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Create a new planting bed in your lawn without digging.
Smother Your Lawn
June 23, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden
A smothered lawn

Step One. Decide where the edges of your new planting bed will be, and mark them.

Step Two. Lay down a coat of newspapers 10-12 pages thick on top of the lawn inside the bed, overlapping the newspaper pages by 5 or 6 inches whenever they meet. You are creating a barrier that virtually all grasses and most perennial weeds will not live to penetrate.

Step Three. Cover the papers with six to ten inches of wood chip mulch. If it's windy, it helps to lay a small section of papers, then cover it with mulch before laying more papers. Wetting the papers with water from your hose may also keep them down.

That's it! A few hardy taprooted weeds (dandelions, for instance) may still come up through the mulch, at which time you'll simply dig them out.

Please note that your mulch won't be maintenance-free. Buried but uneaten acorns will easily sprout the following spring, so you will need to patrol for tree seedlings every year or two. If your mulch is unsterilized (as is the free mulch from sources mentioned at right), it may contain seeds. And as it decomposes over time, wind-blown seeds will be able to take root in it. The best strategy for keeping weeds down in the long run will be to cover the soil with groundcover plants or top it with a new layer of fresh mulch every year or two.

Aside from easier bed creation, smothering's major benefit is in using, not hauling away, the organic materials in the lawn. Your smothered lawn, the newspapers, and the wood chips will all eventually meld together (thanks to worms and other decomposers) into a nutrient-rich topsoil much deeper than the one you'd have started with after digging up the sod.

It will be several months before the lawn is smothered and you may safely dig planting holes without reawakening grass and weeds. The ideal approach would be to smother your new bed in the fall, design the plantings over the winter, grow new plants from seed indoors in the spring, and plant the bed in summer.

If you must plant right away, smother first, then dig through the mulch and newspapers, take off the sod in a circle wider than your planting hole by five inches all around, dig the hole and plant, then replace the papers and mulch up to the edge of the planting hole. Add mulch but not papers directly above the plant to allow water to reach its roots.

Author's note: I'm indebted to the St. Paul Neighborhood Energy Consortium for teaching me this technique in one of their landscape classes.

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