Should I use landscape fabric under rock?

Landscape Fabric: Why Not?

Landscape fabric, otherwise endearingly known as weed fabric is one of those things that get us landscape professionals up in arms. Yes, it does prevent weeds (but only for a time). Yes, we use it but only in one main application. Throughout this post, I hope to eliminate some of the misconceptions about landscape fabric and give some excellent alternatives.

One Useful Application

Here is a good example of River Rock used in place of mulch. Yep, you guessed it. Landscape fabric was placed under all of it!

Landscape fabric is really only good for one application. This is when you want to use stone (such as river stone or decomposed granite) instead of mulch. We’ve installed a good bit of river rock in some of our landscape jobs and we always use a geo-textile landscape fabric that allows some water penetration. The reason why?It does provide a weed barrier but it also prevents the stone from sinking and disappearing into the soil below. We have had pretty good success with this method. However, weeds will still grow from time to time (especially as time goes on and the rock breaks down which takes quite a while and the debris gather from plants, birds, etc.). So how is this different from placing mulch on top? That’s a good question which I plan to answer below.

Mulch + Landscape Fabric

Placing mulch on top of weed fabric pretty much defeats the purpose of the landscape fabric from the beginning for a few reasons:

Reason #1: Mulch breaks down (relatively quickly), creating enriched soil which lays on top of the landscape fabric. Weeds grow in soil – sometimes very little of it.

Reason #2: As mulch breaks down, a natural fertilizer is created for your ornamental plants – weed fabric impedes these nutrients from reaching the roots of the plants.

Reason #3: As weeds will grow on top of the fabric, they will also eventually penetrate the fabric. This makes removing and controlling weeds nearly impossible since the roots are both above and below the fabric. Essentially the endearing term, weed fabric, is quite accurate. Since weed fabric can cultivate the perfect environment for weeds to get established and stay.

Landscape fabric is marketed well but the above are examples of problems over time.

Plant Health

Your ornamental plants need nutrients, water, and air in and around their root systems to be happy. We like happy plants (insert Bob Ross’s voice). Landscape fabric suffocates roots over time, causing an excess of surface roots to develop, often growing through the fabric.

This is a great example of girdling roots and excess surface roots due to landscape fabric.

The other drawback to fabric is girdling roots – surface roots that circle the plant’s root flare as the trunk grows – that cause a strangulating affect. So when you go to remove a stressed, girdled plant (a Viburnum, in the photo below) years later you end up with a rootball the size of a refrigerator. Plus the fabric itself can become the very thing to strangulate the plant. Fabric does not generally move much once it is staked or stapled in place but the plants do. Plants will continue to grow and expand over time. When a stationary object is within the growing limits of the trunk or stem, the plant will grow around or over the object. In the case of fabric, it will essentially cut off the supply of water and nutrients as the plant continues to grow. This also increases the probability of detrimental disease and insect damage due to openings around the wound.

Check out this shrub’s gigantic mass of circling roots attached to the landscape fabric!

Landscape Investment

So if your thinking of re-doing your landscape yourself, think again before using that big box store’s recommended method of weed fabric and mulch! If you are thinking about using a contractor to install your landscape and they recommend weed fabric under your mulch, I ask you to re-consider your contractor and… maybe give us a call instead?

If you have landscape fabric already and decide to re-vamp your landscape, I recommend removing the fabric to the best of your ability. You will have a healthier landscape in the long term. Besides, your landscape professional will thank you because we pretty much loathe the stuff!

Beyond all of the items I’ve talked about above, landscape fabric is ugly when it starts to show, difficult to cover up, and it’s tough to plant in too!

Alternatives

Good alternatives to use instead of weed fabric include Preen or another pre-emergent herbicide, spot treatment of round-up or vinegar mix, corn-gluten, newspaper, cardboard, and good old fashioned hand-pulling.

Above is an array of different methods with varying results. It’s up to you as to what you choose!

There are some disclaimers I should put in here…

When using an herbicide such as Preen, make sure to check the label for plants that can be affected by the product. Also, make sure to apply the product based on the rates on the container. In this case, more is not better…and yes, this goes for Round-Up too!

And speaking of Round-Up, be very careful around ornamental plants that you don’t want to damage as a slight breeze can drift the product on to desirables. I recommend using a milk jug with the bottom cut out of it to contain the spray overtop of the weed.

