought-stressful times to help your plants make the most of the water they get.

Wade said he mainly uses full-size, black-ink newspaper pages.

"Studies now show that even most color inks are made with food-color dyes that won't hurt your plants," he said. "But I still don't use the color comics or the pull-out ad sections, particularly around food crops in the vegetable garden."

Use a leaf rake to gently pull back existing mulch, he said. Be careful not to disturb the plants' surface roots.

"Then place two or three sheets of newspaper on the soil surface," he said. "Wet it down good, and rake the mulch back over the newspaper. The newsprint will not only hold moisture itself but acts as an added barrier to moisture loss."

Don't make the paper layer more than two or three sheets thick. A thicker layer will actually keep water from getting through to the roots.

The same newspaper trick works in the vegetable garden, too, he said. There, as in the landscape, the mulch itself is important in such hot, dry weather.

"Three to five inches of mulch will help hold moisture in the soil," Wade said. "It helps prevent evaporation from the soil surface.

"Fine-textured mulches such as pine straw, pine bark mininuggets and shredded hardwood mulch conserve moisture better than coarse-textured mulches," he said.

In the landscape, mulch as large an area around the plant as you can. "The roots of established woody ornamentals extend two to three times the canopy spread," he said.

In the vegetable garden, use mulch between rows. You may want to tape together rolls of newspaper pages to make applying the newsprint liner easier.

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.