Agricultural paper in a deep mulch garden

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

Many years ago early in my agriculture/gardening career, I discovered a book written by a woman who developed a novel way of gardening. 

Ruth Stout’s gardening technique involved applying layers of deep mulch that stayed on the garden year-round making annual garden tilling unnecessary. 

I still have a couple of her books,  "How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back" and her "No-Work Garden Book." 

Back then the concept of gardening without tilling and pulling weeds seemed far fetched. 

She advocated covering a garden area with at least 8 inches of organic mulch; organic in the sense of plant based material as opposed to plastic sheeting.

Some common types of mulch include straw, hay, dried grass clippings, shredded leaves, seaweed and other similar materials.  

Depending on the type of mulch that is applied, some very strong weeds can still grow through deep layers of mulch. That’s because if a little sunlight penetrates the mulch, weeds will take advantage of the sunlight and gather enough energy to grow through.

One way to jump-start a new Ruth Stout method garden is to use agricultural paper to completely cover the whole garden before piling up mulch layers. 

Agricultural paper is dense enough to block out all rays of sunlight; without sunlight, even tough plants will be smothered and die out fairly quickly. 

Close up showing texture of agricultural paper.

The same weed killing effect can be had by covering an area with black plastic sheeting. The advantage paper has over plastic is that paper is left in place to decompose and will become part of the soil by the end of the season. 

Plastic on the other hand either stays in place and separates decomposing organic matter from the soil, or it must be lifted and the soil re-covered with mulch.

Also rainwater will puddle on top of plastic mulch while organic mulch will let water flow through.

Another major benefit to deep mulching is as the mulch layer decomposes, it adds nutrients and humus to the soil. Year after year as the garden is topped off with additional mulch, the soil is constantly improved making the addition of fertilizer practically unnecessary. 

The buildup of organic matter in the soil also makes for stronger plants reducing or eliminating the need for many pesticides.

Less time is spent watering because the mulch keeps water from evaporating from the soil as quickly.

Gardeners in the past have used newspapers or cardboard under their mulch layers. The problem with that is nowadays newspapers are getting harder to find.

Cardboard on the other hand, is an abundant resource in many homes with all of the online shopping and home delivery going on.  

One drawback to using newspapers or cardboard is it must be pieced together so no space is left uncovered that would potentially leave a spot for weeds to grow through.

Agricultural paper can simply be rolled out over the soil covering many square feet at a time. It can be purchased in rolls up to four feet across allowing you to cover a garden very quickly.

Agricultural paper is cut easily by poking it with a hand trowel so transplants can be planted into the soil through the paper. Cardboard or several layers of newspaper can be difficult to cut through.

Cut an x-shaped opening in the paper to plant your transplants. Later, move the mulch back into place.

Even though the paper is easily cut, it still holds up well enough during planting so it can be walked on if covered with mulch.

It doesn’t take much of a breeze to lift the paper and blow it around, so plan on having enough mulch on hand so you cover it as you lay it down.

Ruth suggested tilling an area with manure or compost before applying mulch; in my experience, I think that is a good idea but not absolutely necessary, depending on your soil.

Tomatoes growing in a first year permanent mulch. Here agricultural paper was placed first then covered with layers of straw and other mulch.

Her method is not literally “no work” because it does involve a yearly addition of mulching material but it drastically reduces the amount of time spent weeding. 

The hardest part of this type of gardening is finding mulch; however once people find out you are willing to take away their “yard waste,” it gets easier. Just make sure you never use grass clippings from a yard that has been sprayed with herbicides.

Since agricultural paper prevents weeds for a few months, you don’t need as much mulch to get started. It will allow you more time to gather mulch during the first season. 

The following year to plant your garden, all you need to do is part the mulch in a row down to the soil and either sow your seeds or plant your transplants. 

Once your plants have made some growth, move back the mulch to cover the exposed soil.

We have a number of raised beds in our garden that are well covered with permanent mulch and the plants growing there are thriving.