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Using Burlap in the Garden

August 2nd, 2012

A few years ago, I discovered burlap and it’s many uses in the garden. It comes in very handy for a variety of applications and is very inexpensive. Burlap can be found at your local fabric/craft store by the yard.

The best use for burlap is as mulch. When you harvest an area of the garden, lay down a piece of burlap to cover the soil until you plant something else. It will help with moisture retention and to limit erosion of the soil you’ve worked so hard to build. We all know that soil is the most valuable item on our property and we should be doing whatever we can to keep it from eroding away.

Where burlap really shines is for direct seeding in mid-summer. With the heat and lack of rain most gardeners experience this time of year, burlap is a valuable tool to improve germination rates. I have found that laying a piece of burlap over newly sown seeds makes them germinate much faster. Not only does it help keep the area moist by preventing evaporation, it prevents seeds from being washed away when it rains.

I have found burlap to be essential when starting seeds that take a long time to germinate and prefer moist conditions, especially carrots, chervil, dill, and parsley.

To use burlap for seed starting:

  1. sow your seeds following package directions
  2. lay burlap over the seeds
  3. water when the soil gets dry
  4. check daily for germination
  5. when seeds germinate remove burlap

Burlap also comes in quite handy for wrapping plants in winter. If you grow things that are on the edge of your hardiness zone, they’ll appreciate a burlap blanket during the cold winter months. Plants like figs, hydrangeas, and boxwood all love a cozy warm wrapping of burlap. The wrapping doesn’t necessarily keep them warmer, it just protects them fro the desiccating cold winter wind. Sometimes plants don’t need wrapped for weather protections but to keep nibbling deer away. I usually wrap my blueberries for this reason. If you’re uncertain about how to wrap plants, here’s my post about it.

Burlap also comes in handy to protect the root balls of plants while you move them, especially if you can’t replant them right away. You can use small pieces of it in the bottoms of pots to keep the soil in. If you keep some in your garden tool area you’ll find that it comes in handy often!

Do you use burlap in the garden? Any great uses to recommend?

24 Comments to “Using Burlap in the Garden”
  1. Daedre Craig on August 2, 2012 at 7:25 am

    Many of the community gardens in my area use burlap to mulch garden paths. It’s not very pretty (I think they use a mishmash of coffee sacks), but it’s effective.

    Reply to Daedre Craig's comment

  2. Kate on August 2, 2012 at 7:50 am

    If you have a local coffee roasting company in your area, they are often very happy to give you their empty burlap coffee sacks. A great way to recycle, plus they’re free!

    Reply to Kate's comment

  3. Karla on August 2, 2012 at 8:32 am

    I wish I had done this with some new beds this year. I’ve been having trouble with weeds, especially quackgrass.

    Reply to Karla's comment

    • Nebraska Dave on August 2, 2012 at 10:43 am

      Karla, I haven’t heard the term quackgrass in decades. Since moved to the city the lawn folks call it crab grass. It certainly is a nuisance and seems to like hot dry weather, wet and soggly weather, well …. any kind of weather. Too bad they haven’t cross bred that durability into regular lawn grass. :0)

      Have a great day in the garden.

      Reply to Nebraska Dave's comment

      • Steven Levine on June 27, 2013 at 6:28 pm

        Quackgrass (Elymus repens) and crabgrass (Digitaria sp.) are quite different species.

        to Steven Levine's comment

  4. daisy on August 2, 2012 at 8:44 am

    How clever!!! I bet it would be a good way to kill the grass if you were starting a new planting bed. Thanks, Susy, for the great tip! I’ll be looking for burlap from now on at thrift stores and yard sales!

    Reply to daisy's comment

  5. risa bear on August 2, 2012 at 9:49 am

    We get ours in the form of empty 100 pound coffee sacks from the coffee shop for fifty cents apiece. No end of uses; we start by cutting them open and hanging them as curtains or exterior shades on windows, and when they get old they go into the garden.

