The Pros and Cons of Sheet Mulching

Filed under: Gardening — Savvy Housekeeper at 8:59 am on Monday, August 29, 2011

savvyhousekeeping the prose and cons of sheet mulching cardboard newspapers garden pests voles earwigs snails
(Image courtesy Native Sanctuary)

I’ve been sheet mulching in my garden for almost two years now and I thought it would be interesting to talk about the pros and cons of my experience with it.

Sheet mulching is a method of mulching that uses cardboard or newspaper to suppress weeds–you lay down the cardboard and several inches of mulch and simply leave it. Not only does this keep weeds from coming up, over time, the cardboard breaks down and enriches the soil.

It’s been interesting to me to see the effects of this method in my garden. As with everything you put in the ground, the environment responds to it and adjusts accordingly–and not all those adjustments have been good.

In fact, if you want to know the truth, I’m torn about whether to keep sheet mulching. The things I like about it, I really like. But the problems have been a lot to deal with. Let’s talk about both.

The Pros of Sheet Mulching:

No Weeds: Without a doubt, sheet mulching eliminates weeds. There is no way that any weed can get through that many layers of mulch, so once you’ve put in the sheet mulching, you’re effectively done weeding for the year. That’s great.

Eliminates Competition For Your Plants: Because there are no weeds, the plants you allow through get the full use of the soil and water. There are no weeds teeming to take the resources and your plants do better because of it.

Enriches Soil: After the first year of sheet mulching, the newspaper/cardboard had disappeared into the soil and left black, rich-looking loam in its place. Over time, there’s no doubt this would have a positive impact on the soil.

Looks Great:
Although I used hay as my top layer of mulch, the sheet mulching made my garden look neat and cared for. And it stayed that way, too.

Sounds great, right? It was. But then I noticed some problems.

The Cons of Sheet Mulching:


Lots of Pests:
It turns out that many pests loooooovvvvveeeee sheet mulching. The layers of cardboard and mulch is a haven for them to hide in. As a result, this year I saw a huge amount of earwigs and snails, to the point that keeping baby plants alive was a struggle. Earwigs in particular love to hide in newspaper. I have heard that sheet mulching can attract cutworms and termites too.

Lots of Work:
I didn’t mind this, but it’s a lot of work to put the sheet mulching in. You have to lay all those layers down, and that takes time and effort.

Can Cause Water Problems: Water can stay right on top of your sheet mulching and drain away from your plants if you aren’t careful. Consequently, the water can also get trapped underneath the sheet mulch, which can cause aeration and drainage problems.

Voles: Technically, voles are just another pest, but in my case, they were more like an infestation, and so they get their own category. Voles are mouselike rodents that burrow underground and eat plants by the roots. They are like gophers except that instead of just one of them in the garden, there are probably about 20-30. It turns out that voles love sheet mulching because it provides them a cover that they can burrow under and stay protected from predators. They did so much damage that I had to pull all the sheet mulching out and resort to some ugly methods to reduce the vole population (that’s another post) and they still completely obliterated many of my crops and caused me a lot of headaches–and heart aches–this year.

While the sheet mulching isn’t wholly responsible for the voles, it did offer them protection and something to nest in, and it is enough to make me think twice about it in the future.


(Courtesy The Website of Everything)

If you have sheet mulched, what has been your experience?

11 Comments »

Comment by Sara

August 29, 2011 @ 2:38 pm

After reading Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens: No Digging, No Tilling, No Weeding, No Kidding!, I have successfully* sheet mulched for years.

I add an asterisk for some of the cons you’ve noted, specifically the amount of work. I haven’t had particular problems with pests, but in my experience it has to be done every year. Any less means I’ve used too much paper and have the water problems you’ve described. Any more often means I have weeds poking out mid summer & just want to kill myself rather than do it all over again.

That said, I’m still doing it because I haven’t found an alternative I like, which doesn’t destroy the soil. I’d love to hear any suggestions.

Comment by Rob

August 29, 2011 @ 5:10 pm

My experiences are very much like yours. No Voles. Just rats. We have a large rat population in the neighborhood (thanks to an abandon house that got partially torn down last spring) And the neighborhood cats are useless. Damn Union Cats. Anyway the rats loved to hide under the sheets of cardboard. But… in the community garden, we did the same thing and no rates, moles, voles or any other unwanted creatures, save for a few children, who like to dig up my newly planted plants. But they are no bog deal. (Anybody got some very large tender traps for sale?)

Comment by Savvy Housekeeper

August 31, 2011 @ 7:29 am

Gah, rats! That might even be worse than voles.

Comment by Dina

September 3, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

I would love to hear how you dealt with the voles. We’ve been plagued by them for years and they are very smart about avoiding traps.

Pingback by Savvy Housekeeping » How To Remove Voles From Your Garden

September 6, 2011 @ 9:27 am

[...] year I have been dealing with an infestation of voles in my garden. As I said before, I believe this is a result of sheet mulching–the layers of paper and mulch made a nest and cover of protection that the voles were [...]

Comment by Savvy Housekeeper

September 6, 2011 @ 9:32 am

Dina, I wrote up the story of my struggle with voles. Everyone says to trap, but that didn’t work for me. Check out the post: http://www.savvyhousekeeping.com/how-to-remove-voles-from-your-garden/

Pingback by Savvy Housekeeping » 10 Ways To Reuse A Phone Book

April 30, 2012 @ 9:14 am

[...] 3. Mulch. Some people use phone books as paper mulch, although I have had bad experiences with this method. [...]

Comment by Amiee

July 2, 2013 @ 7:11 am

This was my first kick at the can sheet mulching with several inches of straw mulch on top and I did not know we were going to have excessive amounts of rain which did attract a massive amounts of slugs which ate all my seedlings….not to mention there was so much water that the germination of the seeds did not take. The only things that came up were my potatoes and the tomato plants I had to buy after all my seedlings were eaten by slugs. I was able to save some brussel sprouts and broccoli as well, but no other veggies made it so far. :(

Comment by Savvy Housekeeper

July 3, 2013 @ 9:38 am

Amiee, bummer! Slugs definitely love sheet mulching. I’ve had good luck with Sluggo.

Comment by Cindy

July 21, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

I tried the sheet mulching,didnt know it had a name. I wanted to make beds and decided to get tree shredding’s and wanted a little more insurance that the weeds would be stopped. Started out great, didnt make my paths wide enough. First I noticed that my beans did not fruit, flowers, no fruit. Dont know if my stuff did it or just the way it goes sometimes. Now my squash, got really big and beautiful, lots of flowers then the rain came, and came and came and came……..along with it came the bugs, destroyed them, got every bud every squash, put Sevin granules didnt think that even worked, until today, got my first few squash with no bug holes and no mush. I was wondering if the cardboard was the culprit of if it is all the rain, maybe a combination. Oh and the Vole thing, I think that is what my cat was chasing the other day, never seen one before, thought it was a rat. Never had rats in my garden. Not sure if I am going to try the cardboard again, maybe will do just a thicker layer of the shreddings. I will put sevin in the soil as I plant, but I am concerned about the voles eating the roots of my plants. This has not been my most productive year to say the least. First I had deer eating everything that popped up and had to replant just about everything twice. Wow.

Comment by Angela

April 21, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Frogs and ducks are great slug eaters, yet they won’t harm your plants… You can invite frogs into your garden by creating shallow ponds (big plastic tubs that you may already have work too), they usually find water but if not, you can get tadpoles to populate your pond. Good luck and thank you for the informative article

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