Turn the page: Old books make for good garden mulch

  • Planting books as mulch around coconut trees in his orchard, Clear Englebert is improving his soil while using books that would otherwise go to the dump. (Steve Mann/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Clear Englebert uses a pile of old books from the Kailua-Kona Library to mulch his orchard. (Steve Mann/Special to West Hawaii Today)

It came to my attention through an email from Pamela Wong, president of Friends of the Library, Kona (F.O.L.K.) that our Kailua-Kona Public Library is overloaded with books.

She reported that during the last year books that are out of circulation have piled up in the library’s storage facilities. Kona Bay Books also donated lots of books to reduce its inventory in preparation for their move to a smaller space. All of these books are currently in storage units as well as in the garage at the library. Storage facilities are now full to overflowing.


The last book sale at the library was more than a year ago and no sale is planned for the near future. Though the library is beginning to allow limited access to volunteers to sort through the piles of books, the problem of too many books is real. Many of the books in storage are old and in bad shape. Some are expired manuals and textbooks. Not all are sale or reader worthy. The volunteers who are culling through the books end up sending many to the dump.

This is disturbing to book lovers like me. Time to get creative. Piles of books do not deteriorate in the dump but they do break down when placed singly and open on top of the soil. Gardeners to the rescue.

We can all use these dump-bound books as mulch in our gardens.

Clear Englebert has been doing this for a while to great success. He picks up books from the library and takes them to his farm where he removes the covers, opens the books and lays them like shingles around his fruit trees. They not only suppress weed growth but they also attract worms and other soil critters adding life to his soil. With the rain we are currently getting in Kona, they break down quickly. As long as the dump-bound book supply at the library continues, you can always get more.

I spoke to Englebert about his book-planting operation. He gets both hard bound and paperback books from the library. He selects books that are printed in black ink and removes the thicker covers before planting. He then spreads the books open and places them on the soil-like shingles on a roof.

Some of the books in his loads are printed in colored ink. These he chooses not to plant but often finds them worthy of placing in the free library boxes in neighborhoods.

He reports, “I see the books circulate quickly from the neighborhood library boxes like the one at Patel’s in South Kona. Children’s books are often gone in a few days.”

He further commented that he stopped worrying about the minuscule amount of glue in the bindings but decided not to use the book mulch in his vegetable garden. He also did some research on books printed on slick paper and found that the slick coating was clay. He is not opposed to adding a little clay to his rocky Kona soil.

Overall, he finds the books are excellent mulch for his fruit trees. He usually chooses to use book mulch on plants that are a bit out of sight since open books lack the aesthetic appeal that other mulches might offer. The good news is the books are free and using them is an excellent service to the library as well as to our gardens.

An additional idea for old book use is to stack them into a low retaining wall or borders for a raised bed. When stacked, they will breakdown very slowly and provide an interesting feature to your garden.

Though F.O.L.K. is giving away books to organizations, school libraries and concerned citizens anxious to urge reading as a viable pastime, they need to continue to move books out of storage and into willing hands.

Gardeners can become willing hands. To get some books to plant on your farm, in your orchard or in your garden contact Ken Guerra at (808) 322-0077 or email your request to Friends of the Libraries Kona at folk@folkhawaii,com You can also email Ken directly at booksales@folkhawaii.com.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living part-time in Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Every Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Come with a mask and be prepared to practice social distancing. Volunteers can help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at (808) 323-3318 for more information.

Tuesday: Worker Protection Standard Train-the-Trainer workshops at 10 a.m. in English and 1 p.m. in Spanish at the Kona Cooperative Extension Service in Kainaliu. To train those wanting to train people who are spraying any organic or conventional pesticide. More information at the HDOA Pesticides Branch at (808) 974-4143 or (808) 333-2844. Register online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/train-the-trainer-worker-protection-standard-wps-workshop-tickets-156592699981.

Online: go to training videos at http://pesticideresources.org for Worker Protection Standard safety information videos.

Save the date: June 24 and 25 Hawaii Coffee Association Annual Meeting and Conference. Held virtually. For more information go to hawaiicoffeeassoc.org/events Go to https://my.demio.com/ref/wqXU6XBC8Oboy30Z for schedule and to register.

Farmer Direct Markets (check websites for the latest hours and online markets)

Wednesday: “Ho‘oulu Farmers Market” at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

Information on their online market at keauhoufarmersmarket.com/onlinemarket

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” 7:30 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea

“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Waimea middle and elementary school playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honoka‘a


Plant Advice Lines

Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu; Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu at (808) 322-4893.

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