Saturday, September 26, 2015

My Troubles with Landscape Cloth: Part 3

Just beyond the back gate, there is a gravel path with landscape fabric underneath. It is one of the first areas we did, and perhaps because we were smart enough to lay a good thick layer of gravel to protect the cloth, it has held up fairly well over the years.

Still, you can see plants creeping in on edges of the pathway and under the concrete bench.

Wanting something softer underfoot in the section of the garden where I have my raised beds, I chose to cover the landscape fabric with natural cedar mulch.

Unfortunately, mulch breaks down quickly making the area the perfect home for weeds.

And it is not just the weeds that are a problem. It's all the prolific self-seeders, like the forget-me-nots and the eggplant-colored geraniums, that I planted in the surrounding flowerbeds.

By mid-summer the forget-me nots and geraniums have self-seeded and the weeds have moved in. 

The result is that I have a real mess on my hands in July and August! I can't tell you how many hours I have spent trying to keep this mulched area weed-free this summer.

The only way I think you could get mulch to work as a covering for landscape cloth is to rake it all up and replace it periodically through the growing season.

Money was tight when we came to doing the gravel courtyard at the back of the garden. We had moved in the year before and already had replaced the furnace, the roof and all the eves troughs.

So when we went shopping for landscape fabric, we favoured price over quality.

Huge mistake!

Compounding the problem, we made the top layer of gravel far too thin.

In areas, like the one under the two boys, the fabric has failed utterly making it easy for the weeds to move in.

With the top layer of gravel removed, you can see 
clearly the sorry state of the cheap cloth underneath. 

We are now looking at the possibility of having to redo the whole area.

If we do decide to move forward next spring, we will have to rake back all the gravel, remove all the old cloth in its ratty state and then lay new cloth.

What a nightmare!

Landscape Cloth: Does it really work?

In my humble opinion, landscape cloth laid correctly deters weeds best in the first few after installation.

Then it wears and seeds take advantage of even the tinniest pin-sized holes.

Even if you rake your gravel routinely, debris quickly builds up on the surface and then breaks down forming the perfect growing medium for sallow rooted weeds like plantain.

The weed Plantain has moved into this area where crushed limestone and flagstone sit on top of landscape fabric.  Plantain (right) can easily withstand drought, so it is quite happy finding a home amongst the flagstones.

The Reasoning against using Landscape Cloth:

• It's not cheap. The rolls of good quality cloth (4' wide by 50' long) we've bought are $30-$40 a roll. Then add in the cost of the pins or fasteners you need to hold the cloth in place. Finally there is the cost of the pea gravel or other surface material to go on top.

• The descriptive name"cloth"or "fabric" makes it sound pretty benign, but in reality, landscape fabric it is a petroleum product. This is a disturbing fact that I learned only recently. I have always prided myself on the use of good organic practices. To think I have unwittingly installed a petroleum product, that could be leaching chemicals into my soil, is frankly horrifying.

• It is time consuming to install and even more time consuming to replace.

But my number one reason against using landscape fabric is that it doesn't work all that well over the long haul

Alternatives to Using Landscape Cloth:

If knowing landscape fabric has a questionable chemical makeup and is a potentially ineffective weed barrier makes you hesitate to use it, what are the alternatives?

Sadly nothing seems to present itself. Corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newsprint are temporary weed blocks at their best.

Truth be told, I find myself in quite a quandary as to how to readdress the areas where we have used landscape fabric.

What to look for when buying Landscape Fabric:

How can you spot poor quality landscape cloth apart from price? It tends to be thin and almost transparent. The fabric weave is uneven. The cheap stuff is guaranteed for 10 years or less. 

Before you purchase this type of product, you have to ask yourself: do I really want to redo all this work ten years from now?

Most good quality landscape fabric has a 20 or 25 year guarantee. It's has a heavy weight and isn't at as transparent. Most importantly the weave has even, uniform quality.

The only drawback to this more dense fabric is that water seems to pass through it more slowly. When I removed the top layer of cedar mulch, I found moss growing on the surface of my landscape fabric.

