Urban Homesteading Mistakes: Landscape Fabric

Since you all seem to enjoy accounts of our many failures around the Root Simple compound, I thought I’d share what must be one of the worst mistakes I’ve made. It’s a error up in our great chandelier of failures along with buying a 91 year old house on a hill with a bad foundation.

Two words for you: landscape fabric–that plastic stuff sold in rolls at big box stores that allegedly blocks out weeds. Just after we bought our “crack” house I started constructing brick paths and decomposed granite walkways (another mistake we’ll blog about later). I thought it would be good idea to lay down landscape fabric to keep weeds from poking up. So why is landscape fabric a bad idea?

  1. It’s made of plastic.
  2. It rips.
  3. It just plain doesn’t work.

After a few years Bermuda grass will inevitably poke up through it and you’ll end up with what you can see in the photo above. To repeat: landscape fabric doesn’t work and is a waste of money.

My favorite alternative is a very thick (minimum 4-inch, but preferably more) layer of mulch. The added benefit with mulch is that you build soil over time. With landscape fabric you just add another piece of plastic to the landfill. I know some folks swear by cardboard, and in certain situations cardboard is probably OK, but I still prefer, when possible, just piling up the mulch. You get better water penetration with mulch and you don’t have the problem of bits of cardboard floating up to the surface.

So, my two cents: don’t add landscape fabric to your landscape.

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32 Comments

  1. Hmm. We’ve used some landscape cloth over the years and never had this problem. Perhaps your weeds are just more persistent than ours. Mulch is a fine idea, but it will slowly break down into nice, rich soil which provides a fabulous breeding ground for weed seeds. The silver lining is that if the mulch hasn’t been packed down, the weeds can be pulled easily.
    Face it, along with death and taxes weeds are a fact of life. As a person who actually enjoys cleaning (I know, I know), I find weeding no different than tidying the house, except that I can be outdoors, which is always better.

  2. hmmm very interesting and timely. I am making a pea gravel patio and doubted whether landscape fabric would be of use. I think pea gravel will just slip around on it, and provide no footing. I thought of newspaper too, but again, pea gravel will just slip around. I really don’t want weeds growing up. They have managed to grow and crack through the old concrete slabs (which I have now removed)
    Alas, I bought the fabric regardless of my doubt (with rewards points). But MULCH. THIS approach seems interesting. Block weeds and provide a place for the pea gravel to settle into and something much more eco friendly. Interesting indeed. But it sounds like I might have to dig another 4 inches. UGH.

  3. cardboard, compost, mulch. :D

    landscape fabric is the WORST invention and anyone you consult with that tells you to use it is someone who’s advice you should question and maybe not use their help because they don’t have experience if they’re recommending the stuff….

  4. Donna–you bring up a good point that I forgot to mention. I’ve found weeds easier to pull in mulch, but a real pain with landscape fabric.

    And Sara–I’ve had bad experiences with pea gravel–our doberman quickly tossed around the pea gravel and got dirt integrated into it. Perhaps without dogs and/or kids it will be fine.

  5. We pulled up sod by our house, graded it and put landscape fabric over it pinned down by stakes and covered by mulch. This did not work for us either. We still had weeds and trees grow through it just not as many as if we did nothing at all. The mulch is falling off (the birds dig in it looking for birds. Well lets just say it’s not the no maintenance I was hoping for. If I’m going to maintain something I better be able to eat it. We plan to try plastic and rocks instead (since it’s by our foundation and not good for planting).

  6. I’ve had success with landscape fabric under pea gravel for a patio, but we used the ‘fabric’ non-woven kind, not the woven plastic kind. We made two layers of fabric by weaving the pieces in perpendicular directions and then used a ton of stakes to hold it all down. The pea gravel went on top. Any weeds that managed to take hold in the gravel came up really easy since they were growing on top of the fabric. The area wasn’t too weedy before we put the fabric down. I’m planning to do the same thing at our new location, but I wouldn’t use landscape fabric in walkways, because of the problems mentioned above.

  7. We have an area near the driveway, about 400 square feet, where I park my two trailers, which here in San Jose I’ve been calling my “Native California Patch”. Reason for the name: It gets sun from noon til sundown, it’s on the west side of the property, so in the summer, it has desert conditions: hot and dry and there is no irrigation in sight. But in the winter, with the rain, it grows some fantastic weeds. Tall weeds. So much so that the county govt put us on the Weed Abatement Program. I wasn’t knocking those weeds down quick enough and so it became a fire hazard. As if.

    Anyway, we are in the middle of major landscaping and the plan is to grade the area, put down weed block then put in 3/4 inch rock a few inches thick for the trailers. I fear the contractor is thinking of landscape fabric as weed block.

