Weed barrier for gardens

RENEGADE GARDENER™

Insidious, how these product lines have grown. What began years ago as landscape cloth—designed for vertical use behind boulder walls, to keep soil from eroding through the wall—has evolved into any number of “weed barrier” products that homeowners are encouraged to lay flat on the ground before planting trees, shrubs, even perennials.

Homeowners think it’s a great idea: Lay down a weed barrier fabric, and they won’t have any weeds. Except studies have shown that though porous, weed barrier fabrics do not allow water to penetrate the soil as readily as soil without fabric. In heavy rain, a lot of water builds up and runs off, one reason why gardeners who use weed barriers see edges of it glistening in the sunlight so often. More important, weed barrier fabrics decrease the amount of oxygen that is drawn into the soil. All plant roots require oxygen, at various preferred levels (yes, even water plant roots).

It’s a shortcut that harms your soil, and your plants. The worst barrier in the world, of course, is black plastic poli, because it allows NO oxygen or moisture into the soil, except at the base of the plant, where a hole was cut to accommodate planting. The soil dies out all around the plant, meaning no microbe activity (those little microscopic critters need soil that contains air and water and organic material), and the plants don’t bloom as well as they could, don’t grow as fast, and decline prematurely.

But getting back to porous weed barriers … they serve no purpose, except to make you rue the day you put it down on the day you want to move a shrub, plant a new shrub, or plant perennial groundcovers around the shrubs.

The key to growing healthy plants is to duplicate nature. In nature, a tree falls down and over decades it gets sucked back down into the earth, all those nutrients being returned to the ground. In the suburbs, a tree goes down in our yards during a storm, and we call a tree service to remove it. In the woods, trees lose their leaves in the fall so that those leaves can replenish the soil. Meanwhile, we carefully rake every last leaf from our lawns and our gardens in the fall because they smother and kill our lawns over winter, plus we don’t like the look. Then each spring we fertilize the soil like mad.

If you’d like to garden in a way that makes sense, go back to nature. Mulch all your plants with organic matter, placed directly on the soil—a four- to five-inch layer of shredded hardwood is good around trees and shrubs, and a two- to three-inch layer of shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, cocoa bean mulch or the like is good around perennials and annuals. That will block the sunlight most annual weed seeds need to germinate just as effectively as plastic weed barriers. Perennial weeds, like thistles, they’re going to burst up through plastic weed barriers as it weakens in three years, then spread just as quickly as they will in the proper mulch, so you’re not losing anything. Thistles and other tough perennial weeds have to be dug up or sprayed regardless of what you do. And it’s a helluva lot easier to dig up the entire root system of tough perennial weeds popping through organic mulch than it is when a weed barrier fabric is involved.

You WANT these organic mulches to slowly disappear, to break down and replenish the soil around the plants. Mulches around perennials and annuals SHOULD last only one season. You go out and redo the mulch in your flower beds each year, it’s called gardening.

A five-inch layer of shredded hardwood bark around trees and shrubs should last three seasons, depends on the quality, cypress mulch lasts longest but is more expensive. Whichever you use, you just add more as it decays and you see patches of bare soil.

And don’t do this: I’ve seen landscapers lay down weed barrier, cut holes, plant shrubs and perennials, and then top it off with shredded hardwood mulch. Now, the plastic weed barrier stops the decaying mulch from entering the soil! The shredded hardwood ALONE will block the weeds; in this case, the plastic weed barrier is both superfluous and harmful.

You check your mulched beds every few days and pull out the few weeds that make it, pull seven weeds a day in spring and early summer, keep up with your mulching, and after a few seasons you will have very little weed activity. You’re pulling the weeds before they can go to seed, so eventually, no more seeds. Most of the easy-to-pull weeds you spot in summer and fall are probably wind-blown seeds that landed on top of the mulch anyway, and would germinate and grow with or without weed barrier fabric.

Sorry for the length of this, one lousy photo and all. I guess I could have written one sentence to explain this Don’t DO That, instead of the 827 words above: Don’t use weed barrier fabric, because if you start gardening, within five years it will bite you in the ass, and within six years you’ll just wind up ripping it all out.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener

Just to roll some Weed Control Fabric (aka landscape fabric) out in your garden and not to worry about weeding anymore sounds good. Stopping weeds without dangerous chemical, and doing it for many years – some give a 25 years guarantee, wow! But is this true, does it work as promised? Here are 3 reasons why you should not use weed control fabric in your garden as a long term solution. Along with some good uses for weed control fabric.

