Shred and Till





Introduction: Shred and Till

About: The name comes from the First Star Trek movie, that pretty much says it all.

This is so simple you will wonder why you haven't already been doing it. In a nutshell - shred up all your junk mail along with things like cereal boxes, etc. and then instead of throwing it in the trash, simply rototill it into your garden. (This assumes that you have a garden and a shredder.) It keeps the stuff out of the landfills and turns it into mulch and fertilizer in your garden instead.

Step 1: Background

I used to burn up most of my junk mail and such in my wood stove in the winter. However things like stacks of papers and catalogs don't really burn well, you have to keep stirring them up to separate the pages so they will burn. I also used crumpled newspapers to start fires. The downside was that crumpling them leaves your hands all black from the ink. Eventually I came up with the idea of shredding the stuff and then using it to start fires since it burns way better when cut up. So I saved bags of shredded paper for starting fires in the winter. Problem was that I was shredding way more than I was burning. So several years ago in the spring I decided to try tilling the stuff into the garden. At one time this was a no no because the inks were lead based and there were other not so good things in the paper. But since recycling paper took off, the inks have been cleaned up and many are soy based and so are harmless.
The Results?
The shredded paper just disappears in a short time. The little bit left on the surface even degrades. The paper helps hold moisture in the ground and when it decays it adds nutrients to the soil. It breaks down way faster in your garden than it does in landfills and you get the benefits of the organic matter. In addition I have noticed that my earthworm population has increased a lot. I guess they are working at being educated with all that junk mail. And for those of you who are concerned about things like identity theft, nothing leaves your property, its completely gone, turned into compost.

Step 2: You Need a Good Shredder

My first shredder was a little cheap one. It didn't last long. The next one was a cross cut shredder. These are much better if you're tilling in the paper since the long paper strips from the strip shredders tend to wrap around the tiller tines. After that one wore out I finally got a heavy duty model. Save yourself some money and buy the heavy duty one first. It can shred more at a time and does a better job. Also I discovered that it has no problems shredding cardboard from boxes like the ones from frozen dinners and cereal. The cardboard is actually even better for the garden. It tills deeper and what is on the surface doesn't blow around. I pack all the shredded stuff in plastic bags and store it until spring. Make sure to be careful where you store it because it if it gets a spark it will burn really good so treat it like a combustible.
My current shredder has a 15 sheet capacity and cross cuts to about 1 1/2 inches.

Step 3: Spread and Till

Its a very simple process. Spread shredded paper around by the handfuls until the ground is all covered and then till it as deep as your tiller can go. The dirt will take care of the rest. I have an older Troy Built Horse tiller but I also have a large garden plot. You can get by with a smaller tiller and a small plot, the important thing is to get the paper mixed with the dirt.
For one individual this is really just a small thing, a bit of paper put in the garden instead of the landfill. But if a lot of people start doing it, it can make a cumulative difference. Imagine how much tonnage will be spared from landfills and instead put back to work growing vegetables if all the gardeners in the country started doing this.

Step 4: Bonus

I have been gardening for a long time and there are a few little things I picked up over the years.
One of the better ones is that I plant everything in furrows and then rather than sprinkle with a sprinkler I flood the furrows. This saves water since you're watering the plants only and not the bare ground. It also helps with weeds since the weeds won't germinate if the seeds don't get water. And the garden plants get a deep watering since the water doesn't run off. This will not work so well if you get a lot of rain, in fact it might tend to drown your plants. But in the arid west it works really well.