You can also use a vinegar solution (there are many out there to try) to kill most weeds. It doesn’t work quite as well as Round-Up but is a less chemically based option. The same disclaimers from above should be noted for this mix.

Corn gluten is a natural pre-emergent. I have heard this works but not as well as the chemical options. This is generally more expensive than Preen but is a good substitution (especially for those who don’t care for the chemical applications).

Newspaper and cardboard are both readily available bio-degradable items that prevent weeds from coming through as easily. Generally, I’ve seen this recommendation at 1/4″ thick layer of newspaper and then a good layer of mulch. This method is a bit labor intensive but for those of you who rather not use chemicals, it’s a good option. On the plus side, it’s normally free too!

So in the end, don’t waste your time or money on that fabric unless you are installing river rock or other stone as mulch. Keep your landscape healthy and weed free by using the alternatives I’ve listed above. You’ll be very happy in the end when your landscape investment lasts!

I just needed to put something pretty at the end of this post. We love this landscape…no landscape fabric here!

Pulling Up Landscape Fabric: How To Get Rid Of Landscape Fabric In Gardens

You’ve just finished weeding your garden bed and are planning to order mulch, but you look back at the wake of your weeding in horror. Little black tufts of landscape fabric stick out of the ground everywhere. The score is: weeds 10 pts, weed block fabric 0. Now you’re faced with the question, “Should I remove landscape fabric?” Continue reading for tips on removing old landscape fabric.

Why Should I Remove Landscape Fabric?

There are valid reasons for getting rid of landscape fabric, or avoiding its use altogether. First off, does landscape fabric degrade? Yes! Over time, landscape fabric can deteriorate, leaving holes that weeds grow through. Torn bits and wrinkles of degraded landscape fabric can make even a newly mulched bed look shabby.

In addition to deterioration, the breakdown of mulch, plant debris and other materials that blow into landscape beds can form a layer of compost on top of the weed block fabric. Weeds can take root in this layer of compost and, as they grow, these roots can poke down through the fabric to reach the soil below.

Cheap landscape fabric can tear when first installing. As you can imagine, if it tears easily, it’s not very effective against strong weeds that poke up through the soil and then the fabric. Thick landscape contractor weed block fabric is much more effective at keeping weeds from poking through. However, this high quality landscape fabric is costly and sediment still develops on top of it after a while.

If you have plastic landscape weed block, it should be removed as soon as possible. While plastic landscape fabric does kill the weeds below, it also kills the soil and any beneficial insects or worms by literally suffocating them. Soil needs oxygen to properly absorb and drain water. What little water is able to make it under the plastic weed block will generally just pool up from the lack of air pockets in the compacted soil below. Most landscapes do not have plastic weed block anymore, but you may come across it in old landscapes.

How to Get Rid of Landscape Fabric

Removing old landscape fabric is no easy task. Rock or mulch must be moved away to get to the fabric below it. I find it is easiest to do this is sections. Clear a section of rock or mulch, then pull up landscape fabric and cut it off with scissors or a utility knife.

If you choose to lay new fabric, use only top quality landscape fabric. Pin down the new fabric tightly, with no wrinkles, and then recover the area with rock or mulch. Continue removing rock or mulch, tearing out fabric, relaying fabric (if you choose to) and covering it back up with rock or mulch until all the sections of your landscape beds are done.

Be especially careful when pulling up landscape fabric around existing plants. Plant roots may have grown through the old landscape fabric. Without harming these roots, do your best to carefully cut away any bits of fabric around the plants.

Say Good-bye to Weeds

Photo by Bill Lorenz

Think it’s an overstatement to call it the war against weeds? Here’s what you’re up against.

A single redroot pigweed is able to produce up to 30,000 seeds in a season. And those seeds can remain alive in the soil for 70 years waiting to sprout and overrun your perennial border at any time.

Controlling weeds is a fight you can’t win entirely because they always grow back. But you can keep weeds under control by depriving new ones of the conditions they need to take root in the first place and then removing those that sprout.

Spread Landscape fabric and cut it to fit around plants.