1. It is unnatural

Even though it is true that weed control fabric is not a questionable chemical, it still is far from being natural. When used under mulch, rocks or even soil, it traps earthworms and other creatures in the ground. These living beings live in the soil and are very beneficial to the soil and our food. Whatever happened to be underneath the landscape fabric has to stay there, and whatever happened to be on top can not go down anymore. Not a healthy situation. Well, you might not care so much about those thousands of creatures living in our soil, but this is just one of the reasons not to use a weed cloth. Even though I would encourage you to care, these creatures make our soil alive and nutritious.

Weed Control Fabric is also not biodegradable. Once in, it stays there for many many years, creating more and more problems. Over time it will deteriorate so that getting rid of the fabric becomes almost impossible. There are biodegradable options available. We tried it with our sweet potatoes and got rid of it half way through the growing season. It does heat up the soil, which is great during the cool early summer days. However, in hot days it gets very warm and it’s also harder to water.

A better alternative, which is also free is cardboard (see how we used it), or a few layers of newspapers. These things will stop weeds as well and feed the earthworms in the process.

2. It does not work

Even though weed control fabric sounds like the perfect solution against weeds, it does not work as good as one would think. I was weeding the back of our garden the other day. I started in the corner and went towards the pathway. It was a very weedy area. I had let the weeds grow so we could see what comes up since the garden is new to us. While weeding I was happy to learn that even though there were many weeds, they came out very easily. A previous owner had put wood chips there. It really encouraged me to see how wood chips really work for the good in a garden.

Right next to the pathway however, there were especially many weeds, more than anywhere else. I also had more trouble to pull them. Since it was getting late and I was tired, I blamed it on me. Next morning we discovered that this higher weed-infested area had weed cloth underneath it. Oops! We have no idea how long that weed control fabric had been there, but we could clearly see that it did not work well. Here’s a picture of the fabric, see how weeds grow right out of it.

Every time you put something on top of the weed fabric that turns overtime to soil, weeds will grow. Even with rocks, it will take longer, but eventually, enough soil will build up between the rocks, so that weeds will grow.

3 Makes weed pulling impossible

The bigger problem with Weed Control Fabric is the fact that really bad weeds grow through it. This makes pulling those weeds impossible. Once in there, you will have to replace the landscaping. Here’s a picture of what the weed cloth looked like underneath. Hard to believe, is it? This was very eye-opening for us, and I wanted to share it with you.

You see roots everywhere, strong roots that grow right through the fabric.

Natural weed control

We certainly prefer a more natural way of dealing with weeds. If a weed block is needed, newspapers or cardboard work great too. They will compost and actually feed worms and not trap them. Adding heavy mulch is probably the best solution. Some weeds do grow in mulch too, but are so easy to pull.

In the award-winning book: No Dig Organic Home & Garden Charles Dowding and Stephanie Hafferty explain how to set up a no dig garden. An annual dressing of compost helps to improve the soil structure and leads to higher fertility and fewer weeds. No dig organic gardening saves time and work and is a great natural way to do landscaping.

Uses for Weed Control Fabric

Weed Control Fabric can be used under walking paths and decks. Places where dust and dirt will not find their way between the weed barrier and the surface, so weeds can not grow.

Weed control fabric is also great as a cover in the garden if you do not use mulch. Cover the garden bed in the fall, so weeds do not grow during the winter (not happening here, but in warmer areas). Or cover in spring, to warm up the soil. Also, warm-season crops like to have the soil warm. Again, weed control fabric can be used here. Just remember not to cover the fabric, so weeds grow, but to use the fabric as a cover. Do not use plastic for this, it will kill all soil life.

Last but not least this durable fabric also make great grow bags and beds. Learn how to sew a grow bag here. We used it a the wicking bed and the raised window protected garden.

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Controlling Weeds Organically

It goes without saying that weeds are a nuisance in any garden. Weeds compete for space, sun, water, and nutrients becoming the drain and destruction of our veggies. In a vegetable garden bed you’re adding all kinds of nutrients and amendments that not only make vegetables flourish, but these goodies make the environment just as hospitable for the weeds.

No garden or yard will ever be completely free of the weed battle. Of course, it’s always to everyone’s benefit if you stay away from harmful chemicals and pesticides. This includes the bugs (there are good ones), soil, plants, the earth, and human beings. Not to worry, there are some truly effective organic techniques that they can slow weeds down and prevent them from taking over your vegetable or flower garden. There are a few different techniques that are inexpensive, healthy for everything and everybody around you, and they’re simple to do.

Physical Weed Barriers

The first line of defense against weeds is using physical barriers to keep them from ever rearing their ugly heads in the first place. The most obvious physical barrier is mulch. Mulch can be either inorganic or organic. You get to choose – no one is judging you (or shouldn’t be, anyway). Inorganic mulches don’t harm the environment, people, or animals (generally speaking) and they have their advantages.

