Landscape Fabric – Weed Barrier Cloth

Robert Pavlis

Landscape fabric, weed barrier and weed barrier fabric are names for the same product.  It is a black mesh type of plastic that is used extensively in landscaping to keep weeds out of your garden. Does it keep the weeds out? Does it let water through to the plants? Lets have a look at the effectiveness of landscape fabric.

landscape fabric - weed barrier
Landscape fabric – weed barrier cloth

Landscape Fabric – Weed Barrier Cloth

This is how landscape fabric is advertised to work. You place it on the ground and cover it with mulch. Weeds already in your soil can’t grow through the cloth so they die. Weeds can’t grow on the cloth, so any sprouting seeds also die. Voila! No weeds.

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Don’t Buy Into the Landscape Fabric Myth.

It is true that seeds sprouting under the cloth will not grow through it. However, strong perennial weeds will eventually grow through or around it. Many perennial weeds can grow quite a distance under ground and since landscape fabric comes in 3 and 4 foot wide roles they only need to grow a few feet to find an opening.

If you use a thin cover of mulch, weeds do not grow in the mulch because it is just too dry there. But in no time at all you will see the landscaping fabric stick up through the mulch and then it looks terrible in your garden.

Soil Science for Gardeners book by Robert Pavlis

If you use more mulch to hide the weed barrier, wind and water deposits soil particles and plant remains onto the cloth. In no time at all you have the perfect seed mix sitting right above the weed barrier, and weeds start to grow. Believe me when I say that plant roots can grow through the holes in the landscape fabric.

Weed barrier cloth is no better for controlling weeds than a 4 inch layer of mulch.

Landscape Fabric Stops Rain

Weed barrier cloth is porous (ie it has holes in it) and it is advertised as ‘letting the rain flow through’. This is mostly a gardening myth. The reality is that some rain will go through the holes, but much of it flows over top of the cloth and away from your plants, which remain dry.

Weed Barrier Sucks the Life out of Your Soil

I’ve talked many times about the importance of life in the soil. Landscape fabric reduces the air reaching the soil, and prevents any new organic matter from getting to the surface of the soil. It does not take long and the dew worms, microbes and other soil life, which depends on air and food, either leave or die. When this happens, there is a reduction of nutrients for your plants, and soil structure starts to degrade. Neither is good for your plants.

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Permanent Plantings are Damaged

In permanent landscapes, plant roots will grow into and through the landscape fabric. At some point in the future when it is replaced (needs to be replaced every 10 years or so), you will damage the roots.

Is There a Good Use for Landscaping Fabric?

Maybe. If you are planting trees in uncultivated land that is very weedy, there is a benefit to using the weed barrier around the tree for a few years in order to keep the weeds down, and give the tree a chance to get established. The tree roots have less competition for space and nutrients. The loss of water due to the weed barrier is offset by the fact that the weeds are no longer using the water. The landscape fabric should be removed after a couple of years once the tree is large enough and strong enough to compete with the weeds.

Recent scientific findings, reported by Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, suggest that a 6- 12 inch layer of wood chip mulch is just as effective. I have used the landscape fabric, as described above, for trees planted in fields, but have now switched to using just mulch.

More Reasons for NOT Buying Landscape Fabric

  • it is a plastic and we don’t need more plastic in the environment
  • plant roots growing on top of the fabric can’t withstand a drought as easily
  • moving plants, and dividing plants is a nightmare because the weed barrier prevents you from digging new holes
  • if you do get weeds they are near impossible to pull out
  • it is relatively expensive for a product that does almost nothing!

References:

1) Photo Source: Two Women and a Hoe

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

202 thoughts on “Landscape Fabric – Weed Barrier Cloth”

  1. Boy, this article sure generated a lot of responses! I have not read them all, but am observing a trend in the people who seem to have a positive experience with weed barrier cloth.
    A. Landscapers (install and walk away)
    B. Limited time in a landscape site, (less than 5 years).

    As a professional gardener with several decades in the business, and providing long term maintenance in established landscapes for mostly perpetual clients, I have nothing but negative experience with weed barrier/ landscape cloth.
    There are many varieties of material of varying composition but what they all have in common is the inability to allow decomposing plant material to add organic matter to the top soil. In landscapes where I have been asked to remove it I have found the soil beneath it to be compacted and dead looking, with tree and shrub roots congested at the surface. In addition weeds do certainly germinate in whatever mulch is applied to the surface. Even gravel or rocks, which after a few years will still have a certain amount of fines settling onto the surface of the cloth (an unavoidable occurrence) . When weeds (which inevitably sprout and grow) are pulled you will find that their root systems have become enmeshed in the cloth and will pull the cloth up, exposing it above the mulch. It then requires some fiddly contortions to recover it so it’s not an unsightly mess. Not exactly a labor saving point.
    I never, never recommend it, and cringe when I hear a nursery employee selling it to a customer.

    Reply
  2. Thought I had asked this but maybe it didn’t get through. Behind my pool I have 5 Oak Beech trees that are 5 years old so we’ll grown. The area which is 6×32 constantly grows weeds. I was thinking us using a heavy weed fabric in the area and cutting out round holes where the trees are, then covering the entire area with 3/4 clear and river rock. Will these damage the health of the trees?

