Monday, February 12, 2007

Brown Paper Grocery Bag Weed Barrier

Last fall, I started collecting kitchen vegetable and leftover scraps for a compost pile. The compost pile hasn't happened yet, but I wanted to utilize the kitchen waste to improve our very poor soil.

I also started collecting plain brown paper grocery bags at the supermarket each time I shopped.

We have not had the $$ or the time to devote to a united effort on a lot of the outdoor projects due to unemployment/job search priorities and other daily concerns. There is the matter of the vacant lot next door, which is part of our property. It was scraped of all its topsoil and leveled with fill dirt, which is some of the most unforgiving hardpan to try to cultivate when attempting to put in a garden of any sort.

J and I have not united our vision for that, since there are so many other priorities still pending first. But I did take a small section during the wet season, and began digging a 2' deep trench in which to pile layers of vegetable waste and newspaper. After filling the trench with those layers I piled on more newspaper, watered the whole thing down with the garden hose, and then piled the dirt back on top of the whole thing. The result was a raised row in which I stuck a couple of pepper plants, some mints and balms, some marigolds and some dianthus as an experiment.

I layered the contents of a few bags of potting soil over that, and then layered sections of brown paper grocery bags over all of it, around all the plants. And I watered it all in again. We had excess cardboard boxes stacking up after unpacking some of our things, so I layered that on top, too. And again, I watered it all in. I lay wooden stakes on top of the paper at regular intervals to be used until the barrier weathered and wouldnt blow away if a good wind came along.

Digging the trenches was backbreaking work. I'm out of shape, and it was not easy. I also wasn't sure about how quickly the kitchen waste buried underneath would begin to decompose, and I didn't want it dug up by our frequent racoon visitors.

It's now been about 3 1/2 months since I put in those short trenches with the cardboard and paper weed barrier. There's not been much cold weather to speak of in these parts, but there has been intermittent rain. The lemon balm has become a really big clump already, without the benefit of any watering or fertilizing from us. The orange mint is more low-growing and prostrate, but has vigorously begun creeping to all sides. The bee balm is holding its own, but is not experiencing the same burst of growth as the other two. It's so far a bit low-growing, too.

I planted the marigolds and dianthus in between the mints and the peppers in hopes that any pollinators such as bees and small wasps would be tempted to frequent the other plants as well. I'm also curious to see if they attract healthy predatory insects that keep the pepper plants, etc, free of pests. Just after installing about four peppers of different sorts, the jalapeno promptly gave up the ghost, and one of the bell peppers just withered and lingered half-dead. The other pepper plant produced warped strange-shaped peppers, just one or two, but we ate them just the same and they tasted good. The plant that bore small green chili type peppers just cranked out the peppers, though the plant itself looked a bit puny. It never got big, but I got several pickings of peppers off the plant before it bit the dust in December. I used the peppers in vinegar, and they taste jalapeno-ish...a wonderful vinegar for sprinkling on sandwiches and taco meat!

The marigolds attracted butterflies for the longest time. It's odd to see butterflies in December, but this is Florida, after all. I even see a few butterflies now in February, though not so many because it's been colder. There is also a very small flitting sort of bird that really enjoyed jumping around among the plants, likely for insects since I've never seen these birds at the feeders we have. They are smaller than a sparrow and greyish brown except for a faded cream breast and underside. They congregate in the Brazilian pepper shrubs that grow wild across the ditch, and they flit all over the place when not hiding in the brush. They seem to be quite active near the areas of standing or draining water.

When I went out yesterday to pull some weeds that had crept in among the surviving "trench plants," I just used the three pronged long-handled tool to loosen the roots of the weeds, and then just pulled them easily from there. I nudged back the paper layer to reveal a fairly weed-free soil underneath...evidence that the barrier, though not aesthetically wonderful, DOES work if layered thickly enough. It is easy to move aside and then back again. I weeded one trench and then layered two or three fresh layers of paper grocery bags. It's my continuing experiment. I also am experimenting with a particular section that has wild grass that I never dug up, weeds included. I just slapped several layers over that section the same as all the rest and watered it down. The rain today helped with that. I'm going to check it periodically to see if it's effectively smothering the existing weeds that I DIDN'T pull. I'll compare the two, and see if it's worth the trouble of smothering them first, or pulling first.

I'm not sure about repeating this trench construction using newspaper, since surely the ink contains a lot of chemicals. I'm not at all bothered by the thought of continuing to use the brown paper grocery bags. I'm not sure about brown boxes, either. I'll have to do some more research on that, but they sure were effective weed barriers.

If anyone's wondering, in the perfect world, I would have disguised the paper barrier with pine needles, straw, or a thin layer of mulch. But I didn't have any, and we don't have a budget for their purchase just now. Plus, it's in an out-of-the-way corner and I wanted to see how it would all weather. I predicted they'd all mellow to a similar color and a single layer. I was mostly right. They quickly weathered to a light grey and are mostly a single layer now, after all the rain of the past months, but I did have to leave some stakes as weights to keep the wind from lifting pieces of it off even now. If I had straw or mulch, that wouldnt be the case.

The nice part, though, is seeing the healthy clumps of the surviving plants thriving. The eye is drawn there as the paper barrier slowly decomposes to someday become part of the surrounding soil.

I'll be making the raised hills more level...they were a bit exaggerated and it's not necessary. I'm trying to not leave many gaps or holes or uneven places underneath in hopes that snakes will not set up residence. But I'm taking the precaution of not weeding with bare hands, as well as watching where I step. I know there are good snakes out there, but I just don't care to meet ANY snake under any condition. Call me primal, it's that Eve thing :)

Ah well, we'll keep watching the grocery bag experiment. It's fun to see the doubletake at the checkout counter when they ask "Paper, or Plastic?" and I actually reply "Paper!" Some of the baggers haven't ever bagged groceries in paper. Ah well, my plants send their thanks. We'll see in a few months if it's worth it. So far it has been if for no other reason than the ease of weeding.

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