    What are your thoughts about just doing the grading and laying down the rock? Will weeds be discouraged from sprouting? I’d rather not have to fire up the 2-stroke weed whacker, or apply lots of roundup in that area going forward. But I’m not entirely sure what we should do because I don’t believe that the fabric works either.

    On another note, we had a previous owner lay down thick, clear plastic sheeting under some rock areas and it seemed to control weeds from growing through. Maybe that works better because there is no permeability. Which is also not so good.

    I’d love to hear people’s thoughtful input. Thanks!
    Rob in San Jose, California

  8. We have two small areas of the yard which are covered in small gravel. The section on the north side of our house rarely gets many weeds because it’s on the north side and rarely gets much sun. It is also slightly higher than the rest of the yard. The other small area is at the bottom of a very slight downhill slope. Over the years, rain and snow have gradually washed tiny amounts of dirt onto the gravel with the result that there is now enough dirt to grow weeds, despite the fact that we’ve got at least 4″ of gravel there. Gravel looks nice, but depending upon the conditions of the specific location, it may or may not provide the weed barrier that you want.

  9. Agreed! Landscape fabric doesn’t get rid of all the weeds. The mean ones can poke right through it. And ever since I’ve started using it, I have these thorny vines with red on them. And they are growing everywhere there in landscape fiber but not where there isn’t

  10. I’ve used the cloth-like grey fabric under a gravel driveway, and that material seems to work. That plastic stuff is so “consumer rip-off home depot crap”! The mulch on top of cardboard is effective, but eventually weeds come back, especially the very old and large roots. But they are easier to get to…you have to knock them down until you tire the plant out. Also, pay attention and don’t let stuff go to seed.
    Can’t wait for the blog on crushed granite. I loath that material…it stick to your shoes, looks like hell after one season, and is expensive.

  11. Here in Arizona–where most yards feature some sort of lava rock or decomposed granite instead of grass–the word on landscape cloth is that it is supposed to be completely taken up and replaced every 1-2 years.

    For something that is supposed to make yard care easier, that seems like an awful lot of work and expense.

    I’m with you—landscape cloth is an awful idea.

  12. I love my landscape fabric. I was given 3 huge rolls of commercial grade heavy duty woven fabric. I’ve had it for 5 years…still perfect. I mulch over the top, built 30 plus raised beds on top of it and built 2 Community Gardens using it. I have also used it as a shade cloth over hoops in my garden.

  13. Just say no to landscape fabric AND pea gravel. Gravel eventually becomes rocky soil no matter what, and even the good landscape fabric is no match for tough weeds like bermuda. Pulling weeds is even worse with fabric and once their roots are lodged in the fabric you can’t get rid of them.

    At my last place I spent a lot of time and effort pulling up some very pricy landscape fabric.

    I’m rather fond of mulch myself. Nothing is perfect. But a year and a half from tilling up a piece of yard to make a garden, a little half-hearted weeding once a week for about 30 minutes keeps the weeds out in a 500+ sq ft. garden. It’s all been mulched deeply — 12″ in some places. The straw in the pathways is about gone so the fall weeds are coming back. Time to find some more half-rotted straw somewhere.

  14. This is what I was told to do:

    In the heat of the summer, stake down opaque black plastic. Leave it there 2 to 3 weeks. The heat will build up and kill the plants and any seeds. This should sterilize the soil. After that just take the plastic up.

    (I think you could also use a thermometer to check the temp to make sure it gets hot enough. This does not work so well in shady areas or cool climates.)

  15. as the young people say “huzzah!”

    i cannot stand landscape fabric. it did just what yours did in our gardens, and I am constantly walking around and picking up little pieces of it.

    now that you mention it, i’m going to put the rest of the roll i have on craig’s list (free) and inflict it on some unsuspecting person.

    preach the word, brother.

    and, nice article on bread in the recent urban farm mag.

  16. Three years ago, I put down landscape fabric covered with shredded bark mulch between my raised garden beds. Huge mistake. The !@#$! nutsedge grows right through it, under it, over it, everywhere. Nutsedge has long runners that sprout new plants every so often so it grows under the fabric and up into the beds themselves. So much for “no till”. If I didn’t fork the beds to loosen the runners so I can pull them out, they’d be solid with nutsedge by now. The runners also anchor the fabric so pulling it up with nutsedge all grown through it is a terrible job. Argh. Never again. Cardboard topped with mulch works much better, and even if the nutsedge eventually comes back I can get to it easier than trying to rip up the landscape fabric. As for cardboard, I’ve read varied opinions on it and I suspect it’s usefulness relates to how much precipitation the garden gets. Folks in drier areas seem to have less luck with it.