Inorganic mulches include black plastic and landscape cloth. Both are effective weeds barriers and both prevent weeds by reducing the air and light weeds would otherwise receive. The black plastic has the advantage of heating up the ground and frying the little suckers as a bonus. If you use the black plastic, you’ll need to poke some holes all over it randomely so that water can seep through to the plants.

Because I’m a composting freak, I tend to go for the organic barriers – the ones that once came from a living thing and will eventually break down. My theory is that if I’m going to put something on the soil, I want it to actually enhance the soil nutritionally at some point. My hands-down favorite weeds barrier for vegetable gardens is newspaper. Newspaper is super-duper handy in the garden. Other mulch-weed-barriers are compost, wood chips, bark, straw, and shredded leaves.

Think about the bed you’re using it for before making your choice. For instance, wood chips would be perfect for a landscaped yard, but not so great for a veggie garden that’s constantly being disturbed with planting and harvesting. Straw is ideal for the vegetable garden but in the front landscaping it might be a bit out of place.

The other great thing about mulch is while you’re mind is on committing weed murder, the mulch is also benefiting your garden by retaining moisture in the soil. This means less temperature fluctuation for plant roots, less watering for you, less money out of your pocket, and less drain on natural resources. It’s a win-win-win-win.

Rocks always throw me (sorry). I’m always at a crossroads with which category to put them in. While rocks can be completely organic in that they were created naturally, they never do break down. Whatever category you want to put them in, rocks make a great mulch-type, weed barrier.

Traditional Organic Weed Prevention Techniques

While it’s true that traditional weeding methods are fairly physical for us gardeners, it’s also true that these are practices that have been utilized for centuries – and they work. It’s just hard to replace old fashioned hand-weeding and regular hoeing.

If you make a habit of running the hoe of death between your vegetables every week, you’ll nail them while they’re small. It’ll take very little effort on your part, I swear. If you just can’t get to them every week, do try to get to them before they have produced seed heads. Yanking and pulling on mature weeds that have seeds on them tends to disperse future weed generations all over the place.

Another organic weed killing method is to pour a generous amount of boiling water onto the weed. Even the roots are affected and it really kills them dead. Take note: boiling water kills all plants dead. So, this technique should only be used by a reasonably skilled marksman.

One of my favorite tricks for outwitting weeds (yes, they have wits) is to cover every square inch of soil. Nothing good comes from naked soil. You could use one of the above-mentioned mulches, but I enjoy the living mulches such creeping thyme or Isotoma.

When all of your bare ground is covered, there just isn’t much real estate left for weeds to move into, you know? For the most part, I’m talking about perennial beds and landscaped areas. It would be blasphemous of me to suggest that you plant your veggies close together in order to take up ground, so I won’t (suggest it, I mean).

I’ve also heard that you can use a mixture made up of 4 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid soap, then spray it onto the offending trespassers. While I’ve heard it’s an effective method, I’ve also heard that it won’t kill the weed’s roots. For me, that’s a deal breaker. The reason why I haven’t given this mixture a shot is that I don’t see the point if I can’t be sure that I’ve snuffed them out entirely. But then I’m lazy like that.

Learn more…

Managing Weeds with a Light Touch (part 1)

Managing Weeds with a Light Touch (part 2)

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The Landscape Fabric Weed Barrier Myth

Landscape fabric is fine to use under walkways, but not in garden beds. It does little to suppress weeds after the first season and some fabrics seriously restrict air and water exchange.

I’ve seen it again and again. Helping a friend renovate their garden, I dig down a few inches and my shovel becomes entangled in a sheet of black plastic or some other material, collectively known as landscape fabric. Oh boy. Another case of pie-in-the-sky magic weed barrier.

“What’s this?”, I ask.

“Weed barrier.”

“Really? Then why are there foot-tall weeds in your garden?”

One of the great gardening myths is that landscape fabric will suppress the weeds in your garden for years. Sold under many trade names and made from an assortment of materials varying from plastic films to renewable sources, weed barriers are also sometimes impregnated with herbicides and fertilizers.

An experienced gardener learns that weed barriers defy logic, strangle plants, and decimate soil. Weed seeds largely move by air or animal and are deposited in the mulch or organic material on top of the weed barrier – mulch which doesn’t decompose as it should because the weed barrier doesn’t allow it to contact the soil.

Now to be fair, landscape fabric has its uses. If you install a new annual garden every year, it’s great. As you’ll be pulling up every plant and replacing the fabric yearly, it will serve its purpose. It’s also useful in commercial agriculture. But it’s less than useless in perennial gardens and can actually do a lot of damage to your plants and soil.

