All You Need to Know About Landscape Fabric
If you’re fed up with weeds and considering a physical barrier to those pesky plants, learn how to make it work for you.
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.
Everything You Need to Know About Landscape Fabric
For those who lead active lives, spending a few hours on the weekend pulling or digging weeds out of a garden or flowerbed can quickly become tedious. Several weed-control methods are available, and the use of landscape fabric is right at the top of the list because it doesn’t involve using potentially toxic chemicals to kill or prevent unwanted weed growth.
What is Landscape Fabric (aka Weed Fabric)?
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 (view example on Amazon), 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 to secure the fabric and add another $.50 per sq. ft. to your total material cost.
Note that virtually all landscape fabric can be covered with mulch of any type—wood chips, gravel, recycled rubber nuggets, etc.
Advantages of Landscape Fabric
Most gardeners agree that the best place for landscaping fabric is around shrubs and trees where it can be installed and topped with quality mulch to last for years, hopefully. Because it’s intended to be left in place, it’s not recommended for vegetable gardens or annual flower beds.
- Keeps inorganic mulches and unwanted debris like rocks from settling into the soil. While mulches such as chipped and shredded recycled rubber offer aesthetic value when layered around the bases of trees and shrubs, they do not decompose, so a layer of landscape fabric will keep them from sinking into the soil where they would be difficult to remove.
- Prevents weed seeds buried in the soil beneath from sprouting. Seedlings need light and air to grow, but when weeds seeds germinate below a layer of landscape fabric, they are blocked from reaching the sun’s rays, so they die.
- Limits the need to use herbicides for weed control. Not all gardeners are gung-ho to use chemical herbicides in their borders and flowerbeds, especially if they have pets and children who play in the yard. By using landscape fabric, the need for chemical herbicides is reduced or eliminated.
- Helps retain soil moisture by reducing evaporation. Sun and wind are significant contributors to evaporation, which can leave the soil dry, so using a landscape fabric over the top of the soil will help keep valuable moisture in the ground.
- Offers some erosion control on slopes subject to washout from heavy rains. Semi-permeable types of landscape fabric will allow some moisture to seep through but protect the surface of the soil from water that’s running down a slope, which can cause erosion.
Disadvantages Of Landscape Fabric
The quality of the landscape fabric—and sound installation practices (discussed below)—will determine how long it 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 the ground beneath landscape fabric can become compact and unhealthy without them.
- 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.
- It can be expensive. Premium landscape cloth is thicker than standard weed barrier fabric and may contain UV blockers to retard decomposition from ultraviolet rays, but it’s pricey and could add substantially to the cost of the landscape project.
- Reseeding is almost impossible. Gardeners and landscapers who depend on desirable plants spreading naturally by reseeding will be disappointed if they use landscape fabric because the seeds that fall cannot penetrate the fabric nor sprout.
- It can be a pain to remove later. Once landscape fabric is in place, it’s usually covered with rubber or wood chips, or rocks. To remove the material, all the chips or rocks must first be shoveled or raked away.
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 garden fabric. Generally, Scotts landscape fabric, available in most home centers (and online via Amazon), meets the needs of most homeowners. Individual gardening and landscaping needs vary, so it’s essential to choose the best landscape fabric that suits the task at hand.
- 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!
Alternatives to Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric isn’t the only solution to weed-blocking needs, and some gardeners aren’t keen on laying out the fabric, measuring it, cutting it, and then positioning it and pinning it in place. Some prefer a simple solution, while others are looking for the most environmentally friendly option they can find.
- Newspaper: Printed newspapers are quickly becoming a thing of the past, but for those who still have subscriptions, using the old newspapers as a weed-blocking is an excellent way to recycle while deterring weeds. Spread out 5-8 layers of newspaper around plants in the vegetable garden or flowerbed and then dampen to hold them in place. Add additional sheets periodically as the previous sheets decompose.
- Burlap: Old burlap sacks can be cut and repurposed as weed barrier fabric around the bases of plants and shrubs. Burlap features an open weave that allows air and water to filter through while helping the soil retain moisture and block weeds.
- Cardboard: Like newspapers, cardboard will biodegrade and enhance the soil. Plus, cardboard is usually dirt-cheap and can be cut from boxes that are no longer needed.
- Chemicals: Pre-emergent herbicides are designed to be applied to the soil after desirable plants are already established. A pre-emergent won’t kill existing weeds, but it will keep new weed seeds from sprouting.
- Groundcover plants: Nothing could be more natural than planting a spreading groundcover in perennial beds and borders to reduce weeds. Varieties such as ajuga and creeping juniper will spread out and form dense green mats that will choke out weeds.
Which is Better Landscape Fabric or Plastic?
Plastic doesn’t decompose like many landscape fabrics are designed to do after a few years, so it must be physically removed. Still, plastic has its place in the landscape—for projects such as installing paver or cobblestone walkways, using plastic landscape sheeting right above the soil will prevent weeds from growing between the stones and offers a permanent solution. In flowerbeds and other planted beds where plants need air to survive and thrive, permeable landscape fabric is the better option.
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.
With today’s busy lifestyles, many don’t have hours per week to dedicate to keeping flowerbeds and landscaped rock gardens weed-free. Weeding chores are greatly reduced by using a quality weed control fabric, and the material will help keep moisture in the soil, which also goes a long way toward conserving water.