Step 5: Bubbler

A problem with flood watering is that the high water pressure can actually dig up the plants. Yet another piece of junk came to the rescue. I took an old sand filter from a well that was kicking around and various pipe fittings and adapted it to fit the end of a hose. The brass sand filter was originally designed to keep dirt from getting sucked up by the wells pump. It has a bunch of little slits in it. It turns out it also works perfect for reducing the water pressure so it just bubbles out and flows calmly down the trench. It's also big enough that it's hard to lose or run over with the mower. Important if you have kids helping with the garden since those types of things seem to happen a lot.
You can make your own version of this by using PVC pipe. Cut slits in a short piece of 1 1/2 or 2 inch PVC pipe, 6 to 12 inches in length. You can use anything to cut these, a hack saw, a Dremmel , most anything that can cut a narrow slice. Glue on an end cap and fittings to reduce it to the size of a hose adapter. If you cut enough slits the water should just flow out and not dig holes in the dirt.



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    28 Discussions

    While I like the idea of recycling the shredded material into the garden, could I coax you into using it as mulch instead of tilling it into the soil? My feeling is that if Mother Nature had intended for the world to be plowed up, She would have covered the earth with hogs instead of cattle, buffalo, antelope, sheep, equine, deer, goats, and other animals that do not dig up the soil. Your photographs illustrate the problem nicely. See those cracks in the soil in Step 4? Those are caused by the total loss of fungal population in the soil. The beneficial fungi are the creatures that provide tilth to your soil. They also grow in long strands, sometimes as long as inches, feet, yards, and longer. When you till, you kill those fungi. The result looks like your soil. Whereas if you cover the soil with mulch from your recycled paper, moisture will be retained under the mulch and the beneficial fungi can thrive. I'm resisting the urge to pack another 3,000 to 6,000 words here to get into the biology of the issue, but there is plenty to read about soil. Search the government sources on the key word 'soilfoodweb' or 'soil biology primer' and go from there. Just as incentive for you or others, this is a topic I follow closely and look for examples when I can find them. Here are two examples of people who have quit tilling and are doing well. One is a cattle rancher in central Texas. Fifteen years ago he stopped tilling grass seed and decided to go native with his forage. He also made a few changes as to where and when he moved his cattle. Basically he lets the cattle stomp the land for him. Skip ahead 15 years and today he's raising twice as many cattle per acre as all the other ranchers in the county without buying any hay or corn for them. This is not a small operation. He has 3,000 acres. Second example is a cotton farmer in North Texas. He went to "low till" farming and has completely stopped irrigating. His soil retains so much moisture from rains that even in the Panhandle of Texas he does not have to buy water. In a rainy year his productivity is the same as his neighbors, but in dry years, he's less productive. However, his expenses are massively less than the neighbors every year. In the end, he makes money every year while they don't. So if your garden is a hobby, you can do what you want, but if you are trying to feed the world, I think there is soon going to be a growing body of evidence to show that plowing/tilling is doing more environmental harm than good. In all the research on farming, it is darned hard to find any research to show that plowing is the best thing to do to the soil. It's been used for thousands of years, so it must be the best thing to do. Right? I don't think so, but I've already overstayed my welcome on this topic. I still like the idea of recycling the paper as mulch.

    6 replies

    So much discussion on tilling and fungus and soil attributes on a paper recycling Instructable? Simply put, there are tons of opinions out there and if you till in ghood compost with your soil when you indeed need to till, you should not have any problems. As someone who does not need a huge tiller and not in the agribusiness, I havd no need for huge complications or projects.

    Why hasn't this user mixed the paper with water then added it to his compost which he should be using in his soil as the main additive? Putting it directly in the soil is fine, but sometimes you can find that if what your putting in the soil requires decomposition, it can actually lock up nitrogen from the soil during the initial stages of decomposition. Breaking it down in your compost helps everything be more even and provide balanced nutrients without ever robbing or flooding the soil with a particular element. Every gardener and horticulturist always goes back to using great compost instead of tilling this or that into the soil unless it is missing something...

    How about tilling it once in a while? It will give the microbes and fungi trime to thrive.

