Thursday 3 October 2013

Burying newspaper!

Reasons why gardeners dig: to bury things (part2)

Newspaper is a very water retentive material. I have been burying it in my garden for the last thirty years. Some gardeners put crumpled newspaper under their runner beans. I have yet to meet anyone who buries great wads under perennial borders like I do!

About to  bury newspaper  
By now some of you will I have decided I am a little barmy! I garden for my own pleasure and if  some of my methods are seen to be eccentric, silly and inappropriate for the rest of the gardening world I don’t care. I blog about these things because just sometimes, someone somewhere, might be amused or get an idea.

What on earth is happening at the bottom of my garden? 

There is method in my madness! I achieve three things by burying newspapers, magazines, waste paper and cardboard.
  • Much of the surplus water that otherwise would drain away in winter is retained and is available for plants in summer. It’s a much cheaper option than adding water retentive materials such as peat which in aerated conditions eventually decays away. Paper, will remain intact in the soil for years. I have been growing perennial plants over buried newspaper for a long time now and find that my plants thrive. I have never suffered adverse effects.
  • I generally bury newspaper on low lying land which might flood in winter. By digging holes (up to a meter deep) and burying a huge wad of newspaper and covering it with soil I create raised beds. The plants will be above any winter flooding but in summer will have a huge resource of extra summer water.
  • It is an environmentally friendly method to dispose of surplus newspaper.
My method
I have to tell you that it is very gradual. My gardens slowly evolve.
We collect all our newspaper in a large plastic box on the floor of a convenient cupboard. Every few weeks Brenda shouts at me because the box starts to overflow. I take the paper to my hole and dump them. Every couple of months I start a new hole next to the now filled old one. The surface area of the top of my hole is only about 60cm x 60cm, not much wider than a broadsheet really - plenty of room for the Times! When I dig my new hole the soil is thrown over the part-paper-filled old one. Well more or less  - it really goes all over the place!  After some months I have a space to put in some new plants or move over a few old ones. 
I probably only gain three of four square meters of raised bed each year, but then I have already told you I am very patient. You know I am a no dig gardener but in a thousand years I will have dug all of my acre garden! Seriously, as a none digger the fact that there are great wads of buried paper is of no future inconvenience to me! Heaven help any deep digger who takes over my garden.
Some of you might be concerned that plant roots will not penetrate layers of thick horizontal sheets of newspaper. They probably won’t but as my holes are adjacent to each other, roots will grow down between them and subsequently grow between the sheets. There is also capillary movement from the paper to surrounding thirsty roots.

Case study 1
Thirty years ago in Bolton Percy we bought an extra two hundred square meters of field to supplement our small garden. Although the area was relatively flat, the land was slightly lower than surrounding gardens and received their drainage water. My soil was a rather clayey. In wet winter periods water tended to stand and yet in our dry summers the plot  became somewhat parched.
I tried a soak-away but it was totally useless, there was too much water. I eventually settled on deepening any depressions to make a bog garden and pond and used the soil to create relatively raised areas. I started to bury newspaper.

Eric Robson, now host of Gardeners Question Time had a TV gardening show ‘Earth-movers’ on Tyne Tees Television. They had previously made a programme about my cemetery garden and Eric suggested they came down again to film my home garden and allotment. Mr Robson is a jovial fellow. He took great delight in filming me burying newspaper. He took a great interest in my tastes in reading. He gave an on screen humorous commentary as he read the covers of my bridge magazines. Warning, print remains on paper for many years. Be careful if you don’t want a later generation to know your taste in reading!

Case study 2
My friend Iris knew very well my penchant for burying newspaper. She wanted to create a raised bed in her small stone courtyard. It was a circular bed surrounded by a dwarf stone wall perhaps 50 cm.high. Pocklington landscaper Martin Smith was highly amused when he was asked to lay a 30cm. layer of newspapers at the base. Iris was delighted with the success of her new garden feature. As the following paragraphs explain, perhaps her 30 cm. layer of paper held almost as much water as my own deep paper filled holes.

How much water does my newspaper hold? Dummy’s maths - mad science.