Browse on Amazon: Organic Lawn Care Products

The facts about landscape fabric weed barriers

Weed barrier fabrics were developed for agricultural use, meant to be used for one season only. In fields, the fabric is placed on top of the soil and the plants are installed through them, with an ample cutout so the plant can receive enough water and fertilization. Nothing is placed on top of the fabric so that water, fertilization, air, and gas exchange can take place. The fabric is the mulch.

However, in home gardens, perennial plant roots, especially roots of large shrubs and trees, frequently become entangled in the fabric. I’ve seen it often during renovations – roots spread across the top of the fabric or become entwined in it, and not underneath it in the soil as they should (that pesky mother nature foils the best laid plans). The root systems of healthy trees and shrubs must grow at least as wide as their drip line, but weed barriers restrict this growth. The lack of deep penetrating roots make the tree or shrub easily toppled by high winds and very susceptible to drought. These pics from the University of Florida Extension service illustrate how landscape fabric girdles tree roots.

Tough weeds most definitely will grow through these fabrics. Anyone who gardens where the mighty Canadian Thistle grows will agree – I’m convinced that thistle will grow through steel.

Landscape fabrics will suppress below-the-fabric weed seeds the first season, but airborne seeds which settle in organic mulch atop the fabric will germinate, and some will root. As the mulch level increases, and organic decomposition occurs, more opportunity for rooting of weed seeds exists. Grasses like Nutsedge are a real problem – it will easily push through the fabric and the “nuts” (tubers) which are attached to the roots are virtually impossible to remove when growing underneath the weed barrier. And if you don’t get the entire nutsedge out, you get more nutsedge.

Many of the old fabrics aren’t very permeable, if at all. I’ve frequently seen soil beneath and above these weed barriers dry as a bone and compacted hard as cement, the color of baked clay. The plants were starving for nutrients and struggling to find water, slowly dying, even with layers of compost and mulch on top. And with no water penetration, little soil food web activity takes place, which one notes immediately by a distinct lack of worms and insect life. Conversely, when used in very wet or soggy areas, the weed barrier can trap water beneath it, creating a swampy mess.

Weed barriers separate the soil from the mulch and don’t allow proper biological activity and drainage to take place. Mulch, compost, and anything else you place on top of the soil requires actual contact with the soil to properly decompose. No decomposition means no humic acids to feed the plants.

I never asked one, but earthworms HATE landscape fabric. Worms eat organic material, which they can’t reach through the fabric, and they can’t poke their heads above the soil for air. So they leave. I have yet to see more than a few stray worms in soil underneath these fabrics.

Aesthetically speaking, when the fabric is exposed, it looks just awful – horrendous, ghastly, dreadful. Did I mention how bad it looks when the mulch slides off?

Planting bulbs through landscape fabric is a pain. Animals which do their work below ground like gophers can sometimes push bulbs off your mark and if they do, there’s little chance that tulip is going to be able to push through the barrier in spring. And if you’re cutting holes in the weed barrier, you’re also allowing air, water and sunlight to get at weed seeds, so what’s the point?

Good luck dividing plants like geraniums and irises.

Bad landscapers plant shrubs and trees with landscape fabric wrapped around the rootball. I suppose they believe that the roots will grow through the material. They’re wrong. Roots will wrap around themselves inside the material until the plant basically strangles itself.

So why do so many companies sell landscape fabric? Because it seems like such a good idea and so many home gardeners and bad landscapers keep buying it. Accept the fact that there is no magic weed barrier (say it out loud, it’s liberating). Any mulch applied heavily enough will do a far superior job to landscape fabric: stones, pea gravel, wood chips, or yard waste. Layer it 2-3″ thick, with black and white newspaper or corrugated cardboard beneath it, and very few weeds will get through it.

The best weed suppression is achieved by planting low-growing ground covers like yarrow, sedum, coreopsis, verbena, sage, juniper, bergenia, geranium, coral bells, phlox, vinca, or carpet bugle. Ground covers easily out-compete weeds in your garden and mature groundcovers also cut down on the expense of buying and hauling mulch every year.

Garden Tip: For those who have trouble bending to pull weeds, invest a few dollars in a stirrup-shaped hoe which will save your back and make weeding a breeze.

Read more on the landscape fabric myth from Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Washington State University; Why I Hate Landscape Fabric, from North Coast Gardening; and images which illustrate the problem on the Tropical Embellishments blog.

All You Need to Know About Landscape Fabric

Photo: istockphoto.com

Whether you’re new to gardening or have been at it so long your thumb is a deep shade of green, you may have seen rolls of landscape fabric at DIY stores and gardening centers—and become intrigued. Take our crash course in this material designed to inhibit weeds and keep soil from drying out. We’ll clue you in on the pros versus cons, explain how to pick the best product, and share tips on using it most effectively.

