Top photo: fresh newspaper mulch ready to be watered.
Bottom photo: Newspaper mulched garden path 6 months later. Faded newspaper is barely visible between fall leaves.
This is the best possible way to build paths between rows and beds in your garden. At least, if you aren’t too worried about it being pretty from the get-go. It is free, retains moisture, blocks weeds, and builds the carbon content of your soil. Again: free.
1) Obtain a bunch of unwanted newspapers. Like, a lot. Do this in sections if you can’t get enough all at once.
2) Ideally, mow the area you want to cover. If you can’t, at least stomp the weeds down a bit.
3) Lay newspapers down, overlapping the edges by several inches. Make sure the newspaper layer is at least 1/2 inch thick (more is even better). You want it to be too heavy for weeds to push aside, and thick enough to not blow away. Don’t unfold the newspapers, this just makes it easier for weeds to push the paper aside.
4) Weigh the paper down with rocks and sticks. You’ll want to move these later when the paper’s broken down enough that it’s unlikely to blow away, in a month or two.
5) Water. Give everything a good soaking with the hose. This will 1) make it heavy and sticky, to prevent blowing away, and 2) kick off the decomposition process.
That’s it. Replenish your mulch spring and fall to keep your paths weed-free. When you water your garden, any run-off will likely get absorbed by the paper, keeping the whole area extra humid. When you weed, toss the weeds onto the paper paths, where they’ll dry out and start to break down. This also weighs the newspaper down and helps it decompose, adding organic material to the soil. You can rake this over your garden beds before re-mulching the path.
If you’d like things to look nicer, you can use this as a base layer to block out weeds, then cover with mulch. You can also use this method to put your beds to sleep for the winter—mulch them in the fall and let the newspaper break down all winter, blocking out the weed seeds underneath come spring.
Or use this as the base layer in a new bed—lay down newspaper, wet it, then cover with topsoil and plant. It’s cheaper than hardware cloth, serves the same purpose (blocking out weeds & retaining water), but also breaks down over time and adds carbon mass rather than plastic waste to your soil.