Using Cardboard in the Vegetable Garden

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Brown marmorated stink bugs can be trapped using a cardboard box

Like most gardeners, I have my share of successes and failures. My most recent disaster occurred when a deer found my fall carrots and plucked them out one by one while I slept. I put a ridiculous amount of effort into preparing that carrot bed, so now I need to cut my losses and preserve the bed’s ready-to-plant condition until spring. The best way to do this is to cover the bed with cardboard, held in place with stones, bricks, or pieces of firewood. In spring, I can lift the cardboard, give the bed a light raking, and put it to work.

Gardeners have different opinions on using cardboard in the vegetable garden, but certified organic growers can use what I call ‘clean’ cardboard – plain, unwaxed boxes with all tape and sticky labels removed, with minimal printing on the outside. According to the National Center for Appropriate Technology, “the basic components of corrugated cardboard seem to be relatively benign. Brown corrugated cardboard appears to be the least processed paper product. It therefore would have the lowest number and smallest quantity of chemical substances, compared to white, glossy, highly printed, waxed or otherwise coated cardboard, paperboard, and papers.”

“Cardboard
Weigh down cardboard with rocks to prevent it blowing away

Smothering Weeds with Cardboard Mulch

Besides, there are many ways to use cardboard in the vegetable garden that simply work. When I moved to my current garden ten years ago, a third of it had gone wild and grown into a tangle of nettles and blackberries, with a groundcover of poison ivy running through the whole mess. Working a section at a time, I cut back the invaders and covered the surface with several sheets of damp cardboard, with soil and pulled weeds between the layers to help maintain moisture. After a few months under cardboard, the wild things were weakened to the point where I could dig them out.

Using cardboard to create new gardening space is high on the list of recommended methods promoted by Wild Ones, a non-profit advocacy organization for native plants, because smothering surface vegetation with cardboard causes less trauma to a site compared to digging it up. Many gardeners build raised beds right on their lawns, and line the bottoms with cardboard to smother the grass – a technique that makes it possible to fill the beds and start gardening right away.

“Cat
Even the gardener’s helper enjoys a cardboard box!

A bit of advice: Shipping tape comes off easily when cardboard is wet, so I place boxes I plan to use in the garden outside and let them get rained on before I clean and flatten them. Cardboard mulch needs to stay moist, so plan to cover it with compost or another material if you live in a dry climate. Termites are occasionally seen in cardboard mulch that is kept too dry, so avoid using cardboard mulch in parched places close to your house.

Box Cloches and Bug Traps

In addition to using cardboard mulch to protect beds from compaction or subjugate weeds or grasses, this time of year I use box cloches around parsley and other marginally hardy plants. With the open flaps securely weighted, the box cloches block cold winds and extend the picking season by several weeks.

“Parsley
Protecting parsley with a cardboard box extends the harvesting season

Last fall, I discovered by accident that a small cardboard box with more cardboard layers inside, placed near my deck door, made an effective passive trap for brown marmorated stink bugs (shown in the photo at the top of the page), which are determined to come inside for the winter in 44 American states and 4 Canadian provinces. They mistake the box for a safe haven, crawl inside, and are easily shaken into a bowl of soapy water on cool mornings.

The growth of e-commerce has increased the number of cardboard boxes coming into our homes, and at least some of that cardboard can be used in the garden. If you have ideas to share that have worked for you, please post them below.

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Comments

 
"My husband and I used cardboard in our garden one fall and it worked great for keeping weeds from growing as well as the ground from drying out. When we were ready to plant our spring seeds, we began the process of removing the cardboard and there underneath were two rattlesnakes. Fortunately, we heard their warnings before we lifted the cardboard they were under so we were prepared, but it was a good lesson in being aware of what can take up residence in our garden. Be sure to use a long handled rake to move the cardboard in case you encounter snakes and have a plan on what to do with venomous snakes should you find them in your garden. Lastly, be prepared should anyone get bitten - have numbers posted by the phone for emergency personnel and know your route to the nearest hospital. Read up on the types of venomous snakes in your area and be able to identify the type of snake encountered so the correct anti-venom can be administered."
Cathy on Friday 20 October 2017
"We had a large plot of land and it was very weedy. We put large pieces of cardboard from large appliances, 3 layers thick, over the area. The cardboard snuffed out all the weeds. We left it in place for years where we weren't planting and it can be lifted at any time for planting - no weeding necessary, soil is moist and loose (if you haven't walked on it). The cardboard composts over time which is great brown mulch for the garden. Be sure to use 3 layers and overlap them. Less than 3 will allow for weeds to grow. I think using cardboard is great! No problem with snakes here - just garter snakes which are harmless."
Steffany on Friday 20 October 2017

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