The other day I wrote up a post about how to use landscape fabric without screwing it up. Previously I’d written about when using landscape fabric is a good idea and when it’s not. Sometimes I try to be fair and balanced on an issue so I don’t sound like some kind of gardening zealot. Today isn’t one of those times.
I think landscape fabric sucks.
There, I said it. I regret using it in nearly every case that I have, and I try my hardest to show my clients why they shouldn’t use it, either. I’m not judging you if you want to try using the stuff – I understand why people want to, and if you’re going to use it, I want to share with you how to use it right. But after 14 years of designing and maintaining gardens professionally, it’s a rare garden where I go – oh yeah, that landscape fabric really worked out well! Here’s why I hate it so:
1. Because it sucks the life out of your soil.
Your soil is the happy home of billions and trillions of micro-organisms which work to break down organic and mineral matter into usable nutrients for your plants to use for growth. What’s that mean in normal language? Your established shrubs and trees don’t have to depend on you to fertilize them, because you’ve got this crazy army of micro-beasties making fertilizer out of your existing soil. How’s that for a money saver?
I’m not a scientist, so I don’t know the stats on it, but I can tell you what I have seen over and over again with my own eyes. After ten years, you pull up the landscape fabric, and that soil is dead. Like – dead, dead. Soil that started out cool, crumbly, loose – a soil that plants could stretch, wiggle their toes, and relax into – becomes hard, dusty, impossible to dig with your hands. There’s no organic matter left, water runs off the surface, and it’s hard to dig new planting holes. I don’t know what’s going on under a microscope, but what you can see with your bare eyes is a big soil FAIL.
2. It kills the earthworms.
Or at least it makes them go away. Earthworms like to do two things that are incompatible with landscape fabric: they like to eat compost, and they like to poke their heads out of the soil periodically to breathe and wriggle and do their earthwormy thing. Earthworms rock because they keep your soil aerated with all their tunneling and wiggling, and their castings have all kinds of nutrients that help your plants grow. A soil without earthworms quickly becomes hard and sad.
3. The compost disappears surprisingly fast.
In like three years, a substantial dose of compost or manure can break down and be used up by plants. The natural way is to have a slow, steady dose of compost making its way into the soil from the surface – either leaf litter or a layer of composty goodness, or your wood chips slowly breaking down and adding organic matter to the soil. This keeps the earthworms and soil microbes happily chomping away and creating free fertilizer for you, keeps the soil aerated and crumbly from all that happy earthworm wriggling, and keeps the soil cool and able to hold moisture.
4. Plant roots grow on top of the landscape fabric, which isn’t doing them any favors.
Plants like to grow in happy mulchy stuff. You put happy mulchy stuff on top of your landscape fabric to hide it and keep it from degrading in the sunshine. Your plants send out roots on top of the fabric into the mulch, and then can’t find their way into the soil because there’s this crazy barrier blocking them.
This makes your plants less able to tolerate drought and stress, makes them more dependent on you to water because their feeder roots aren’t plugged into the damp depths of the soil, and makes it harder for them to extract nutrients from the soil, because so many of their roots aren’t actually in the soil. This is made even sadder when you rip up your landscape fabric in ten years, which you will because by that time it will no longer be functioning as a weed barrier (stuff only lasts so long). You’ll be inadvertently ripping out all kinds of plant roots that have grown entangled with the fabric.
5. The fabric is butt-ugly, and you will know this because it is so slick that a stiff wind will blow the mulch off of it.
The landscape fabric will become exposed anyplace where you didn’t smooth the soil below thoroughly enough, or where you have too steep a slope, or if there are whooshing ornamental grasses that brush back and forth against the ground in the wind. Sprinting dogs, kids, digging cats, and heavy rains will all expose your landscape fabric at times. And if you get too low on mulch, you’ll find it impossible to adequately rake the mulch back over the black expanse. And a black plasticky moonscape is exactly what we dream of when envisioning our ideal garden, riiight?