Composition and Cost

Landscape fabric is constructed from woven fibers or manufactured as a solid sheet with perforated holes to allow water to soak through. Some brands offer UV protection to maintain the life of the fabric. It comes in rolls, typically at least 3 feet wide and anywhere from 50 feet to 200 feet, or more, in length. Cost varies from around $.45 per sq. ft., up to $.80 per sq. ft., depending on the brand and thickness (thicker fabric typically runs a bit more).

Landscape pins, which sell separately for about $.10 per pin, are necessary for securing the fabric and can add another $.50 per sq. ft. to your total material cost.

Note that virtually all landscape fabric is intended to be covered with mulch of any type—wood chips, gravel, recycled rubber, etc.

Basic Benefits

Most gardeners agree that the best place for landscape fabric is around shrubs and trees where it can be installed and topped with quality mulch to hopefully last for years. Because it’s intended to be left in place, it’s not recommended for vegetable gardens or annual flower beds.

Landscape fabric:

  • Prevents weed seeds buried in the soil beneath from sprouting.
  • Limits the need to use herbicides for weed control.
  • Helps retain soil moisture by reducing evaporation.
  • Offers some erosion control on slopes subject to washout from heavy rains.

Notable Negatives

The quality of the landscape fabric—and good installation practices (discussed below)—will determine how long will last, but it’s not a miracle product.

Some gardeners refuse to use it because:

  • It discourages garden-friendly earthworms that need to reach the soil surface to survive. Earthworms aerate the soil, so, without them, the ground beneath landscape fabric can become compact and unhealthy.
  • Natural organic mulch, such as fallen leaves or pine needles, cannot replenish nutrients in the soil because the fabric acts as a barrier. Without fabric, this type of organic matter would naturally biodegrade and eventually blend with the soil.
  • Weed seeds can still sprout in the mulch used to cover the fabric. While the fabric blocks seeds beneath it from sprouting, new seeds can blow in and—depending on the type of fabric—their roots can adhere tightly to the perforations, making it difficult to pull them out without pulling up the fabric with them. This is especially true if you use organic mulch, such as wood chips, which will eventually degrade and become a virtual plant-growing medium on top of the fabric.

Photo: amazon.com

Smart Usage Tips

If you’ve decided to try landscape fabric, the following practices will help ensure the health of your plants and the longevity of your landscape design.

  • Choose professional-grade landscape fabric. Cheap stuff rips easily and might not last a single season. The weight and thickness of the fabric is a good determiner of its quality. A roll with a total of 150 square feet that weighs 20 pounds is going to have thicker, heavier fabric than a roll with the same square footage that weighs only 10 pounds. If you’re unsure, ask a reputable garden center to recommend their best landscape fabric.
  • Add amendments, such as composted manure, peat moss, and other types of organic matter, to the soil before installing landscape fabric—because, obviously, you can’t add them later. If you’re unsure of what amendments to add, take a soil sample to your local extension office, a county office that performs soil testing (usually for a fee), in addition to providing residents with expert agricultural and gardening information.
  • Level the soil. After adding amendments and working them into the soil thoroughly, level the terrain by breaking up hard clods and raking the surface smooth.
  • Lay out the fabric with the rough side facing downward. This helps the fabric stay in place while you’re working.
  • Do not skimp on fabric. Overlap the edges of the landscape fabric by at least 8 inches if you need to use multiple pieces of fabric, and allow a 2-inch overhang around the edges. You can tuck it under later when the rest of the fabric has been secured. Landscaped beds typically have a border, so you can tuck the excess fabric neatly along the inside of the border. Just push it down between the soil and the border with a putty knife to conceal it.
  • Pin the fabric securely. Insert a landscape pin every 8 to 10 inches along the edges of the fabric and every 12 inches apart in the center of the fabric. Don’t skimp on pins or fabric could come loose in a month or two.
  • Cut round holes for inserting landscape plants, using a very sharp utility knife. Make sure holes are large enough to plant the specimens you select.
  • Cover the landscape fabric with 2 to 3 inches of mulch. This layer assists the pins in holding it down, protects it from UV rays, and helps the ground beneath the fabric retain moisture. Plus, mulch adds a beautiful finishing touch to the landscaping!

Considerate Care

The purpose of landscape fabric is to control weeds, and it’s bound to do its job effectively for the first year or two—but be prepared to pull weeds that may sprout on top of the fabric later.

You may wish to apply a pre-emergent herbicide to the top of the mulch, such as Preen (view on Amazon), at the start of every new growing season to help reduce blown-in seeds from sprouting. A pre-emergent herbicide won’t harm established plants.

Add mulch as necessary. You’ll probably need to with organic mulches that degrade and thin out over time; gravel and rock mulch remain pretty much the same as when first applied.