    Totally agree with the mulch concept, for potted plants. Totally disagree with the comment on the cracked earth in step 4. for just sprouted radish plants, I toss a cup of water in the blender, turn it on frapee, and keep stuffing shredded paper in there till it gets thickish. then i pour the papier-mache, sans glue, right on top. Doesn't work well for direct light plants, as they tend to cook under the paper "lid". but for partially shaded plants, it is wonderful for reducing evaporative losses. To my eye, step 4 appears to be clay cracking. Not to say your info on tilling, and fungus is untrue... I TOTALLY believe it to be a contributing factor in many cases. But in this case, the fault appears mainly to be low loam content to offset the high clay and sand content of his soil. My jade plants have soil that looks JUST like that... and it's almost ALL clay and sand. they love it. and it's been "untilled" for the better part of 15 years! everytime I water them, it turns to mud. then dries and cracks. As devil's advocate to your examples(and they are good, convinsing examples, and probably quite true in upholding your theory) consider this. A texas farmer, going from genetically modified grass, tilling every year, is raising an artificially created species NOT designed to thrive in a given climate, and moving heavily feeding HEAVY hoofed animals over it. The tilling causes the soil to loosen(some good stuff blowing off in the wind, as dust) the seeds planted and grown(removing vital nutrients from the soil), the cattle crush the fluffy soil beneath their tremendous bulk, eat a majority of the plant and then are slaughtered and shipped away from the field(permanently removing a couple hundred pounds of soil nutrients per cattle, from the local ecosystem) then a SMALL portion of the plant material is re-plowed into the ground during the next tilling. After his switch, one planting of native grasses that CHOOSE to thrive in that particular environment(through hundreds/thousands of years of genetic improvement. natural selection at it's finest). after a short period, the soil settles and the grasses create a firm top layer(little lost to dust, root systems holgind soil, resisting crushing, retaining water better...etc.). the cattle graze, just as before, but the larger plant structure(some grass plants can cover a half acre or more.. as a single plant!) is better able to tolerate, and recover from it. and the portions NOT consumed go right on fixing nutrients back into the soil through decomposition, respiration, photosynthesis, etc. so basically it's a whole range of small steps that add up to his "twice as many cattle per acre" and not JUST the tilling stopage. As to the cotton farmer.. that's a tricky one. weeds must be taken into consideration. Vyger looks to be growing low crops. To be sucessful, mulch, tilling, weeding and water are a full time concern. to a coton grower, once the plants reach a minimum maturity, they will provide most of their own weed control by blocking light to the ground. and i'm going to guess that "low tilling" is used mainly for the weed control while the cotton plants get started.

    I second you on the no-till aspect, from what I have read it destroys soils structure, makes it inhospitable to microbes, worms, etc. While it does unlock nutrients for your plants each time you do it, eventually the soil will be sucked dry of nutrients unless you do careful crop rotation and spend a lot of time adding fertilizer natural or otherwise, IMHO better to add from the top using the sheet mulch method (also know as lasagna style) wherein you could still incorporate you paper shreds. Also I understand that the soy inks are safe, but what about the bleach in the paper?

    I'm definately going to try this and "advertise" it to get people more involved.

    Goes to show that different regions need different techniques. Where I live (Michigan), the trench is used for a path and the mound is used to plant in. We need the soil to warm up earlier in the spring and stay loose through the summer.

    Except when starting a new garden (without time to smother the grass properly) I no longer till and I try to keep hoeing shallow, too. But what I do do is I put my shredded paper in the compost pile and let the bacteria get first shot at it, then apply it to the top 2" of soil in the spring, with any left over used as a mulch.

    If I have too much paper for the compost pile, I use it directly as a mulch.

    I notice that you have no mulch in your rows. Since organic mulch keeps the soil cool and moist and keeps the little critters happy, what is your reason for not using any?

    1 reply

    It would blow away. Hot, dry and windy is the normal summer here. Anything left on the ground becomes airborne. Everything ends up piled against the plants or trees or along the fences. This is where tumbleweeds live.