I remembered many years ago I had done a small test that showed that a one inch thick wad of ‘The Times’ held one inch of water. Was this still true or was it my imagination? To retain any of my rapidly diminishing  credibility I thought I had better check it out and take some pictures. I borrowed our plastic birdseed storage box. Flat sheets of ‘The Times’ fit it exactly. I filled the box with water to 2.5 cm depth and added a 2.5cm. thick wad of paper - about fifteen newspaper editions.

Wad of newspaper ready to be placed in 2.5cm of water 
I waited twenty minutes and sure enough, other than a few dregs, the water was absorbed. I lifted out my still horizontal wad of wet paper and no water  drained away. I again filled my now empty box with an inch depth of water - whoops, I mean 2.5cm - to measure the original quantity. It was four litres.

2.5cm of newspaper has absorbed 2.5 cm of water
The paper has hardly increased in volume
Even a dummy like me can calculate that if my hole in the garden contained a half metre  depth of horizontal sheets of newspaper it could hold against gravity half a metre of water. A massive amount, almost our annual rainfall. If the surface profile of my hole were to be the surface area of a sheet of the ‘Times’ it would store 80 litres of water. Wow, about sixteen gallons! Surely I have got something wrong? I have.

I have been hinting for some time now how deep drainage profiles of a water-absorptive material holds less water per unit/volume than shallow profiles. I have yet to discuss the horticultural implications that you will not find in any gardening book! The principle involved is well illustrated if I convert my experimental horizontal wad of ‘saturated’ newspaper by turning it vertically so that it hangs like a curtain. Most of the water it had held against gravity spills away! My holes of buried newspaper have a very deep vertical profile. They will hold nowhere near my calculated amount! I could refine my experiment to find out more, but life’s too short. I shall continue to bury newspaper. It holds a lot of water! 

Ferns only grow well on my sandy soil when planted over newspaper
I suspect if I amended my experiment to directly investigate the water holding capacity of thick layers of newspaper, I would find that perhaps a 20cm layer might be better use of my effort and be more efficient use of newspaper, I think Iris in case study 2 had the right idea. In every day language  perhaps a eight inch layer of paper overlaid by twelve inches of soil might be best. Note that my methods depend on heavy winter rain or in my own present garden, a rising winter water table to wet up the paper. I achieve little benefit in the first year. It would be sensible if constructing a new garden feature to wet the paper first.

The success of my 12ft high gunnera is due to the high water table. It was planted eight years ago on a plateau of buried newspaper to prevent it standing in water.


  1. Roger you fascinate me!!! I like this idea, why put this stuff in an oxygen starved landfill. Recycling is a good alternative of course but you're doing your own version of that here so it's all good :) I always tear bits of newspaper up and put it under my seed potatoes when I plant them to stop them getting dry and to encourage them to grow down looking for water and not up!

    1. Anna, you have made my day. I don't often get compliments from lovely ladies! (I think it was a compliment)

  2. We don't get a newspapers - now if we could use junk mail ... the trouble is most is glossy paper.

    I do have one question - does the ink affect the flower colours, I remember an experiment at school where a flower stem was popped in ink and the flower turned colour. I guess there isn't enough ink absorbed to have any affect though.

    1. No not at all Sue. I remember similar experiments when plants take up ink - like white carnations dyed yellow or those HORRIBLE dyed blue heathers at the garden centre.
      You will notice my white phlox in the picture is completely unadulterated white.

  3. I also bury newspapers and have 'trained' my dustman not to cart off the papers from the rubbish area. With a strong back + a wicker trolley I then lug my paper treasure off to the allotments. Laid very thickly & overlapping & dampened, I then spread a thick layer of compost / manure, then cover the top with thick black plastic. Within a month Mr & Mrs Worm have gobbled up all of the paper and I have a great new veg bed.
    And the soil isalways more moist than a normal earth bed.
    Thanks for a wonderful Blog.

  4. This is very interesting. I have an area in my garden where I can and want to experiment with burying newspapers, great idea and autumn is an excellent time to start with I think. If I have results I will let you know, but may be it takes a very long time.

    1. Yes an excellent time to start. I plan to be around for sometime yet to get your results!


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