6. If you get behind on your weeding, it’s a nightmare to get the weeds out.
So, it’s supposed to cut down on your weeding time, right? And it sort of does, for the first year or so when the weeds in the top of your soil would have all been sprouting. Beyond that, you’re weeding the same amount you would otherwise have been, and if you get behind on it, watch out! Once the weeds’ roots get entangled in the fabric, it’s very hard to remove them effectively. You can end up with a more difficult weeding problem than you had in the first place, with the weeds’ roots firmly gripping the threads in the landscape fabric so that all you can do is rip their tops off. Fun times.
In addition, you need to put wood mulch on top of the fabric to prevent the sun from degrading it, but wood mulch does break down into compost in time. That means in five years, you essentially have a layer of delicious growing medium on top of your fabric for weed roots to sprout in. What was the point of landscape fabric again?
7. It’s a petroleum product. Yuck!
I’m not some kind of “plastics must die” purist. Some of my favorite gardening tools have plastic handles or plastic parts. But if we can avoid supporting the petrochemical industry by saving ourselves labor and doing something great for our gardens, then that’s just another benefit in the “no landscape fabric” checklist. I won’t even get into what chemicals it might be releasing into the soil. They don’t exactly make BPA-free landscaping fabric like they do water bottles!
8. It’s expensive and time-consuming to install.
At about .50 per square foot, plus .12 a pin, it’s not cheap to install. Those square feet add up fast. The installation rates about a 2 on the “damn it” scale – you’ll probably only let fly with a couple of expletives while putting the stuff down, but it will take up your afternoon and make any future planting a “damn it”-worthy task in itself.
9. You better be sure you wanted your plants there.
You know how so much of gardening seems to be planting something and figuring if it doesn’t do great you’ll try it someplace else? Or shifting plants a couple feet to the right when they overgrow your pathway? It’s a process of experimentation, at least for most of us. And it’s not a process that is very smooth with landscape fabric. Dig up, sweep soil off fabric, patch fabric, cut new hole, dig hole, plant new plant, sweep soil off fabric and smooth soil perfectly again, re-pin everything, move mulch back. Whew! I’m ready for a nap. You’ll think twice before airily declaring that you’ll just move it if it’s no good there.
10. Goodbye Love-in-a-Mist, Cerinthe, and surprise volunteers.
Because your reseeding annuals won’t come up where there’s landscape fabric, or if they do, they’ll fail rather suddenly just before bloom because they can’t get their roots into the soil. Like to do annuals or casually tuck in bulbs each fall? No planting decision is casual with landscape fabric down, and if you do cut a hole in the fabric for some bulbs, you better hope the gophers don’t push them around. I’ve seen bulbs pushed a foot or two off the mark and try to come up from under the fabric. Very sad indeed.
So what’s your alternative?
Well, briefly – use a shedload of mulch! Good weed-free wood chip mulch, and a nice thick 3-4″ layer of it, keeps any weed seeds on the soil surface from sprouting. It breaks down slowly, adds a little something to the soil as it goes, and you can always rake it to the side to add additional compost, plant, or allow re-seeders to spread.
Wood chips take away nitrogen in the top inch of soil, which does not affect good plants in the least (except tiny seedlings or groundcovering plants like Creeping Thyme, Blue Star Creeper, or other 3″ tall or smaller plants). This is actually great news because it really helps suppress weed seedlings that are trying to sprout. There are a ton of other ways of controlling weeds simply and organically, but a thick layer of wood chip mulch in beds is the easiest and most effective thing to do, and the effect truly is comparable to using landscape fabric with none of the icky side effects.
Removing landscaping fabric? Here’s a tool that will help
I recently discovered the Bahco P20 Pruning Knife, and the curved blade and easy-to-grip handle has made it an indispensable tool in my crew’s weed-cloth-removal arsenal. I definitely recommend it if you are stuck removing weed cloth, or want to cut clean planting holes within it.
Want to read more about landscape fabric?
How about you?
Do you use landscape fabric in your garden beds? Has it turned out well for you or been a big fat bummer? Let me know in the comments below.