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Pros & Cons: Landscape Fabric

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Pros & Cons: Landscape Fabric

May 16, 2023

You’ve probably seen those large rolls of black fabric at your local garden center or home improvement store and thought to yourself, what is that stuff? Well, it isn’t a new type of flat paving or a punk/goth lawn alternative. It’s landscape fabric, and it is mainly employed to prevent weeds. But as with most things, there are pros and cons to using it.

Just mention the words “landscape fabric” to gardeners, designers, and contractors, and you’ll get a mixed bag of opinions—from unequivocal thumbs up to furious frowns and thumbs down. Personally, while I know this material can be helpful, I’m finding myself leaning harder toward the anti-landscape fabric side.

Please keep reading to learn the good and bad of landscape fabric:

What is landscape fabric and why do people use it?

This Quick-Plant Fabric at Farmer&#8\2\17;s friend comes with pre-burned holes (most don&#8\2\17;t); \$59 for a 50-foot roll.
Above: This Quick-Plant Fabric at Farmer’s friend comes with pre-burned holes (most don’t); $59 for a 50-foot roll.

Landscape fabric is a type of material made from a variety of synthetic or recycled materials. The main purpose of adding this to garden beds is to prevent weeds. Some believe that the biggest bonus of using landscape fabric is that they can reduce the use of toxic weed killers. Most applications include laying it down on garden paths, under gravel/stone patios, and in garden beds. Once down, it has to be secured with metal landscape pins. Then, because all of the fabric options are unattractive and unnatural looking, most people cover it all up with mulch or stones. In general, a good quality product will do its job and prevent weeds, to a degree, but there are downsides.

What are the cons of landscape fabric?

Instead of plastic-based landscape fabric, try to source a chemical-free, biodegradable version. This Paper Mulch by WeedGuard is certified organic and made from wood pulp. At the end of the growing season, it decomposes. A 50-foot roll is \$3\2.99 at Gardeners.com.
Above: Instead of plastic-based landscape fabric, try to source a chemical-free, biodegradable version. This Paper Mulch by WeedGuard is certified organic and made from wood pulp. At the end of the growing season, it decomposes. A 50-foot roll is $32.99 at Gardeners.com.
  1. Most are not recycled or biodegradable and can contain harmful chemicals, such as petroleum. This can be detrimental to your soil and plants, not to mention somewhat alarming if you are planting an edible garden and use this material around the plants. Pro tip: Try to source a chemical-free fabric if you must use it.
  2. Soil under the fabric can turn dry, hardened, and ultimately unhealthy. Soil needs air circulation and a direct relationship with sun, water, earthworms and air flow, all of which this material both blocks and hinders. In addition, essential nutrients have a difficult time reaching the soil. I am a big supporter of side-dressing some plants with compost in the spring, and landscape fabric makes this virtually impossible.
  3. Changing your mind about your plantings becomes difficult. I have to be honest: I move plants a lot, so if you’re like me and have a tendency to “rearrange” your garden, then think twice before installing this fabric because it will be a total nightmare. Not only does the fabric cover the irrigation so you can’t see where the main lines are, but you’ll have to cut your way into the tough fabric to make a new hole.
  4. Reseeding is hindered when you use landscape fabric. Sure this may sound good if you have grass seed or an unwanted dandelion problem, but if you love it when California poppies spread around or your favorite love-in-the-mist or calendula pops up their cheery heads in random places, then you will be out of luck.
  5. Landscape fabric is not cheap—both the material and the labor to roll it out, cut out holes with a sharp knife or scissors, and staple it down.
  6. Eventually it wears down, frays, pops through the soil/mulch, and becomes unsightly.
  7. Weeds can still sneakily establish themselves on top of the fabric and infiltrate an area. So while landscape fabric will certainly suppress weeds the first few years, it’s in no way a lay-it-down-and-forget-about-it permanent solution.

Are there any alternatives to landscape fabric?

At the SF Botanical Garden, every year volunteers weed by hand, lay cardboard down, and top with a layer of mulch. Photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia.
Above: At the SF Botanical Garden, every year volunteers weed by hand, lay cardboard down, and top with a layer of mulch. Photograph by Daderot via Wikimedia.

So glad you asked! If you really want to be eco-friendly but still prevent weeds, consider using good old-fashioned flattened cardboard. Cardboard is great to lay in paths and patios before you apply a thick layer of mulch or gravel. Of course this paper material will break down over time, but look at in a soil-benefiting way. (You can also use newspaper but this breaks down quicker than cardboard.) Last, there is nothing wrong with hard manual labor: Hand weeding and applying a thick layer of mulch or gravel as the preventive measure is a nice, earth-friendly way to go.

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