Is Landscape Fabric EVER Not Horrible?

18

No holiday post from me – but I bet you’ve seen plenty lately and anyway, this post has been sitting in draft for ages.

From video by Land Designs in Connecticut

Because I watch so many gardening videos, I’ve naturally come across a few about landscape fabric, also called weed cloth. Though we associate its use with landscapers – bad ones – landscaper John Holden in Connecticut asks on video “Should I Have Landscape Fabric?”  and answered with a resounding NO (so resounding, I added “NO” to the title when I embedded it). His point is that yes, it will prevent weeds for 3-4 years but he’s agin it because:

  1. It’ll form a “nice layer of soil on top, which will grow weeds in it.”
  2. The nice soil can’t mix with the soil below because of the fabric barrier (photo above).
  3. It’s a pain to work with – hard to move or add new plants because the roots get mixed up with the fabric. “Just gets messy.”
  4. Rhyzomes from the lawn can creep under the fabric and spread. “Just really nasty.”

Oh, and even worse than actual weed cloth? He’s seen people too cheap to buy the stuff putting plastic bags and tarps under their mulch!

Another landscaper – Jim Putnam of HortTube judiciously titled his video “Pros and Cons of Using Weed Control Fabric.” He agrees with the short-term help with weed control but notes the problem that “Birds drop seeds, your mulch breaks down, and eventually you’re going to have an environment where weeds are going to come up, anyway.” Though at least “when the weeds first germinate, if you get them right away they’re very easy to pull on top of the fabric.” But just wait: “If they get rooted into the fabric (as it gets old), when you try to pull them out it’ll rip the fabric up.”

Jim Putnam with landscape fabric

Back to the advantages, this one’s telling: If you put the fabric under gravel and have “gravel regret” – which he’s seen many times, with customers needing to have their gravel removed – “it’s very easy to remove if there’s fabric underneath.” Which may be a case of two wrongs making a right.

But he hasn’t finished with the negatives. It’s an additional expense for a short-term solution, and it prevents soil improvement.

Jim also challenges an advantage he’s heard touted for fabric –  that it holds moisture – declaring that that’s actually a negative because when he’s pulled it up on landscape jobs the soil smelled terrible underneath it.  That’s because the fabric is holding water in place, but not allowing enough air through it for the material underneath to break down properly. “Dead plant parts can’t decay properly and it actually just rots.”

 

One video suggesting an exception to the never-use-the-stuff rule is by Laura at Garden Answer, who uses landscape fabric in her video “Planting the North Pole Arborviteas”.  From about 3 to 3:50 minutes she addresses the issue, saying there’s “definitely some room for landscape fabric,” though she doesn’t recommend it “in areas where you’re continually changing things up.” In its defense she reminds us that it’s “better than chemically controlling weeds.” Well, there’s that.

I’d run out of videos on the subject, so asked Google to weigh in and found that the industry claims that the fabric “stabilizes soil, retains moisture, saves on mulch, aids in filtration, and minimizes weeding.” An alert commenter was quick to suggest: “Please update your research. Landscape fabric girdles trees, makes weeding more difficult, and deprives soil of water and oxygen.”

In the industry’s defense, they may have come up with a pitch that actually makes sense: “Of course, weed control isn’t just for planting beds. It’s also needed under decks, patios, and other hardscapes.” Okay.

More research led me to “6 Reasons why Landscape Fabric is a Bad Idea” from a lawn-care company, including this additional negative I hadn’t heard yet: “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.”

And another negative to add to my growing list: “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.”

Friend of Rant Genevieve Schmidt of North Coast Gardening offers lots of reasons to hate the stuff, including the one that would top my own list: “The fabric is butt-ugly.” She’s so right that it eventually gets exposed by wind, digging cats, heavy rains and so on. “And a black plasticky moonscape is exactly what we dream of when envisioning our ideal garden, riiight?”

I’m illustrating that truth with the shot above taken in my town, in a highly visible location.

Finally, an industry publication asks “Landscape fabric: yay or nay?”and makes the claim that “Before groundcover or shrubs can grow into a hillside, landscape fabrics can be used to prevent soil erosion.” I’ve seen it used on hillsides but isn’t that just asking for the mulch to go downhill and reveal the ugliness underneath? Or does ugly not matter in a short-term situation like that one? Really, does anyone know?

18 COMMENTS

  1. made the mistake of using it on a slope were I planted juniper. They weren’t doing well. Even after lots of rain, the soil under cloth was bone dry. Water doesn’t penetrate it. Evil stuff. I pulled it all out and plants recovered.

  2. I have landscape fabric in our garden bin the backyard. Put in when I was less wise, about 10 years ago. Container plants were out in, and a redwood mulch to cover the fabric. Now…..weeds everywhere, harder to pull them out without the fabric coming with it, can’t plant without cutting a new home in fabric, and it looks ugly. Never again.

  3. Early last spring I laid landscape fabric down in a strip along the fence to kill the St. Augustine grass (rather than dig it all up) there that was growing under the Chaste trees. I put cypress mulch on top of the fabric. So far so good – it still looks pretty. What would you do if you were me?