Photo by Saxon Holt

STEP 1: Weed Prevention

As with most types of prevention, discouraging weed seeds from sprouting requires some extra time now so you can save a lot of time later. When weeds have already taken hold in a section of your yard, remove them before planting. Pull them by hand if possible, or use an herbicide such as glyphosate (Roundup), and apply it with caution. This nonselective chemical will kill almost all plants. As always, carefully read directions before using.

Install landscape fabric.

Synthetic landscape fabrics provide a physical barrier to weeds yet allow air, water and nutrients through to plant roots. Spread the fabric over bare soil around trees and shrubs; overlap several inches of fabric at the seams. Anchor the material with U-shaped metal pins, then conceal it with 1 to 2 in. of mulch, such as stone or bark chips.

You can also use landscape fabrics to control weeds under decks and in pathways (spread over the excavated soil base before you add gravel or sand). A 3×50-ft. roll of landscape fabric, such as the Typar shown below, costs about $10. The fabric is also available in 36-in. die-cut circles (about $3 each) for installing at the base of trees.

Smother with mulch.

Left unattended, weeds will quickly fill in unplanted areas and any open ground around plants. Mulch spread over the soil surface blocks the sunlight most annual weeds need to take hold. Weeds that do sprout are easy to pull because soil beneath mulch remains loose and moist. Coarse chipped or shredded bark is a good choice for large areas between trees and shrubs because it decomposes slowly and doesn’t easily blow away. For paths, a thick layer of sawdust provides good weed suppression because it depletes nitrogen in the soil.

After clearing a landscaped area of visible weeds, put down coarse-textured mulch up to 4 in. deep. Apply a fine-textured mulch that packs tightly, such as shredded leaves, to a depth no greater than 2 to 3 in. Keep the mulch a few inches away from the trunks and stems of plants to prevent disease problems.

Apply preemergence herbicides.

Preemergence herbicides, such as those containing oryzalin or trifluralin (look on the label for these chemicals), or nontoxic corn gluten meal, kill weeds just as they germinate and will not eradicate established weeds. For a preemergence herbicide to be effective, you must apply it to soil cleared of visible weeds; also, you have to water most of these herbicides into the soil.

Check the label to determine if it is safe for use around the kinds of landscape plants you have and effective against the weeds normally present.

Deprive weeds of water.

Weeds can’t survive without moisture. In areas with little or no summer rain, drip irrigation or soaker hoses help prevent weed seeds from sprouting by depriving them of water. These systems deliver water to the root zone of plants at the soil level. The soil surface and area surrounding the plants stays relatively dry. In contrast, overhead sprinkler systems spray water over the entire soil surface and supply both garden plants and weeds with water.

You can get in-depth information on drip irrigation from Michigan State University and the Irrigation and Green Industry Network in the “Where to Find It” section .

Overlap the fabric pieces to prevent weeds from growing, and secure fabric with landscape staples.

Photo by Saxon Holt

STEP 2: Pull Them When You See Them

Preventive methods minimize weeds but do not provide total control. You have to eliminate weeds as they appear and keep at it. Weeds decline significantly over a couple of years if you persistently catch them before they set seed. The following products will make the job easier.

Pry weeds from paving.

The Telescoping Crack Weeder ($9.95) from Lee Valley Tools removes grass and other weeds from crevices in patios and walkways. The L-shaped stainless-steel blade fits between bricks and other pavers to reach and scrape pesky plants. The aluminum handle adjusts from 28 to 45 in., which means you can weed kneeling or standing.

Off with their heads.

The scuffle hoe (also called an oscillating or action hoe) gets its names from the double-edged hinged blade that rocks back and forth with a push-pull motion. As it rocks, it slices weeds off at the crown. Repeated beheading depletes the weed roots of stored food and the plant dies. Shallow cultivation also avoids bringing more weed seeds to the surface where they can sprout.

The hoe, like this one from True Temper Hardware ($15), works best in somewhat compact soil, on paths or in garden beds.

Flame weeds.

Gas-powered flamers kill weeds by heating them to the point that their cell walls burst. A single pass with the flamer, such as the Primus Gardener Weed Destroyer shown ($46.95), kills young annual weeds. They won’t look charred but will die within a few hours. Tough perennial weeds with deep roots usually regrow and require repeated treatments.

Never use a flamer in an areas that’s dry and fire-prone, or in planting beds covered with flammable mulch.

