Utilizing cardboard in your urban gardening adventures is pretty much the best thing you can possibly do in the name of sustainability and practicality. When one thinks of utilizing what’s around their urban space in the name of permaculture or ecologically friendly farming practices, one tends not to look much beyond what is actually happening in the space where they are gardening. One needs to think bigger.
I suppose thinking bigger happens in the name of compost quite frequently, but rarely sustainably. New hip and happening restaurants and cafes want to compost their leftover food waste and coffee grinds. They really do. Gardeners and urban farmers want to make their own compost. Really and truly. But all this is logistically difficult and rarely actually happens in practice. Gardeners and farmers often cannot be counted on to pick up compost in a dependable and timely manner, and things start to rot. It’s not their fault, they’re busy people. Farmers and gardeners frequently don’t realize how much food waste a cafe or restaurant actually goes through and can easily find themselves overwhelmed with more rotting food than they can handle, which brings about rats, angry neighbors and other less than desirable consequences. Composting can be a full time job in itself, and while organic matter and good soil are the secret to any truly effective garden, the dream of creating a bountiful cycle of sustained soil health for free in the big city can be a hard one to achieve.
This is a conversation for another day, but I bring it up because cardboard. Because logistically, cardboard is easy. Every single restaurant in any city, I think I can safely say without exception, throws away cardboard boxes. All of the time. If you open your eyes up to them you will see piles of broken down boxes everywhere, waiting for you. The restaurants are already done with them, they aren’t depending on you to pick them up, so if you fail you are neither hated nor forlorn by your benevolently uncaring provider. Cardboard is a resource in your urban space that is extremely abundant and extremely free. More importantly, it’s also extremely useful.
Cardboard is a fantastic mulch. I think it is the best mulch. It’s the best mulch unless you have no idea what mulch is for and just want something to dress up your flower bed and make it beautiful with shredded tires dyed red with the future blood of your firstborn’s firstborn.
Cardboard suppresses weeds like nobody’s business. In New Orleans the weeds rule the Summer. They are unconquerable, they will stop for no man-made chemical, they will eat everything you want to eat alive and they will do it quickly. In my experience the only real tool at your disposal is a cover, something that completely squelches any hope for sunlight the weeds may have harbored. Tarps do this, cover crops do this, landscape fabric sort of does this, depending on the quality of the fabric, plastic does this, and cardboard does this. To my mind cardboard is the best option because it does this for free. If weeds are conquering your fertile mounds, cover all of your things in cardboard.
Cardboard acts as any other mulch would, only better. It is water permeable so it keeps the weeds down while letting water in. Like other mulches, it helps to maintain moisture in the soil longer and maintain moderate and amenable soil temperatures. The cardboard itself slowly biodegrades into the soil as organic matter in its own right. Carbon. Plenty of carbon.
Cardboard has a few tiny downsides. Slugs and snails like to hang out on the moist underbelly of cardboard boxes. That’s okay. They’re always hiding somewhere in the garden anyway. Also there is plastic packaging tape on a lot of cardboard. That does not biodegrade. It’s not pretty, and it’s not good. It’s maybe even a little bit bad. Just a little bit. That’s pretty much all of the bad stuff. Also you might slip on cardboard and hurt yourself. That’s what you get for walking on your garden bed. Don’t ever be stomping on all that sexy loam you just finished building up, cardboard or no.
In conclusion, if you use cardboard all the time for everything forever you are winning at loving nature and saving the world and growing delicious food, so do it, okay?
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.