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When I hear the words garden fabric, I think landscape fabric, the black cloth underlayment used in my xeriscaping, and the material my mom used to used in the vegetable garden every year. I’ve discovered that the term ‘garden fabric’ is loosely used and has multiple meanings depending on personal experience after I recently I also heard the lightweight, white cloth used to cover rows of plants referred to as garden fabric as well. This got me thinking about the many uses of fabrics in the garden and how they can be both beneficial when used correctly, or harmful if used incorrectly.

Since we spend a lot of time in the yard and garden so we can reap the benefits, I thought it would be prudent to to define the two ways garden fabrics can be interpreted- and how each are used within your landscaping and garden to achieve your desired results.

Table of Contents

WHAT IS GARDEN FABRIC?

To start, garden fabric is any sort of cloth or cover that can be used in a variety of ways in your yard. Durability, color, breathability, materials, and thickness all play a part in its usefulness, and so for this article I’m going to first define the different kind of fabric to better explain where, and how, it’s used.

LANDSCAPE FABRIC

Landscape fabric is defined as a black, woven or non-woven cloth made from polyester, linen, or polypropylene used to help keep weeds in check, and moisture in the ground.

ROW COVERING

Row cover, or floating row cover is a lighter weight material than landscape fabric made of polypropylene, is white, and is used for tender plant protection from both heat and cold depending upon the application.

HOW TO USE LANDSCAPE FABRIC IN THE GARDEN

Best suited for perennial flower gardens and tree beds, this black fabric is laid out and secured into the ground using garden staples to discourage weeds from taking root. Also occasionally used in annual vegetable gardens to rip up at harvest, these fabrics have gained popularity through the years due to how much time is saved in clearing gardens from unwanted choking weeds or unruly plant suckers through the growing season. Plants are easily planted through the fabric by cutting a hole with a good garden knife before mulching the top to help protect the fabric from the sun.

Fabric is easily unrolled from the rolls they are sold in and cut to a personalized length. When making a larger size, simple overlap at least three inches and staple securely to keep weeds from forcing themselves between the seams. Because of this, sturdy landscaping fabrics are also a popular underlayment for xeriscaping, the achievement of a minimalist look in dry, arid regions where water is not readily available for landscaping purposes. Fabric covered in colorful rocks and mulches surround heat tolerant plants for unique looks throughout many areas in the Southern states.

*You might also like: Reclaim Your Garden Bed for Spring Planting

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN USING LANDSCAPE FABRIC

Not all is made equal however, and the fabric you choose for an annual vegetable garden may not be the same choice that you want for long-term use in a flower bed, or desertscape. There are a variety of product thicknesses, breathability, material, durability, and costs provided by multiple manufacturers, and when making your decision to purchases, you’ll need to first and foremost consider what you will be using it for.

NON-WOVEN

Non-woven landscape fabrics may allow a bit of breathability and small amounts of water movability, but generally they are used to suffocate anything beneath it to keep the area it covers clear of vegetation. This is a popular cloth to use for xeriscaping that does not include plants and is decorated using only rocks, or other non-vegetative structures, or to provide support to soils structures. It is often also found under walkways to keep any sort of deep rooting plants from undermining the materials used, and to prevent heaving.

Keep in mind that over time dirt and debris can easily create a soil substrate on top of a non-woven fabric that plants can take root in. If the area is well maintained these weeds can be removed easily without causing damage, but if left over a long period it could compromise the use of the fabric.

WOVEN

Woven fabric is created with the movement of water in mind, and is often found as an annual ground cloth for vegetable gardens, or for areas where vegetation will be used. The woven material creates both breathability and porous openings for water to soak into the soils underneath so your plants receive the moisture and fertilizer you may provide. It also helps to keep soil moisture from evaporating: making this a helpful garden product in arid, dry climates.

To use, simply spread it out and secure it down before cutting holes in the material to plant your vegetation choices through. If using annually as a garden weed fabric you can simply take it up at the end of the year and discard, and if you are using it as a permanent underlayment, simply cover with mulch for further moisture and weed control and leave it alone.

Because this fabric is meant to hold allow moisture to move through it, and also has holes, weeds that take hold can grow through the material easily and it is imperative that you use a weed killer regularly, or be sure to pull weeds early on to keep from ripping up you fabric later down the road.

THICKNESS

Keep in mind that there are different thicknesses offered in both woven and non-woven fabrics, and how you want to use your fabric should play into your determination of which to spend your money on. Thicker materials will cost more initially, but they will last longer, and may be more difficult to tear up eventually as well. Thinner materials can more easily tear, so consider what you will be putting on top of it, and how much foot traffic it may eventually receive to get the most life out of it as possible.

