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Merits of a shredded newspaper mulch

I've long advocated the use of newspaper (black-ink pages only) mulches in the garden. But even I was surprised by the quick response of some plants to the shredded-paper treatment when the sun shone its hardest last year. The plants literally took off in the cooler, consistently moist soil conditions provided by the mulch.

I wrote about this experience in a summer column and it prompted several letters from readers who said they had tried it out and were similarly pleased by the positive results.

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Still others asked: ''How do you shred newspaper?''

My response at the time: With a power shredder or by ripping it up by hand - hardly a satisfying reply to anyone who didn't own a shredder.

Now, fortunately, there is an alternative, a hand-powered machine that cuts the paper into half-inch ribbons which can readily be spread among plants to form a weed-defeating, heat-beating, moisture-retaining mulch. I've tried it out and I'm impressed. A bushel basket full of the tangled ribbons is only a few minutes' work. That's because newspaper is a compact material that fluffs out when it is shredded.

The machine is fed six-inch-wide sheets of paper and will take up to 12 sheets at a time. Three folded pages from a conventional newpaper are folded twice more to form the right 6-inch size for the machine at which stage it will be 12 pages thick.

It takes about two minutes to feed an average newspaper through the machine.

For my part I use the machine while watching the 6 o'clock news. That way I waste no time and I miss little that matters on the screen except maybe how high the sled dog jumps on the Toyota commercial.

Newsprint (75 percent ground pulpwood and 25 percent purified fiber) is so rich in carbohydrate energy that it has been successfully fed to cattle at Cornell University and the University of Missouri, among others. Black newspaper ink, according to the National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers, is made from carbon black and mineral oil. (Colored inks contain some lead and should not be used in the garden).

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Simply, nothing in your discarded black-page newspaper can harm the microbial life in the soil. On the other hand, the fungi, bacteria, and earthworms will slowly digest the mulch, thus releasing to your plants all the energy that went into producing the original wood.

In earlier times, European farmers fertilized their fields with forest litter. Now, in a sense, we can do the same thing, gathering up some of that forest fertility in the form of discarded newspapers.

A paper mulch, as we've said, moderates the intense heat in the top inch of exposed soil when the summer sun is at its peak. Mature plants, which shade the soil in which they grow, are less stressed in extreme heat. Seedlings, however, are affected by the heat and they respond accordingly when the mulch makes them much more comfortable.

The mulch also prevents weed seeds from germinating. Indeed, a paper mulch can mean an almost weed-free garden and cuts out the only chore in raising vegetables that I call drudgery.

Another asset, particularly in towns where water shortages are a common summer occurrence, is the moisture-saving qualities achieved by virtually eliminating evaporation from the surface of the soil.

Because of the obvious advantages of newspaper mulches, I asked some manufacturers if they might be interested in developing some simple shredding or pulping device. Graham Kinsman of Point Pleasant, Pa., took up the challenge and developed the hand-operated cutter. It's the only machine of its kind, to my knowledge.

Stir the paper ribbons which the machine produces and they readily tangle up to form a mat when placed around the plants to resist the wind. As a result, the mulch is much more aesthetically pleasing than whole newspaper sheets that have to be held in place with bricks, stones or wired down in one way or another.

For information on the paper shredder write to: The Kinsman Company, River Road, Point Pleasant, Pa. 18950.

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