Spot weed with herbicides.

You can kill individual weeds in established plant-ings, if you use the right product in the right way. Products containing fusilade, for example, selectively kill actively growing grassy weeds and won’t harm specific ornamental plants, which are listed on the product label.

In contrast, you have to use all non-selective herbicides with extreme caution to prevent harm to desirable plants.

Among them, contact herbicides, such as herbicidal soaps, kill only the plant parts on which they are sprayed. They are most effective on young or annual weeds. Systemic herbicides, such as those containing glyphosate or glufosinate-ammonium, kill annuals and perennials, roots and all.

If you have questions, consult your local nursery or extension service office. Also, check out the Iowa State University site at www.weeds.iastate.edu, and the Weed Science Society of America at www.wssa.net.

While there is no miracle cure for weeds, you will reduce the time you spend fighting these pests by choosing a control strategy that works and sticking with it.

Any weeds that grow through mulch are easy to pull because the soil remains loose.

Photo by Saxon Holt

Six Weeding Mistakes

In the process of trying to eliminate weeds, people often make mistakes that lead to more weeds. Here are the most common:

1. Leaving weeds that are in flower on the ground. Even after they are pulled, weeds like chickweed and purslane can continue to develop seeds.

2. Piling too much mulch over landscape fabric. As the mulch breaks down, it provides a perfect medium for weed growth from wind-borne seeds. You can actually have weeds rooted to the fabric. Limit mulch depth to 1 or 2 in. over landscape fabric.

3. Applying mulch containing weed seeds. Sometimes mulches such as straw and wood chips contain weed seeds. To avoid this problem, buy from a reputable nursery that offers mulch free of weed seeds.

4. Tossing weeds with seeds into the compost pile. A good compost pile can get hot enough (160°F) to kill weed seeds. But there are often cool spots where the seeds can survive. Those that do will be spread in your garden with the compost.

5. Breaking apart the roots of perennial weeds as you try and dig them out. Each piece can grow into a new plant.

6. Planting weeds along with your new shrubs and trees. Just a few nutsedge or Bermuda grass plants growing in a nursery container can spread and multiply in your garden. Make sure to remove them before planting.

This Preemergence herbicide, made from corn gluten, is nontoxic. You can safely use it near all of your vegetables as well as around ornamental plants.

Photo by Saxon Holt

Where to Find It:

Lee Valley Tools Ltd.

Box 1780

Ogdensburg, NY 13669-6780

Telescoping Crack Weeder

True Temper Hardware

Box 8859

Camp Hill, PA 17011

Scuffle hoe

Drip irrigation information and supplies:

Irrigation & Green Industry Network

916C N. Formosa Ave.

Los Angeles, CA 90046

www.igin.com

Michigan State fact sheet,

www.msue.msu.edu/msue/imp/mod03/03900058.html.

Raindrip Inc.

2250 Agate Ct.

Simi Valley, CA 93065

www.raindrip.com

Request the free “Drip Watering Made Easy” guide.

Denman & Co.

401 W. Chapman Ave.

Orange, CA 92866

Ball weeder

Primus

Box 186

Cherry Valley, IL 61016

Weed flamer

Reemay, Inc.

70 Old Hickory Blvd.

Box 511

Old Hickory

TN 37138-3651

www.reemay.com

Landscape fabric

Not a lot of people read a newspaper anymore. It’s true. But if you DO, or if you have access to old newspapers, then you’ll want to use these tips to use newspaper to block weeds naturally in the garden!

How to Use Newspaper to Block Weeds

Newspaper is a fabulous way to block weeds from growing in your garden.

Why?

Because newspaper is both:

  • Porous (it lets water through)
  • Blocks Light

Why does that matter?

If you put anything in your garden, you want it to allow moisture and water to go through. Your garden is constantly outside in the elements. Rain, sprinklers, snow and humidity all need to be allowed to escape the top of your soil and seep down into the lower layers of your garden soil.

And if you are using a product in your garden that doesn’t allow moisture to move through it, that’s bad. It can kill your plants with too much moisture.

If soil doesn’t have sunlight reaching it, then the weed seeds won’t grow as easily. So that’s why you want a light blocking product to help prevent weeds (such as landscape fabric).

Is newspaper safe in the garden?