How to Install Landscape Fabric:

If you are creating a pathway or courtyard, you will be covering the landscape fabric with another material like pea gravel. This top layer should be at least two or three inches in depth to both protect and hide the cloth underneath. To allow for the top covering, you therefore need to begin by digging out the project area to the proper depth.

Once the area is dug out, the ground must be levelled.

Next, prepare the area carefully removing any surface stones that might create holes in your landscape fabric.

Lay out the sections of your landscape fabric. Overlap pieces of fabric by at least 8". (In the how-to article referenced at the end of the post, they actually recommend a full 12" overlap.)

U-shaped pins are generally recommended for holding landscape fabric in place. We have found however, that the standard pins heave terribly when the ground warms each spring. (I trip over old landscape pins that have lifted out of the gravel every spring!)

In our most recent installation we switched to using spikes and washers. We find the 6" galvanized spikes don't heave when the weather warms.

Please make no mistake; these spikes aren't nails. Nails could be potentially dangerous! Spikes aren't as sharp as nails, and they won't rust, because they are galvanized.

U-shaped pins are sold in garden centres along with landscape fabric. Galvanized spikes and appropriately sized washers can be found in any big box hardware section.

Here is one last, but very important tip: landscape fabric tends to lift where two pieces of fabric overlap. 

It is really important to use u-shaped pins or spikes at least every 3" or 4"along any join. This may seem like a bit of overkill, but trust me, the last thing you want to see is an ugly flap of landscape fabric where it has lifted along a join.

So what am I going to do about my sorry looking gravel pathways?

I haven't decided, but I do know that I won't lay any new areas with landscape cloth!

Further Reading:

Read The Myth of Landscape Fabric by Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor, Puyallup Research and Extension Center, Washington State University.

North Coast Gardening: Why I hate Landscape Fabric: An Unfair and Unbalanced Look at Weed Cloth and Professional Tips for Using Landscape Fabric Right by landscape designer Genevieve Schmidt

The Landscape Fabric Weed Barrier Myth by Todd Heft on Big Blog of Gardening.

Lots of people will tell you to put down newspapers are a weed barrier. Before you consider it, read this: Is Newspaper Toxic for my Garden? by Peter Kearney of Cityfood

Garden Prep: How to Make a Bed, with Cardboard by Margaret Roach of the blog A Way to Garden.


  1. Grow thyme! If the gravel is sunny enough, the thyme will take over and very few weeds will be able to take root. You just have to keep weeding until the thyme grows in. Once you have that carpet, it chokes out weed seeds. Happy Saturday!

    1. I love the idea of covering the ground with thyme, but the area at the back that must be redone is shady. It is a suggestion someone else might want to use however.

  2. I completely agree with you. Eventually the weeds grow through and then are even more difficult to remove. I have better luck just putting down a really thick layer of mulch...then when the weeds do appear they are far easier to pull.

    1. I have used just mulch in a thick layer to make short paths in two different areas of the garden, and like you, I find it pretty effective. If you have a shady spot, I find it works even better.
      I always tramp down the surface of my mulch by walking over it. As the mulch dries it forms a bit of a seal on the top of the path.
      Based on my experience with mulch over landscape cloth and just a thick layer of mulch alone, I would say that the area with mulch alone functions better. The only downfall of using mulch alone, is I have to redo it every spring. I also have to do have to do a little weeding mid-summer.

  3. This series has been so helpful, Jennifer.
    I think I am going to try the mulch, as the person above me suggested.
    I have tried both types of landscape cloth on a limited basis, and found what you found with the inexpensive versus expensive, and again like the person above me mentioned, the weeds that always eventually come up, are much harder to get out, when topped with the landscape cloth.

    Thank you once again!

  4. We too regret buying our membrane, the weeds started rooting from seed blown into the garden, it is a real pain to weed, never again! We have it in 2 areas, the fruit and veggie garden and the sitting area by the pond, we will have to do something eventually, but what?