    Reply to risa bear's comment

  6. Donna B. on August 2, 2012 at 10:00 am

    You know, I heard about using burlap to protect plants from harsh winter weather… but I never thought about using it for protecting germinating seeds. Brilliant! I always learn something new here… always! :D

    Reply to Donna B.'s comment

  7. Justin on August 2, 2012 at 10:19 am

    This is such a timely post. My father-in-law just acquired a whole pile of burlap bags from a client of his who is a coffee roaster and, aside from using it to keep weeds down in the paths of the big garden, I’ve been trying to decide what to do with it all. These are some great ideas!

    As a somewhat related story, when he asked me if I wanted some of the burlap bags, I asked him if the same roaster had coffee shells. I’d seen them used as a beautiful, long-lasting black mulch and as walkway “gravel” and I knew the nitrogen content was high. He showed-up a couple days later with something like 12 garbage bags full of what he thought was coffee shells. Turned out to be coffee chaff, the papery skins between the shells and the beans (think like the brown papery skins inside peanuts except lighter and fluffier). They’re pretty much useless as mulch because they’re light as a feather and when wet, they sort of glue together to form a waxy shell and shed water. Best use I could find for them on the Internet was for chicken scratch, which doesn’t help me very much (but my neighbor is trying out).

    I ended-up mixing some of the chaff with my mostly finished leaf compost and using that as mulch and it hasn’t worked out half-bad. I’m hoping to add some of it to an unused large garden this year and till it in to lighten the soil and add some nutrients and let it compost over the winter. Guess we’ll see how that turns out.

    Reply to Justin's comment

    • Susy on August 2, 2012 at 11:21 am

      The chaff would probably make a great addition to your compost pile if anything else. We know exactly what this is since we roast our own coffee here at Chiot’s Run – here’s my post on that if you’re interested!

      Reply to Susy's comment

    • whit on August 30, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Some people here in the Seattle area use coffee chaff as their chicken coop bedding. Nice, steady supply around this area. :)

      Reply to whit's comment

  8. Nebraska Dave on August 2, 2012 at 10:50 am

    Susy, I haven’t used any burlap but I’ve fished a lot of old carpet thrown away from apartments to cope with weed control. It’s heavy enough to not have a problem with wind and porous enough to let the water through. I don’t think it would be good for starting seeds. I just needed something that would last the summer and definitely smother the weeds. That it did. Next year will start the soil amendments. The first year of new garden weed clean up has been a great success. The hot dry weather has certainly helped with weed control. So that’s a good thing, right?

    Have a great day in the garden.

    Reply to Nebraska Dave's comment

  9. Jennifer Krieger on August 2, 2012 at 11:54 am

    Great tip, thanks!

    Reply to Jennifer Krieger's comment

  10. Maybelline on August 2, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Burlap could also be used to prevent pesky birds from cleaning out the seeds you just sowed.

    Reply to Maybelline's comment

    • Susy on August 2, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Very true, I usually don’t have trouble with birds eating the seeds and didn’t even think of that, thanks for pointing it out!

      Reply to Susy's comment

  11. Debra - on August 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    A lot of people use coffee sacks as DIY planter bags – simply fill up the sack with earth and re-invent the garden that way. So if you have a tricky area like a stone pathway you can artificially design a “garden” around that area using coffee sacks. Its a neat little trick I’ve seen a lot of people use.

    Reply to Debra –'s comment

  12. Ken Toney on August 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    I use the burlap feed bags I get our livestock feed in to cover seeds (carrots, lettuce, rutabaga, parsnip, etc.) when they are sown. They are always useful to have around the farm.

    Reply to Ken Toney's comment

  13. Loren @ Garden Master on August 3, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Wow! that is new. I never tried using burlap. Thanks a lot for the share.

    Reply to Loren @ Garden Master's comment

  14. Wendy on August 3, 2012 at 9:55 am

    What a great idea! Thanks!

    Reply to Wendy's comment

  15. whit on August 30, 2012 at 11:18 am

    Hi Susy,

    Hope the moving prep is going well and nearing it’s end! We feel your pain. Still dealing with our old house…hoping we are about a month away from the market. Hope your first viewing is the only one you need!