Newspaper has changed a lot over the years.

Once, newspaper was just plain paper and non-toxic dyes.

Today, newspaper has a lot more vibrant colors, a lot more slick, glossy ads and the paper quality seems to be different.

Still, newspaper is safe to use in the garden.

Think about it. You might be worried about using newspaper and the dyes in your garden, but do you worry about the possible leaching plastics and chemicals from landscape fabric? Or the dyes coming off of dyed mulch?

Newspaper is still a great idea to naturally prevent weeds. Just stick with the actual newspaper pages. Not the:

  • Glossy sales ads
  • Coupons
  • Advertising inserts

And while we’re considering the safety of newspaper in the garden, especially vegetable gardens, consider whether or not using newspaper as mulch will prevent you from using chemical weed killers.

If you line your garden beds with newspaper, and the weeds are greatly reduced, then you don’t have to spray weed killer on your garden. And if you’re not using toxic weed killers, then you’re drastically reducing your chemical load in the garden.

Using Newspaper Under Mulch

So here is how you use newspaper to block weeds in your garden.

You don’t just lay newspaper on the ground and walk away. Not only will that look bad, but it will fly away.

So here are the tips of how to use newspaper to prevent weeds in the garden:

  • Prepare your garden bed as you would prepare before you laid down mulch
  • Remove any weeds you see
  • Have plants in the ground already
  • Consider adding a layer of shredded leaf mulch to decompose under the newspaper
  • How thick should the newspaper layer be? Lay down 2-3 pieces of newspaper on the soil. Which means two sheets of newspaper total. Not two sheets of newspaper folded in half for a total of four pieces of newspaper on top of each other.
  • Overlap the newspaper on the edges at the end, making sure that there will be no gaps in-between the sheets of paper
  • Use garden staples to keep the newspaper down if you’d like
  • Lay paper down just up to the root system of plants in the garden. Keep the paper about 1-2 inches away from the stems.
  • Add your preferred mulch on top of the newspaper
  • Water thoroughly

Newspaper vs. Landscape Fabric

What is the difference between lining your garden beds with newspaper and using landscape fabric?

First of all, newspaper is free! So there’s a BIG bonus!

(Wondering where to get newspaper? If you are not a subscriber, then ask neighbors for their newspapers. Scour recycling bins on recycling day to pick up newspapers. Or ask your library, grocery store, bookstore, etc. to pick up their old, outdated newspapers to use.)

Newspaper is also biodegradable. Which means that over a year or so, the newspaper is going to eventually disintegrate and decompose into the garden soil.

This is a benefit for garden beds that are replanted frequently. Or vegetable gardens where you can change the position of plants frequently for proper crop rotation. Or if you truly want an all natural way to kill weeds.

Landscape fabric will cost money. Plus, you’ve got to buy a lot of landscape fabric staples to insert in the ground.

But, landscape fabric will last for quite a long time.

However, I have had the edges of landscape fabric eventually fall apart because the lawn service would catch the edges with an edger. Then the fabric would shred. So the landscape fabric technically wasn’t always there.

And I’ve found weeds grow up through landscape fabric more easily than newspaper. That’s my experience.

More Natural Gardening Tips

Using newspaper to block weeds is just one of many ways to reduce your use of chemicals in the garden. Check out these organic gardening hacks for even more ideas.

Use plain white vinegar to kill weeds. It’s non-toxic and cheap!

These four carefree, colorful plants are perfect for a stress-free garden. And here’s some great ways to get free plants for your garden.

Sometimes, you can have a fungus gnat infestation (small tiny gnats coming out of your soil) if you use bagged garden soil outside or potting soil inside. I’ve found that using a different type of growing medium, such as compost, helps prevent this problem.

If you’re looking for a cheap and easy large planter for container gardening indoor or outdoors, here’s our DIY for turning a Trash Can Into a Large Flower Pot Planter. Consider using these beautiful pots to grow your own tea to blend at home.

6 reasons why landscape fabric is a bad idea

Should I Install Landscape Fabric?

