July 17, 2009

Cardboard Mulch

Back in the comments of this post, Heather mentioned mulching with flattened cardboard. Great idea! I'd already freecycled most of our moving boxes, but I decided to mulch with the rest of them.

The perfect place was the front of the house, where I'd cleared out a bunch of overgrown nandina and what looked like privet. I'd tossed some zinnia seeds into the ground and really wanted to keep the bushy stuff from coming back. And I'd like to kill the grass there because I'd like to plant either blueberry or cherry bushes there in the fall.

I used the cardboard as a base.....

... and covered it with the mulch we made with the rented chipper.

This didn't look very finished, so DH used RR ties to border the beds.

Neither one of us is especially fond of RR ties as borders, but there is a big stack of them in the back, and free is better than anything we would have to buy.

Unfortunately there is a lot of this around the place....

The remains of bygone black plastic mulch. The problem with black plastic is that it doesn't decompose, it deteriorates. I'll probably be picking up bits and pieces of the stuff till doomsday.

I had a very bad experience with black plastic mulch once, and if you have the time, I'll tell you the story.

It was when we lived in Texas, and bought a beautifully landscaped home in an established neighborhood. I loved the trees and especially the backyard shade garden with it's winding gravel walkway. The tall, solid fence made it a cozy, private retreat.

When I went to do my own plantings, I discovered that there was black plastic buried everywhere. Evidently the previous owners had landscaped the entire yard, putting down black plastic mulch and then top soil over that. Oh well. I just poked through it to plant what I wanted.

Everything was fine until we got one of those Texas gully-washers. It rained and it poured. The water ran down from the homes and yards behind us, through our yard, and into the street. The kids and I were staying high and dry by playing Super Mario Brothers on the Nintendo, when my daughter went into the kitchen to get a drink. Suddenly she yelled, "Mama! Mama! There's water all over the kitchen!" I ran in to see, and discovered that one corner of the kitchen was covered with about three inches of water.

I looked out the window and could see a river of water racing by the side of the house toward the street. I realized that the fence at the side of the house must be damming up what was coming down the hill and causing the flooding in the kitchen.

My kids were little then, DD was in 2nd grade and DS in preschool. Their dad wasn't around much in those days and we were alone that night. I knew it was up to me to do something so I said,

"OK. Mama's going to go outside and see if she can't make the flooding stop. I'll be outside but I'll be close by. Don't be scared, I'll be back as soon as I can!"

I waded into knee deep water in the back yard and worked on digging out under the fence in the pouring rain. I went back into the house to see if that had helped. It hadn't. Both kids were crying but were working hard to try and mop up the water. They said they were okay so I went out into the front yard and tried to dig a channel to move the water faster. Eventually the rain stopped and the water subsided. I was drenched, sore, and exhausted.

The next day when we were out surveying the damage, the next door neighbor told us that the previous owners hadn't had any flooding problems until they landscaped the yard (!) I realized that the black plastic acted as a barrier and prevented the ground from absorbing the water. In a heavy rain, the water would rise from that point and flood the yard and even the house. It took a lot of work to correct the problem. Fortunately, someone in our Sunday school class was a geological engineer and was able to offer sound advice and help!

Later on we found out that the home had a cracked foundation and I always wondered if the landscaping was a contributing factor. It certainly explained why the previous owners couldn't see the place and eventually foreclosed. Unfortunately we bought it from the government and they don't have to disclose anything so we were stuck. That, however, is another story.


Renee Nefe said...

the cardboard sounds like a great idea. Our yard has the fabric weed barrier all around...however with all the hard rains that we've been having there is now soil on all of it and so weeds are taking over. It is providing Lilly with some veggies as she keeps munching on it, but seeing as she isn't a goat she isn't munching nearly enough. sigh! It looks like I'll have to move all the rock, then the soil and then replace the rock.

I'm so sorry to hear the story of your house in TX. We continue to find and deal with the choices the first owner made for our house. Yesterday it was electrical.

Theresa said...

Oh what a great idea for using cardboard! Thank you Leigh and Heather!

Michelle said...

I cannot BELIEVE the government doesn't have to disclose anything!!! The very first house we bought had undisclosed septic troubles, but I was able to follow a paper trail and persuade the previous owners that we had a legal case against them for non-disclosure. They paid for the new system....

Woolly Bits said...

the story about the black plastic is so weird! why would anyone put plastic down, just to cover it with soil? surely most weeds can grow nicely in only a little soil, so what use was that in the first place? we have a neighbour with a "black plastic mania" as well - but there's just too much uncovered ground for him to get a flood like you did...unfortunately, maybe being flooded would teach him a lesson? anyway, your garden seems to be progressing rather nicely - there's nothing like enjoying the first pickings after a lot of work:))(btw, you can dye with nandina....)

Mim said...

Amazing story. At least you know the ropes for your new house and won't make that kind of mistake!

Leigh said...

Renee I've seen that fabric in garden catalogs and wondered how well it worked. And I'm amazed that Lilly will eat veggies! Silly dog.

Theresa, you're welcome!

Michelle, I think it all falls under "as is," which seems to be the trend in real estate today. We bought this place from the heirs, who were advised to put "unknown" on the disclosure form since they didn't live here and weren't familiar with the home. I think it's great that you got your septic problem taken care of that way! Good for you! My ex wouldn't have pursued that course of action.

Bettina, and to think I was going to get rid of all the nandina! Now you need to tell me how to dye with it!

Mim, I learned a lot from that experience. I suppose that's where the saying comes from, "Experience is the best teacher." Those are things I definitely won't forget.

Peg in South Carolina said...

the foundation plantings in both our Georgia house and in this house in SC had black plastic mulch. It has all been removed except for the occasional sliver I still find. Never thought of it as causing possible flooding! Just thought it was a terrible thing to do to plants.

MiniKat said...

How awful! Who in their right minds would cover an entire yard with non-permeable plastic?

The black landscaping cloth (the just rots away and I hate using) would have been a better idea. Not spreading anything unnatural across an entire yard is still the best idea though.

Leigh said...

Peg, it seems that the black plastic mulch was pretty common at one time, doesn't it? I think I'll be picking it up around here forever.

MiniKat, I'm with you. I sometimes wonder if folks really think things through before jumping on the band wagon.

I'm finding that so far, the cardboard is working great as mulch. Nothing is growing through it, unlike my vegetable garden, where grass is growing through the newspaper.

Trapunto said...

"Mama's going to go outside and see if she can't make the flooding stop."--what a story! I am in the process of undoing a lot of house-destroying landscaping decisions, so I really winced. It's amazing how much a structure's integrity depends on the dirt, and surface and subsurface water doing what they're meant to do, especially in climates where the rain comes all at once. I love your garden pictures. You've done an amazing lot since you moved in.

Oh, and disclosure. I've been thinking about that. Even when it's required it isn't good for much until it's too late, and unless you want to litigate. There's no accountability as long as they take the middle road. In our case, the sellers just checked the "Don't know," box for everything--standard practice. Even if they did know there was mold in the basement, who can prove it? I think the fact that they sawed out chunks of moldy sheetrock and covered the wall with plywood is a pretty good indication they knew about the mold, but they could always say, "Well, we didn't KNOW the mold was still there. Maybe it died off after we put the wood up."

Robin said...

I just saw your link to this post and had to smile. I am just trying out the straw and cardboard method for my garden for the first time.

Leigh said...

Trapunto, our realtor told us that they always advise sellers to use "unknown." Pretty sad, actually. I was heartened that Michelle at Boulderneigh had such success.

Robin, we need to compare notes!!!