    I was wondering if you have a source recommendation for burlap. I am on the hunt now. I was talking with a couple of ladies from different craft stores and both mentioned that the burlap that is coming into the stores these days is loaded with chemicals. One mentioned arsenic and lead. Why these would need to be in burlap is a mystery. She was appauled that many brides were having “country” weddings and using burlap as placemates or tableclothes, remarking, “Nothing says ‘thanks for sharing in the most important day of my life’ like sending your guests home with arsenic all over their Sunday Best.” :) Now i bet i know who plastered “Fluoride is Poison” stickers all over town. :)

    I would hope that a different burlap would be used for coffee bags…

    Take care!

    Reply to whit's comment

    • Keith on October 14, 2012 at 4:41 am

      Copper arsenic has been an accepted pest control for fiber plants for decades. If the guests are wearing cotton they already have a large dose of the chemical. Sadly, many cotton fields are now being transitioned to food plants, especially rice, after being soaked in arsenic for years. With little demand due to outsourcing our textile industry, cotton is disappearing as a cash crop and being replaced with edibles. I predict that arsenic will be a regular part of our diet soon if we don’t demand disclosure. This would be a perfect place to introduce hemp into our ag economy, as it would offer a saleable fiber crop that cleans up contaminants, would take pressure off forests, and can replace up to 30% of our oil use, but that will take a lot of pressure on government. .

      Reply to Keith's comment

  16. Keith on October 14, 2012 at 4:26 am

    I obtained several burlap coffee bags that are going to be potato towers next spring. They can be rolled down to about 1ft height for planting and then rolled up to contain the mulch and soil to “hill” the plants as they grow. It’s important to add soil frequently to keep the stems from hardening in the light, so the bags are perfect as an “adjustable” container. They are course enough to allow air in but solid enough to keep soil contained. By using a lasagna of straw and compost I hope to see sacks full of spuds in the fall. Our soil is far too dense to efficiently grow potatoes traditionally, and purchasing the required quantity of commercial soil to grow several rows would be cost prohibitive.

    Reply to Keith's comment

  17. Deborah on June 10, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    I just picked up an entire pallet of used burlap coffee bags for free from a nearby coffee roaster business, over 250 bags total! I plan to use them in my vegetable garden beds this fall for a method of mulching / composting that I learned about in an edible garden class I just took. Here is a description of that method as provided to me. The method is called Interbay Mulch, named after the community garden in Seattle where it was developed. Interbay Mulch is used as an over-winter method for building humus-rich soil. It is said that it would be difficult to improve on this method for its effectiveness. Interbay-mulched soil, according to lab tests, is uniquely active. Over a winter, an Interbay Mulch will give you a large volume of humus as well a a rich diversity of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, micro arthropods, beetles, millipedes and worms.
    Interbay Mulch is basically various organic matter piled on top of your soil, in a browns and greens lasagna fashion from 6 to 18 inches high, then covered with damp burlap. Covering organic matter with burlap fools nocturnal, light avoiding organisms into working for you 24 hours a day. Burlap will diffuse and soak up rain, preventing it from driving into the mulch. It also inhibits evaporation, keeping organic materials uniformly moist. Birds are unable to forage in the mulch so worms and other organisms flourish and multiply. Burlap covers the mulch but is also a part of the habitat cultivating a rich variety of fungi and providing a home for beetles, spiders, worms and the like. Burlap permeability allows needed oxygen to reach all parts of the mulch. Weighting the burlap down with heavy rocks or stakes may be necessary to prevent scavenging raccoons or other animals looking for a worm feast. If the mulch has not fully decomposed by spring planting time, just move it off of your beds into a compost pile to finish, otherwise, you can plant directly in the finished compost or turn it into the soil.

    Reply to Deborah's comment

    • Terri on July 25, 2016 at 7:48 pm

      A million thanks for the interbay mulch explanation. I live in NM and we’ve had 100 degree temps for several weeks and no rain. This method will help treeemendously since I get burlap bags from a restaurant when they roast chili!!!

      Reply to Terri's comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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