Landscape fabric is used by many gardeners to cut down on gardening maintenance tasks. Should you install the fabric if you haven’t already? As a professional gardener, I’ve seen many gardens during my 14 year career. Personally, I discourage my clients from using landscape fabric. Having also talked to lawn mowing companies in Alpharetta, Georgia, and landscaping companies in O’Fallon, Missouri, here are the reasons why:
1. It compacts the soil. In order to truly be healthy, soil needs to be crumbly and loose. This is the type of soil where plants can spread their roots and grow without too much work. I’ve noticed that soil underneath the landscape fabric does not stay crumbly and loose. Rather, the soil becomes hard and compact. This makes digging and planting very difficult.
2. Weeding is a nightmare. While the landscape fabric will reduce the number of weeds in your garden, it won’t entirely get rid of them. The weeds that do manage to get through the fabric are usually horrible enmeshed with the fabric itself. This means it’s very hard to remove the weeds. Usually, removing the weed entirely means ripping the landscape fabric.

3. The fabric contains petroleum and other chemicals. Most gardening experts advise gardeners to avoid using petroleum products or products with chemicals around plants. This is especially true for those plants that are edible.
4. Landscape fabric is expensive. In order to properly install the fabric, you need pins to hold the fabric down. This further increases the cost. In addition, it may be necessary to patch the fabric or install additional pins throughout the year. Of course, installing the fabric and putting the pins into the ground also takes a considerable amount of time.
5. There’s not a lot of room for error. Gardeners are known for changing their minds. One season you may want a certain plant in a certain place. This may change from year to year. As plants grow, they will need to be divided in order to keep the original plant healthy. Both of these tasks become incredibly difficult when landscaping fabric is present. Changing location and dividing plants become a time consuming chore.
6. Re-seeding is almost impossible. One of the joys of gardening is to see which plants have re-seeded themselves in your yard year after year. When you use landscape fabric, it’s very difficult for plants to re-seed themselves. In addition, bulbs can get pushed around and may not return.
As a gardener, I suggest that homeowners use another method to reduce garden maintenance times. Installing a thick layer of wood chips or mulch in the garden is one way to combat weeds. Not only is this solution relatively inexpensive, but it’s attractive and will not affect the soil quality in a negative way. If you are needing a professional lawn service in Atlanta to help with this, give GreenPal a spin.

Pros and Cons of Landscape Fabric

Planting a new crop of bright vegetables or tending to a delicate flower garden can be so calming.

That is until pesky weeds disturb our garden of bliss.

Is landscape fabric all we need to get rid of those pesky weeds for good?

Should I use landscape fabric in my flower or vegetable garden or under rock/gravel?

What is landscape fabric made of?

It can be all kinds of materials, like linen, polyester or recycled plastic. Usually, it’s a woven cloth laid in garden beds to help keep weeds at bay.

What are the pros and cons of landscape fabric?

Pros

  • Discourages weeds: It stops sunlight from reaching weed seeds, which reduces or eliminates them.
  • Cost-effective: Fabric can last for years, so there’s no need to buy weed control every season.
  • Environmentally-friendly: This cloth limits the need for harsh weed control chemicals. Plus, some are made from recycled materials.
  • Beats the competition: Unlike plastic alternatives, landscape fabric has tiny holes that allow water to reach plant roots.
  • Conserves moisture: Adding this reduces surface evaporation, so less watering is needed.

Cons

  • Not flexible: Each time you dig a hole, the fabric becomes less effective. So, it’s not practical for gardeners who like to change it up.
  • No more natural nutrients: Organic mulches, like grass clippings or shredded leaves, can’t reach the soil to work their magic.
  • Restricts movement of soil-mixing organisms: This barrier prevents earthworms, insects, and beneficial fungi from moving through different layers of the soil. So, they cannot mix organic material on the surface deeper into the soil.
  • Less effective over time: After a while, soil packed underneath loses breathability, and plant roots can suffer from lack of air and water.
  • Not a perfect system: Plant roots in search of air and water can grow through the cloth, breaking the weed barrier.

Are there good uses for landscape fabric?

Yes, it’s a great match for dense groundcovers you don’t want to lay directly on the soil. So, it works super well under rock or gravel but isn’t the best option for vegetable gardens. Digging into the fabric every year to replenish vegetable seeds will eventually make it ineffective. Plus, that’s a lot of work!

Bottom line: Landscape fabric has its benefits, but all in all, there are better ways to tame weeds.

What alternatives are there?