ULTRAVIOLET DAMAGE

Some fabrics have UV protection added, but for a cost. And most fabrics without this costly addition are just as effective, as long as you provide your own ‘UV’ barrier. No reason to fret, however, spreading mulch 3 to 4 inches (or more if you want) thick is generally enough protection from the damaging sun rays that will eventually break down the materials used to create landscape fabrics.

Keep in mind that organic mulches will arrive with their own variable selection of seeds that may try and take root after moisture is applied. Be sure to either treat your mulch with a weed killer a few times a year, as mentioned above, or stay on top of the weed germination and pull them before they compromise your materials.

HOW TO USE ROW COVERING IN THE GARDEN

Row covering has a variety of beneficial uses in your garden and can do everything from extend your growing season, to providing protection from pesky insects that would make a meal of your garden. The most popular use is to drape it over hoops (either bought or homemade) to raise temperatures under it for early seed germination in the spring as a frost protection, and to provide shade in areas that receive full sunlight.

These fabrics is usually such a lightweight material that you can even use them directly over plants for protective purposes without worry of your tender plants below being crushed. They are also extremely useful in that they can not only extend your growing season by allowing you an early start in the spring as mentioned, but you can also use it again in the fall to protect those plants you have yet to harvest once threat of frost becomes a reality.

Something you will want to keep an eye on is that despite its use as a pest deterrent, you can also trap unwanted bugs beneath, so be sure to either treat your pants before covering, or watch carefully for unwanted, or destructive insects that may have become trapped after putting it to use.

THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN USING ROW COVERING

Like landscape fabric, when you are looking for how to use cover crops fabric in the garden, you need to consider the different weights and weave choices for your particular use. Some fabrics are created specifically for shade and are much more breathable for extreme high temperature climates, whereas heavier fabrics are created for more cold weather protection in mind- despite your being able to cut it how you want for usage. Be sure to keep in mind what you want your fabric for, or if you are looking for a product that can be used for multiple purposes. A good fabric should last you at least two seasons depending on the job you need it for.

ALL-PURPOSE FABRICS

All purpose fabrics allow up to 70% of available light through to your vegetation all while providing protection from the sun, wind, and flying insects. Generally these can also protect from temperatures in the high 20’s for extended periods of time as long as the day time temperatures and sun allow a warming to occur. Easy to cut with scissors, but difficult to tear, this fabric should last season after season and can be stored folded up each winter.

These are considered an all-purpose fabric because they can be layered for further protection when needed for your outdoor plants, and are fairly breathable- and can also be cut in a narrow manner to be staggered over hoops for shade in areas that need it, but still breathe and allow heated air to escape.

SUMMERWEIGHT FABRICS

These lightweight fabrics are specifically for protection against birds, insects, and airborne diseases. It can also be used as a temporary barrier against damaging sprays if you happen to be treating for weeds or grasses and are concerned about overspray when applying the treatment.

These fabrics will not block precipitation or overhead irrigation, and will allow 85% or more light through to your plants. It is important to note, however, that summerweight fabrics do not protect against frost at all, and keeps very little heat trapped underneath- so this is a poor choice for growing purposes, and should be used only with protection in mind.

GARDEN QUILT

Garden quilts, or other heavier weighted fabrics are made specifically for cold weather protection and can protect plants when temperatures dip into the low 20’s, or even upper teens for a short amount of time when plants would otherwise freeze without protection. At least 60% of the available light will be able to reach your vegetation, which is plenty for both seedling growing purposes, or the completion of a crop maturity. Be sure to remove your garden quilt as the weather stays above frost consistently, or replace it with a lightweight fabric, as it traps heat very easily and can wither, or kill tender plants due to excessive heat.

In some growing zones you can even use garden quilt for greenhouse purposes and keep your crops growing well into, or even though the winter. It is a great alternative to traditional greenhouse materials, and is much more cost effective although it will have to be replaced over time as both sunlight and weather will eventually break down the fibers it is made out of through time.

SHADE NETTING

Certain garden vegetables are less than tolerant of the heat and sun than others, but short of planting in multiple areas, you will have to contend with a loss of crops once the weather hits the dog days of summer; unless you provide protection that is. Shade netting or garden shade canopy is a perfect solution for those few crops that could really use some extra protection from the sun and heat without compromising breathability of the material. Leafy greens, such as lettuce and spinach, as well as peas fall into this category – two of my favorites that I enjoy having an abundance of for as long as possible.

If you live in an area that gets extremely warm, many vegetables will not do as well when temperatures reach 95 degrees or higher, and you may want to consider using shade canopy over your entire crop. Since shade canopy allows air circulation and insect pollination, there isn’t much reason not to error on the side of caution in it’s use: not to mention it’s very easy to erect temporary shade structures to drape the cloth over.