  17. We tried the fabric feeling landscape stuff and it’s just broke apart and let weeds run wild.. and it’s really hard to pull the weeds cause the roots are in the fabric and twined around it, so we have to cut fabric as we weed.. ugh.

    We have had great luck using card board, newspaper then mulch. If the weeds get through all of that they pull way easy and it only takes a minute or two :) Even my 4 year old can pull them :)

    I love that we can recycle the old trees to build the soil rather then have all the shreded wood be burned because there is no place to go with it :( They haven’t any mulch programs out here. The tree trimmers just take it back to the shop and burn it. They have loved being able to drop loads off at our house :)

  18. The biggest issue I have with landscape fabric, especially the heavy plastic kind (aside from the fact that it’s plastic) is that you can’t get a shovel through it. The mulch on top of it disintegrates into soil and starts growing weeds, and you can’t turn them under. The guy who had our house before put down this stuff everywhere he didn’t have grass.

    I hate stuff.

  19. i put landscape fabric under paver stones that i put 3ft. around my home it is working good. i also installed a 12x12ft patio using fabric and 1ft. patio block so far so good. i have have had the paver stones down for 5years and patio block for 3years.

  20. Thanks for a great thread of comments, everybody. The general consensus is certainly *against* any kind of plastic weed block, fabric or otherwise. For our trailer parking area, we’ll still go with the three quarter inch rock, but for-go the weed block. Wonder if it would make sense to cover the area with cardboard to bury under the rock first. I’ll have to do some homework on that.

    Thanks again! And I’m looking forward to hearing about the trials and tribulations of crushed granite too.

    Rob in San Jose, California

  21. @Sara – Generally 6-8 weeds is required for solarization to work. And even then, some of those darn seeds and plants manage to survive. But it does knock out most of them.

  22. At this point, the dood and I lay out layer upon layer of corrugated cardboard (from which the tape has been removed! cannot stress this enough, don’t ask me how I learned the importance of this…), in order to smother out weeds. Every few weeks or so, in the wetter months, I’ll peel back a bit and let the hens feast on blanched crabgrass or bermuda grass sprouts, and they eat all the slugs that come out then, too. It’s a PITA, but it works. I have two rolls of that landscaping cloth, and don’t like the idea of it breaking down into persistent plastic pollution in my soil. But it was handy the couple times I needed to cover the ground around a newly planted tree, just to keep the neighbors’ cats from using that freshly turned oil as a latrine.

  23. Me too, re: “decomposed granite walkways (another mistake we’ll blog about later”!
    Say what? I’m in AZ and recently have been considering bringing in a load. Why not?

  24. I haven’t heard anyone mention newspaper…I use a thick layer of it (10 sheets or so), wet it down with the hose after I lay it out, and cover it with mulch. Works like a charm. Our local paper uses a compostable vegetable ink; I guess one might want to check that out first.

  25. @Robin: Erik wants to do a post on this, so he might have more to say.

    As I remember it was very hard to compact to a professional finish–we got those super heavy rollers that you push around, but I think you really need machinery. It looked like Sunset Magazine for about a week. Then it started to degrade–we were always fighting weather and wear and eventually weeds. Actually, our dog liked to dig it up, too. It was expensive and heavy to haul and install. It didn’t improve the soil–that’s its major sin. We had to haul it all out when we changed our minds and it left lots residue behind, not the least annoying of which is the plastic cloth.

    We’re just all about the mulch these days. Mulch paths. Building soil. All that. In the end I suppose it depends on your situation.

  26. @Sara: Solarization usually does work if done right. We’ve done it. But lately we’ve been rethinking it because we’ve become so obsessed with The Life of the Soil. (Erik always pronounces that with capital letters). Solarization is extreme in that it kills *everything* under the plastic: all the good beasties and soil critters as well as the weeds. We’re content with smothering weeds under very thick layers of mulch. It sounds too easy, but it really works. It just has to be really, really thick.

  27. Thanks for your candid shot of the fabric cloth-I just helped on a project where it was used under a dry stream bed…wonder how it will look in a couple of years

    I have sheet mulched with a number of varied materials: corn based cloth, newspaper, phonebooks,cardboard, and a blue cotton bedsheet. They all worked pretty well as weedblockers with about 4-6 inches of mulch on top. I never rake up the Chinese Elm leaves from the street trees, so there’s a steady replenishment of mulch.

  28. I think it is great for the bottom of a sand box. You use plastic and the water don’t drain with landscape fabric the water will at least drain….

  29. Like with anything, there is a wrong way and a right way…. try digging deep, clothing, then adding several inches of 3/4″ minus (not pea gravel!!) as a foundation. Cap it with several inches of granite, tamping hard and solid, and you should be pretty darn weed-free (except for the occasional airborne volunteer). Good luck!

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