    I don't want to sound like an alarmist, but you might reconsider using colorfully printed material. Some of the inks may contain harmful heavy metals, which can be absorbed by the plants. In fact, many plants are "hyperaccumulators" of heavy metals, and will have higher concentrations of these elements than the soil in which they are grown. Newspapers have switched to soy-based inks, and are pretty safe to use, including the colorful Sunday comics pages. The switch was made for economic reasons, but had the added benefit of reducing their readers' exposure to heavy metals in the ink.

    1 reply

    You are right about the plants collecting bad things in large quantities. However, A quick trip to the sporting goods store for two dozen night crawlers solved that problem for me. I know its probably bad to feed shiny paper to my worm farms, But I havent heard any complaints from the worms yet. They actually seem to like that paper as well as the cardboard, and shredded plain paper I added. Anyway after reading your post, I dont think I will be adding any of that paper to my garden. I had it in the back of my mind, that the ink would be bad in such large quantities, And then you and others stated just that fact. So thanks for the info.

    I have an area set aside for producing fresh soil for my veggie patch and I have been using paper shredding's in with the soil for a long time I have also utillised an old barrel bar-bq,and I use it to burn dead tree limbs and heavy cardboard, and I also burn any old wooden skids I can find in it with the staples and nails left in because after being in the fire overnight they rust down really quickly in the soil, I mix the ash in with the shredding,so with the help the grass clippings and leaves in autumn and the greenery left over after harvesting the soil has everything it needs to be extremely fertile and i then till in the new soil at the begining of the growing season, and with the contributions of my family, neighbours, , we all have a very productive yield, my son in laws church also benefits as well from donations I give, my garden is only small about 48 feet by 16 but it is abundant in its yield because the organic soil I produce.

    1 reply

    beware of skids...make sure they aren't treated wood or you put nasties into the air, your dirt, essentially in your food...try vermicomposting instead of burning everything...those little wormies will devour the cardboard, paper, veggie food scraps, yard waste *if untreated by chemicals* etc..."slick" paper is a bad idea for bruning or composting too...

    Read the"One straw revolution" from Fukuoka Masanobu ,about "no-till" gardening,It's a great read.Right now I'm using cardboard sheets and rice straw as a mulch,i don't see reason for shredding the paper,just poke a hole in the paper where your plants suppose to be and top it over the ground,i also feed my worms with the some paper blended with water for easy ingestion.

    4 replies

    No till gardening and even no till farming is not a bad idea but one of the factors that determines if it works is the climate. Leaving paper on the ground doesn't work in my climate. We sometimes go for months with no rain and where I live is one of the windier areas. So almost everything left on the ground ends up airborne and piled up along fences. Because of the dryness the only way to get stuff to compost is to actually incorporate it into the ground. In addition our soil is terrible. Its called gumbo and it turns rock hard when it dries out. In fact its so bad that in the summer it develops 2 inch wide cracks in prairie grass covered areas. It shrinks from drying out. Tilling organic matter into it helps to turn it into better soil. If I try to till up a new area it can take 10 to 20 passes for the tiller to get more than a few inches deep. its like breaking up concrete. The area that I use for a garden is soft, your feet actually sink down into it. Its the result of mixing organic stuff, Shredded paper included, into it for many years. The water disperses through it instead of running off it which is what happens to the surrounding area. So, the bottom line is that you need to use the method that best fits your soil and weather/climate conditions. For my area, tilling works while leaving stuff on top of the soil just creates blowing litter. Thats what 40 MPH winds and no rain for 2 months will do. I have actually planted rows of corn just to server as a windbreak for more sensitive plants. Its a challenging place to garden.

    Sounds like my neck of the woods. I'm in Joshua Tree, California - the Mojave Desert . Where are you?

    A bit more to the north. North East Montana. If we had longer summers like you do it probably would be a desert.

    I've always thought of Montana as being green and lush. Of course, living in the desert makes it easy to think of everywhere and anywhere else as green and lush. What do you use for mulch with 40 MPH winds? I've been considering gravel.

    I use my shredded paper as bedding for my worm compost bin.