    1. I feel the same uncertainty as what else I might do if I don't use landscape fabric.

  5. We have the landscape fabric already for 12 years on a more than 40 metres long path to the frontdoor with a thick layer of gravel, there are weeds of course but not that many that I cannot manage. My advise is never use it in the borders....... Great pictures of your two boys I missed them already a long time.

  6. Thank you for this timely topic! I used landscape fabric and bark mulch in my garden paths. The first year, the mulch decomposed so quickly I was able to shovel it into my flower beds along with the compost! This year the mulch I bought from a big box store was infested with weed seeds and I had to do more weeding than I've ever had to do! I just consider it good exercise, which I otherwise would not have gotten enough of - LOL. Now for what to do next year...

    1. I had the same experience with one bag of mulch I bought this year. It was infested with weed seeds! So frustrating! Yes, what to do next year. I too am in a bit of a quandary.

    2. I had the same experience with one bag of mulch I bought this year. It was infested with weed seeds! So frustrating! Yes, what to do next year. I too am in a bit of a quandary.

  7. I have never used landscape cloth. I use white pine needles on all my paths, around raised beds, and to replace grass on a terrace. If you lay it on really thickly and keep adding for a few years until a solid powdery base of broken down needles builds up under the fresh needles, it is a great weed deterrent and looks very natural. I think gravel or pebbles in general are bad. We have them between stepping stones around the edge of a terrace, and that is the weediest part of the garden and the hardest to weed.

    1. Using pine needles sounds interesting. I always think they make a nice fragrant groundcover in the forest. In nature most areas covered with pine needles are in shade under the trees. I am wondering how well pine needles work in the sun? I would love to hear if your paths, raised beds and terrace are in sun.
      The other thing I am wondering about is where to find/purchase pine needles.

  8. Thank you. That was very informative and confirmed my suspicions. I've used this cloth in the rose bed and now I have to take it out because it's worse than just mulching.

  9. I agree with you, I laid the fabric and it only lasted three years, and with a heavy fall of leaves from our huge beech trees it was impossible to keep on top of so I ended up with four inches of rotting leaves sitting on top of rotting fabric....I'll be interested to hear what you come up with!
    I loved seeing your beautiful boys, they are just

  10. I honestly haven't had much luck with landscape cloth under mulch or even gravel. It is the best thing when laying hard stone though.

  11. What great pictures of 'the boys' ... quite took my mind off landscape cloth!

    Hope your week is going well.

    All the best Jan

  12. I've only tried landscape cloth under mulch, and I agree it doesn't work, but I was hoping it would be a good choice under gravel. If you find something that works better for paths, let us know! Enjoyed seeing the boys--such handsome fellows!

  13. I have had great luck with newspapers. I think the trick is to lay them very thickly, overlapping by about half, so no light gets through, then covering that with a thick layer of bark. I did this in a large area around the barn, and after 12 years, there is only an occasional errant weed. I live in a rural area where weed seeds blow in from the open fields. I will be doing this newspaper barrier around a new chicken coop this fall, leaving some beds for herbs and flowers for the chickens. I am intrigued by the idea of pine needles. I rake up literally mountains of pine needles constantly. Maybe I should be using them? Might give that a try in some pathways. They do not decompose very fast - if ever. Thank you! for all this detailed information.

    1. Yes, I'd put those pine needles to good use. From what Carolyn says they work well. And unlike landscape cloth they are natural and organic.
      Interesting to hear about the thick layers of newspapers. My only concern, as someone who worked in the print industry, would be the chemicals in the print ink and paper. I am not sure I'd use newspaper in an area you grow food.
      Newspapers sound like they work well for you Annie. I could well use paths that have "only an occasional errant weed."

    2. I believe most newspapers use soy based ink. Soy products are widely known to be one of the worst GMO offenders, but it couldn't hurt in the flower garden. I have not used newspapers in the veggie garden. Only hand pulling allowed there. After raking pine needles for 3 days, I can't believe I'm going out to spread them around again! There is always something new to learn in the garden.

  14. Jennifer, I'm just now getting caught up with your posts. Thanks so much for this series! I'm putting off redoing the areas with landscape fabric until next spring. Weeds have taken over, and I have a LOT of work ahead of me.


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