  4. I fear most of our landscaped backyard has fabric or worse, black landscape plastic buried below shrubs, trees and walkways. I pull it out as it surfaces, but even 8 foot lilacs have seeded into it and sometimes fall over due to the shallow roots that result. We’ve lived here nearly 20 years and still find black plastic that was installed by the previous owner. Sheets of cardboard, paper grocery bags, or layers of newspaper would be a better choice under mulch, breaking down along with the mulch and enriching the soil.

  5. Put it in 15-17 years ago when I didn’t know better (when did the backlash begin?). Where I haven’t been able to pull it out due to shrub roots entangled in it, I use a gardening knife to cut pieces so that I can plant again. Seems to me its only use would be by corporate landscapers planting shrubs X feet apart, who will return every year to shore up the mulch around them. Except for the problem of air and water not getting through…. I now use newspaper (until they’re no longer a thing) and cardboard in the vegetable garden, and sometimes around a new shrub or tree, with cut leaves or straw as mulch.

  6. Amen! When clients ask if I’ll be putting landscape fabric down in the garden, my answer has always been NO! They cringe and look taken aback. They say “but I don’t want to weed!”. HA, I say, before launching into a rant similar to John Holden’s 4 points.

    There are only 2 places that landscape fabric should ever be used: behind stone retaining walls to keep soil from leaking through and and to cover the drainage hole in the bottom of containers.

  7. Excellent post, I completely agree that ‘landscape fabric’ creates many problems and solves none. Wise gardeners avoid it. Less wise ones, me included, have to learn the hard way, but then never waste money and time on it again. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays and Blessed belated Solstice. May we gardeners all be good stewards of our shared soil and our good Mother Earth in 2018 – no landscape fabric required.

  8. Removing the hated stuff is a resolution for 2018. It wasn’t me who put it down, but I let the Other Gardener have his way in two rough areas that he got under control. Big regrets.

  9. Having just stumbled onto your blog this it the first post I’ve read and it’s a gem. Although I’m not a professional landscaper, my love of gardening has led me to be involved in many planting projects at the various schools my children have attended and at several churches. The question of whether to use landscape fabric always comes up and I always advise against it, for several of the reasons listed. My main reason being that mulch simply breaks down and becomes a growing medium into which weed seeds blow and germinate. But I am so glad to have a much longer list, written by professionals, to add to my arsenal. Hopefully this will end the looks of distrust that always arise when I give my advice against, as if I couldn’t possibly know what I am talking about because I am just an amateur. 🙂
    Thank you for this post!

  10. I used the nasty stuff when I was starting my garden, Wrong wrong wrong. I will spend the rest of my days ripping it out of areas I want to replant, and find everything you say: desiccated stinky soil, and fabric penetrated by thirsty roots. Thankfully the soil recovers fast once free to interact with mulch and weather.

  11. While I don’t disagree with all the complaints about landscape fabric and its misuse, and I think it is horribly marketed, it DOES have its uses. It is best when used as a separation barrier.

    For example, when putting in a stone dust walk, it helps separate the gravel/stone dust from the compacted soil beneath, preventing the gravel from sinking into the soil and leaving low spots in the walk. You could consider it a type of weed barrier, but really its primary function is to prevent the dispersal of the top layer into the lower layer.

    I have used it to cover nursery yards as I laid out 5,000 mum pans with drip emitters. No mulch on top, just a half-acre lot covered in fabric and pots spread across it. It sure beats trying to weed among all that spaghetti tubing.

    Essentially, landscape fabric is a tool with specific uses. The fault lies in how we decide to use it differently. A hammer is not a bad tool, it just doesn’t work well with screws. The problem most people have with landscape fabric, is they want it to be used as (or are told it can be) a weed barrier in plantings, and that is most certainly not the case.

  12. I’m in Provence, France, and have battled several types of landscape fabric in the very large garden of a recently purchased property. Some of it is woven plastic, and some sort of felty stuff. All horrible, as you say. Former owners dug out a 10′ x 10 area about 2′ deep, lined it with green woven plastic, filled it with peat, and planted rhododendrons, azaleas, etc. Hello, this is the south of france, those plants don’t grow here. Dug all up, saved a few for shady spots, and spent many hours and the help of a backhoe to get the plastic out. Under trees the felty stuff, put in over a foot deep, tree roots damaged, trees not doing well. Dug it all up, backfilled, trees now happy. Its a snare and a delusion no matter where. It is still around under a gravel area, when it rains the the gravel migrates because the water sits on top and runs off. Ghastly but I’m winning.

  13. I always tell my customers that weeds do not come from the center of the Earth. The fabric is a marketing tool for landscapers who think it is really needed.

  14. We too made the mistake of using it in beds where plants are growing. I’ve ripped most of it out. Right now, my opinion is that the only place it’s decent for as a layer under mulch is right next to the house under the eaves where precious little rain falls and plants don’t grow Even then, it’s more to keep the mulch from sinking into the soil, not preventing weeds.

  15. I agree with Perry Mathews. Fabric can be benifical if used correctly. I covered a 400 sq ft area of English Ivy and Vinca that was growing larger by the year. It was also stunting the growth of 10 blueberry plants. I covered the entire area with gray woven poly fabric. Placed 3 inches of black shredded bark mulch on top. 2 years later the Ivy and Vinca are dead and the Blueberry bushes are thriving.
    This year I will remove the mulch and fabric, reshape the bed and plant grass seed to restore the lawn area to what it used to be.

Comments are closed.