CONSIDER YOUR CHOICES

Hopefully this article has helped define the various uses and definitions of garden fabrics for you, and provided a short overview of the multiple ways both landscape fabric and row covering can be a benefit in your yard and garden.

Let us know below what was helpful and if you have any questions about these uses if you need clarification! If you have any great ideas you’d like to share concerning how you have used fabric in your garden, we’d love to hear from you below. And as always, please share!

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Ask Tom: Using Landscape Fabric

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Note: This month’s article is a re-print of one that Tom wrote for Growing for Market.

THESE FARMERS CALL LANDSCAPE FABRIC “THE MARRIAGE SAVER”

A few years ago farmer friends decided to relocate to South America and sold all their farm equipment, including several rolls of landscape fabric. I was curious about this material but too frugal to buy a whole roll. We tried it, found it very helpful, and now own enough to cover our market garden.

The term “landscape fabric” is applied to a variety of materials. I refer to a black, woven geotextile with narrow green stripes every foot across the width of the fabric. It is most commonly used for greenhouse floors and in container nurseries. Typically it is held down by sod staples — metal wires bent into a U shape and pressed through the fabric and into the soil.

We expected weed suppression, and that certainly occurs, but other unadvertised features are at least as important on our farm. Other benefits include more even moisture across the bed, warmer soil in cold weather, cooler soil in hot weather, and most importantly — cleaner produce. Once the crop grows bigger than the transplant hole, rain and overhead irrigation no longer splash soil on the crop. Clean crops result in quicker harvest and less waste.

In contrast to container nurseries, flower and vegetable growers need holes in the landscape fabric. Melting rather than cutting holes is important to avoid unraveling of the fabric. Our system involves stretching the fabric in a convenient location near a roaring fire. We use staples every three feet around the perimeter and down the “pathways” every four feet across the twelve-foot fabric. In advance we assembled a branding iron style gizmo comprised of four feet of half-inch rebar, locking pliers like Vice-grips, and a hose clamp to attach them to each other. We use a pipefitting that is three inches wide on one end and two inches on the other. For us, four-inch holes let too many weeds grow and two-inch holes are hard to transplant through. We decide in advance what pattern of holes is needed. One-foot spacing on one-foot centers is good for lettuce and we use wider spacing for cabbage and vine crops.

Getting back to the roaring fire, we throw in the pipefittings and wait until they glow. Grabbing one with BBQ tongs, we leave the others to keep heating. After clamping the fitting with the vice grips on the gizmo, we melt some holes until the fitting cools (about 50 holes on a warm day). Then the warm fitting is replaced with a glowing red one and the hole melting is repeated 600 times on a 12 by 50-foot section of lettuce fabric. We cut the sections of fabric with another rebar heated in the fire so the ends of the fabric do not unravel.

Good timing helps with weed suppression. We try to till in supplements right before we stretch the fabric and transplant. Usually a two-inch lettuce transplant placed in a three-inch hole can outgrow any weeds that sprout around it. If the soil is prepared several days in advance, we sometimes need to spot weed once by hand around the growing transplants. Between rotations we pull back the fabric, add supplements, till, and restretch the fabric. Tight fabric is important to avoid flapping in high winds. Flapping fabric can lift the transplants before roots are established. After they are rooted the plants will hold the fabric down. To meet organic rules the fabric must be removed from the field at season’s end.

Is all this landscape fabric sustainable? We are using fabric that has been in use for twelve years and it looks fine. I predict 20 or more years of life although the manufacturers guarantee eight to ten years. The staples eventually rust through and need to be replaced each five to ten years. 1000 staples are about $50. The fabric is about $275 for a 12 by 300 foot roll (0.08 acre). We covered the capital expense in less than a year of avoided weed control labor so it seems to be economically sustainable. We use more petroleum in our tiller than is contained in the fabric that lasts many years. We try to avoid plastic generally but this application passes our environmental screen.

While I am on the topic of sustainability I should explain the “marriage saver” in the title. Picture this often-repeated conversation between a happy farm couple in the middle of a lettuce harvest. “Well, someone should have done a better job of hoeing this lettuce,” says one while pointing at a huge weed that has stunted the four heads of lettuce on each side of the weed. “You’re right. Someone should have hoed this bed a little better,” says the other. It’s nice if each couple contains someone that just loves hoeing and weeding, but no one like that lives at our house. We seldom have that conversation since landscape fabric arrived. As a result we continue to pursue domestic sustainability with this tool that Karen emphatically calls the “marriage saver.”

Our thank to Buffy and Steve White as well as to Alex and Betsy Hitt for their contribution to this article. Karen Thatcher, Tom Elmore and their daughter Elizabeth operate Thatchmore Farm in Leicester, North Carolina. They grow hollies and organic fruit and vegetables.

Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School

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Author: Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.

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