  1. Leave it to mulch! If it’s thick enough, mulch can block weeds from getting the sunlight they need to grow.
  2. Use a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent weed seeds from germinating.
  3. Lay cardboard or newspaper under your mulch. It’s another way to bar weeds from sunlight, and you won’t have to worry about clean up since paper safely dissolves into the soil.

It’s great that many people are replacing lawns with low-water landscaping. But along with trees not getting adequate water, one concern is the widespread use of weed-barrier cloth, including at the Redlands fire station demonstration gardens.

Linda Chalker-Scott, an extension urban horticulturist and associate professor at Washington State University, has written about the increasing use of geotextiles, which are woven so that water and gas exchange can occur and light penetration is reduced. As a result, fewer weed seeds germinate.

Chalker-Scott said they can be effective in agricultural situations, in annual planting beds or where the landscape is regularly disturbed and the fabrics can be replaced when needed.

“For permanent landscapes, however, they are not a long-term solution and in fact can hinder landscape plant health,” she wrote.

While it might help with weeds initially, here is our experience, some reasons not to use weed cloth and some suggestions if you already have it.

Bad for soil health, organisms and weeds long term

Bettina McLeod runs the school garden project at Cope Middle School and has been ripping out the weed cloth she discovers from previous landscaping.

“Earthworms get stuck in it and die, roots penetrate it so you can’t pull the weeds out, and it breaks up after years, leaving little fragments, and who knows what it’s made of,” she said.

Weed cloth is also one of April Garbat’s pet peeves. The Whittier-based landscape designer and International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist said the hard-packed soil underneath weed cloth seems dead and smells like dust with no visible organisms.

“That’s partly because weed cloth interferes with the natural process where leaves fall to the ground and mulch the plants from which they fell, renewing the soil community. The dark-colored plastic also heats the soil more than natural mulch does and may not allow much water through to the soil,” Garbat said.

She finds that often the mulch or gravel on top doesn’t stay, so the fabric degrades, especially when exposed to sunlight. Then the weeds grow through.

“The most frustrating weeding I’ve done is trying to remove weeds that have either sprouted from under the fabric through tears or rooted in it from the top from seeds that blew in,” she said.

Although professional-grade fabric may last longer, weed cloth is a shortcut that Garbat said lasts only a few years.

Also, weed cloth is impenetrable for earthworms and all burrowing invertebrates. These include native bees, most of which nest in the ground and are increasingly becoming important as pollinators.

Inhibits changes to a garden

While many landscape designs are meant to grow and fill in over time, weed cloth can strangle a trunk or stem, and it prevents runners from plants that might be intended to spread out.

“Small succulents, large agave and grasses are common drought-tolerant plant choices, but they can’t spread out and fill in a space when weed cloth is used,” Garbat said.

Or a gardener may want to swap plants out but weed cloth makes these changes more difficult, as holes must be cut in the fabric in order to plant.

When to use it and what to use instead

Garbat has recommended using weed cloth under thick decomposed granite pathways where she doesn’t want plants to grow, and where it won’t surface. However, she doesn’t use it in flagstone paths where she is going to plant succulents or little groundcovers in between the stones.

Instead of weed cloth, both Chalker-Scott and Garbat recommend a three- to six-inch layer of wood mulch. Wood mulch left over from tree jobs can be found at no cost.

Imported wood mulches, such as gorilla hair, are available at nurseries and home improvement centers.

We were successful with just using mulch, both redwood and mulch from several dead trees and shrubs we had removed on our property and chipped. We paid to have most of our dead lawn dug out in 2008, and the first year we did pull out some grasses and weeds that came up, but really not that many.

Now, the mostly native plants have filled in, forming a great ecosystem, and weeds are minimal.

Our yard, at 315 Westwood Lane, Redlands, will be featured on this year’s Redlands Horticultural and Improvement Society garden tour April 16 and 17.

If it’s already there

For people who already have weed cloth, Garbat suggests making sure plants have lots of room cut out for them, at least the diameter of their root ball, and that it is a completely cut-out circle, not an X or slash.

“Then, as the weed cloth becomes visible and less effective in the following years, slowly remove swaths of it before you replenish the mulch,” she said.

Linda Richards lives in Redlands. Her website www.ifnaturecouldtalk.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *