Newspaper is a versatile, beneficial material in your garden or landscape. It is also a material that can cause many problems if it is not prepared properly.
Newspaper will have different uses in your garden depending on how, or if, it is shredded. The smaller the size, the quicker it will decompose. So, how you shred your newspaper will ultimately depend on how you intend to use it.
The goal for compost piles is quick decomposition. The greater the surface area of organic material, the more opportunities microbes will have to break it down. Essentially, smaller pieces equal quicker breakdown.
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How To Shred Newspaper For Compost. When composting, shred newspaper as thin as possible to speed up decomposition. Tearing or ripping them by hand will work, but may take longer to break down.
Passing newspaper through a standard paper shredder is ideal. You can also buy shredding scissors for small amounts of paper.
Newspaper is a brown, or carbon-based organic material, so you should incorporate it in the brown layers in your pile.
A solid layer of shredded newspaper may form a sheet that prevents water and oxygen from moving through the pile, so mixing it with shredded leaves or twigs will help balance the pile and speed up the decomposition of those tougher materials.
Newspaper helps maintain moisture levels in a compost pile, so it is a great addition for piles in dry climates. However, it also pulls moisture away from other organic materials as they decompose (source). This can help avoid anaerobic conditions, but may also cause an uneven moisture layer if the paper is not spread evenly throughout the pile.
Newspaper improves structure in finished compost. Soil has many properties, and compost can improve them all.
- Green, or nitrogen-based organic material generally helps provide compost with nutrients.
- Brown, or carbon-based organic material helps improve structure.
If you have large amounts of newspaper, you will want to make sure you are adding nutrient-dense green materials to balance out your finished compost.
Shredding Newspaper For Vermicomposting
Vermicomposting is a compost process that uses red wiggler worms to breakdown organic material. It produces small quantities of highly nutritious compost known as castings. There are a variety of options for bins, but almost all of them will require newspaper bedding.
Newspaper is a vital ingredient in vermicomposting, and provides the bulk, carbon, and moisture retention needed to support a worm farm. As worms feed on green material, they pull it down into the bedding. As they digest it, they excrete castings that will eventually settle in the bottom of the worm bin.
Regardless of the style of bin you choose, you should fill it two-thirds of the way with shredded newspaper. Moisten the paper, add a handful of compost or soil, and top it with some green material.
If the bin is maintained properly, you will have usable compost within a few months. Vermicomposting should not smell, and it’s even possible to build bins that fit under the kitchen sink for easy recycling of kitchen scraps.
Shredding Newspaper For Mulch
Because newspaper retains moisture, it is a useful material for mulch. The purpose of mulch is to prevent evaporation, and to gradually add organic matter into the topsoil.
Mulch should be two to three inches thick, and last up to a year. So, if you are planning on using newspaper for mulch, ripping or shredding it by hand will give the best results. This will slow down decomposition enough for it to successfully retain moisture. You can also use a box cutter to cut through multiple sheets at one time.
There are several drawbacks to using newspaper as mulch:
- It’s ugly. While practical, newspaper is not an aesthetic mulch material. It is best suited for vegetable gardens, or as a layer under a more attractive mulch, such as cedar chips.
- It blows away. Putting newspaper down as a mulch layer can be a frustrating ordeal in windy climates. It will eventually matt down and form a layer, but this can take time. If you live in a windy area, you can help prevent this by weighing the newspaper down with rocks, or topping it with grass clippings.
- You need lots of material. Mulch needs to be thick, and depending on the size of your garden, you may need lots of newspapers to fully cover bare soil. If you have other mulch options, such as grass clippings or leaf mold, you can mix them together to help add bulk.
Ultimately, using newspaper as a mulch will require a lot of work. However, if you have a large amount of paper, this is a great way to recycle it and improve the soil structure in your garden.
Using Newspaper As A Weed Barrier
If you don’t have the time or patience to shred a garden’s worth of newspaper, I don’t blame you. Shredded newspaper primarily helps with preventing evaporation, with an added side effect of weed control. Non-shredded newspaper is the opposite; its main benefit is weed control, with some moisture retention.
So, if you have relatively healthy soil structure, using newspaper as a weed barrier may make more sense. However, if you have clay soil, it may exacerbate drainage issues. You can effectively use a newspaper weed barrier on loamy or sandy soils.
The process is straightforward. Simply lay down sheets of newspaper on bare soil where you do not want any seeds to germinate. The thicker the layer, the less chance seeds have of sprouting. However, thicker layers make it harder for water to penetrate. So, as you lay down newspaper, try poking holes with a pitchfork to help with absorption.
Aim for a thickness of 5-10 sheets, and wet it down as you go. If you are only using newspaper in a few small areas, you may be able to weigh it down with rocks. However, if you are using it in a large area, you will probably need to put a layer of mulch on top.
This does not negate the benefits of using newspaper as a weed barrier. The paper will prevent weeds, and the mulch will help with bulk and moisture. Plus, the newspaper will attract earthworms, which will help the overall health and nutrition of your soil.
Recycling newspaper helps in many aspects of sustainability. It keeps unnecessary waste from landfills, decreases the amount of garbage you have to manage, and increases the health of your garden. A little elbow grease and a lot of paper weights can help transform the Classifieds section into something that is actually useful.
For more information on improving soil structure or clay soils, check out our other articles on best soil practices.
Is newspaper ink toxic in compost?
This used to be a concern when inks were primarily petroleum based. Now, with a larger focus on sustainable practices, most inks are made with soy. An easy test is to wipe your finger across some black text.
If your finger has a black residue, it is likely petroleum ink. If not, it’s probably soy. Now, even if it is petroleum based, many studies show that the toxicity is negligible, and likely does not affect finished compost.
If you are concerned about the toxicity, you can always contact the newspaper publisher and ask for specifics on their ink.
What paper can I use in compost?
Most shredded paper will be fine in compost. However, heavily-inked pages, construction paper, glossy paper, and any other specialty paper either won’t decompose properly, or may be harmful to your compost pile.
If you are getting shredded paper from an office setting, it should be fine. You will want to watch out for staples and plastic windows on envelopes that may have been shredded, but even a minimal amount of these can be sorted out of finished compost as you use it.
Where can I find shredded paper/newspaper?
Your best free source will be your place of work and friends. If you want whole newspapers, ask local publishers if you can pick up unused copies or misprints.
You can also call local recycling centers to see if you can take home recycled stacks before they are shredded. Most large companies and shredding services cannot sell or give away shredded paper due to security concerns.
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