University City

Can you still use the newspaper in the garden?

Thanks to its new printing press in University City, The Charlotte Observer has gotten a lot more colorful lately. The changes have some gardeners worried. Do the Observer’s vivid inks mean it is no longer safe to use in the garden?

The quick answer: There is nothing to worry about. The Observer still uses harmless inks and no toxic heavy metals. The newsprint itself is made using a simple mechanical process without harsh chemicals.

Though it is a long way from the forest to the front page, newsprint is basically ground-up tree trunks. The garden is an ideal place return this natural organic matter to the soil.

From organic gardening authority Steve Solomon to the Huber Corp., a German firm that produces printing inks, there’s agreement that newspapers are safe to use in the garden and in the compost heap.

Gardening writer Beth Botts took a careful look at the issues involved in using newspapers in the garden.

“Any newsprint, whether printed in black and white or color, is safe to use as mulch on a bed or as an ingredient in compost, even for vegetables,” Botts says. “It won’t harm plants, earthworms, bugs or people.”

Newspaper inks often contain mineral oils derived from petroleum, though some are made, all or in part, using vegetable-based oils such as soybean or linseed oil (an EPA research report defined “soy-based ink” as containing 20 percent or more soy oil). The consensus is that modern newspaper ink – mineral oil- or vegetable oil-based – poses minimal risk to gardeners and gardens.

Newsprint itself contains no significant residues or toxins, and even slick advertising sections are safe to use, according to Botts.

Solomon, author of “Gardening When It Counts,” notes that although newspaper is rich in carbon, it is very low in nitrogen. He cautions against using it alone as the major ingredient in compost piles.

Newspaper’s main practical value to gardeners is as a sheet mulch to control weeds. I stick to the basics, laying several sheets flat on the ground and covering with 3 inches to 6 inches of wood chips.

Permaculture guru Toby Hemenway has a more complex recipe for “ultimate bomb-proof sheet mulch” at, a concoction resembling a Martha Stewart-inspired manure parfait.

The Observer makes ideal bedding for my worm bin. It is easy to work with, readily available, and my worms love it. Botts reports that Wisconsin dairy farmers use shredded newspaper as bedding, too.

I tear the paper into strips and add about 6 inches periodically to the worm bin, as needed. There is an added benefit: If I read a column I particularly take issue with, I don’t fume. I just feed it to the worms.

Botts also suggests making small biodegradable pots for transplants from old newspaper. This works well, if you have the patience for it, and certainly is more environmentally friendly than throw-away plastic pots.

Bottom line: Using newspapers in the garden is a good way to turn potential waste into a useful resource.