    Reply
  3. Hey Robert, hopefully you’re still looking at new comments. Our half shade back yard, maybe a quarter of an acre, has been taken over by poison ivy and I’m trying to get it back to a useable space for our daughters to play in. I’ve used landscaping fabric in our front yard in the past and absolutely hate it, such a waste of money. I even put a good 4-6” layer of “no float” mulch over it too. It was great for a few months but then the prickly weeds and monkey grass broke right through and seems to even be enjoying the new digs. What would be the best way to rid our backyard of this awful ivy and weeds and keep it out? Pulling manually is not feasible and I refuse to use any sort of roundup. I’m hoping to plant sections of wild flowers in the back along with placing new areas of grass.

    Reply
  4. Robert, I hope you can answer this question. I am thinking of building raised mounds to grow cactus in a rainy climate. Cactus would be planted at the top of the mound with the sides covered with thick solid IMpermeable plastic (no holes) with rocks and gravel to cover the plastic both to protect it from UV light and for esthetics. Wold this amke sense to you?

    Reply
  5. Besides acting as a weed control fabric, different types of landscape fabrics can give you the support you need to build a D.I.Y project that actually lasts. That’s because geotextile fabrics act as a base beneath the ground’s surface, preventing the elements from damaging your project over time.

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  6. If you garden in a low precip area, the woven sheets help maintain soil mositure. If you have adequate precip, roots grow deep enough to get water from the deeper soil– no need to be watered directly…Compaction squeezes the important air out of the soil– with or without mesh covering…While the fabric may not elimante all weeds, it sure makes weeding the interlopers by hand easier.
    .. and your silliest comment is the one about “we don’t need more plastic.” Plastic, as you obviously don’t know, is made out of petroleum waste products. If it wasn’t turned into useful plastic, it would wind up in the dump or burned off anyway. We may as well makes something useful out of it, even if it is only temporary.

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  7. I’ve done landscaping for years and even ran my own landscaping company. In the beginning I was naïve and didn’t know better. But we bought hundreds of rolls of commercial landscaping fabric, guess how well they worked? Not that great, and didn’t work if that. I found what was more effective was newspaper or even cardboard. Now were into doing landscape lighting with GoBright and those barriers sometimes needed spikes which would go into irrigation hoses or low voltage electrical especially if you have someone inexperienced and didn’t know what they were doing. It caused more headaches than anything using landscape fabric.

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  8. I found this to be true, after years of nightmare with weeds and fabric barriers proving totally ineffective. Eventually I put down steel plates and concreted EVERYTHING. It was the only way. I now have no garden, but I also have no weeds.

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    • I agree that it’s best to avoid this plastic for most landscape uses. But one use in vegetable gardening seems worth trying. I’m talking about landscape fabric as a temporary weed barrier, laid down in our community garden raised beds, with plants grown through slits. We’ve had terrible weed problems, largely because of weed seeds in the soil we had brought in. There isn’t enough labor available to keep 30 beds well weeded.

      Drip irrigation lines run under the fabric. At the end of the growing season, the fabric is removed and stored for reuse the following season. At that time, organic matter can be worked into the soil or left on top as a winter mulch, or cover crops can be sown.

      Reply
  9. This article is based on very limited knowledge. Yes, if you buy cheap landscape fabric, it might not do what you want it to and in many cases will not last a single year, but this is not because of landscape fabric in general.
    “Landscape fabrics are classified by weight (2 oz, 3 oz, 6 oz) per yard or by thickness (mm). Both non-woven and woven materials come in a range of weights. Heftier fabrics resist punctures, are more effective and tend to last longer. They’re are also more expensive, but the investment can be worthwhile. Heavy weight professional grade landscaping fabric, for example, is extremely durable and will last up to 20 years in the right application.”

    Reply
  10. I, too dislike landscape fabric but have found one good use for it: Under a fence. I put a 12″ strip directly under my wire fence so weeds don’t grow up and intertwine (and we all know how hard it is to hand weed right on a fenceline). Would you support this type of use?

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  11. Goodday
    Im from SA and when I want to use gravel or even laying down pavers I put seasalt (you buy it in bulk) on the soil that work wonders for years

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  12. I use window bug screen fabric and put 2-3 layers around plants, flowers and shrubs. It is not known if weeds will grow through topsoil placed on top of the fabric but it works wonders if you add lava rocks, rocks, gravel, bark mulch or drain rock on top.

    This Canadian is not a garden expert but we have window screens on the exterior of windows to stop insects from invading our home while fresh air flows through. The same concept is used to prevent weeds with unsightly blight and air and water goes through for flowers and plants while weeds struggle to poke through. Seventeen years later, I rarely pluck weeds after placing lava rocks on top of the hidden fabric. Soil does not mat to the window screens and does not rot the material unlike garden fabric which is not cheap. Thinking outside the box, I went to window screen companies and got free defective rolls as they were collecting dust in the warehouse and were happy to reduce, recycle and reuse. Again, check with the experts but even garden shops liked my idea as with strangers. Good luck…

    Reply

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