Sunday, September 6, 2015

My Troubles with Landscape Fabric: Part 1

Private garden in Niagara-on-the-lake

Landscape fabric. It is not a particularly pretty topic to begin with after a bit of a blogging break, but bear with me. I think this is a series of posts worth reading if you plan to create a courtyard or pathway. (Coming up shortly, I promise to have more inspirational posts, new projects and a book give away.)

Not too long ago, I received a question from a reader by email:


I am writing, first of all, to say that I love your blog, "Three Dogs in a Garden". As an avid flower gardener, I am inspired by the ideas I see there.

I've noticed that you have pea gravel paths in your garden. I am thinking of doing that, as well, but I wonder about your method for clearing them of leaves that collect in autumn. It seems to me that a leaf blower would also blow the gravel and a rake would rake up the gravel with the leaves and other debris. Do you clear the paths by hand?....

Thanks again for your blog, and happy gardening to you.

Zone 4b, Wisconsin

I replied to Jean's email telling her that I use a standard fan rake. No big secret there! I do however, make an effort to clean up the leaves almost as soon as they fall. Freshly fallen leaves are so light and dry they seem to float on the surface of the gravel. Once the leaves get wet in the rain, raking up gravel along with the leaves is much more difficult to avoid.

As I typed out my reply, I felt I needed to warn Jean of an even bigger concern if she was thinking of adding gravel paths: working with landscape cloth. So I wrote back, touching on a few key problems and promising her I'd do a post on the subject.

Private garden in Niagara-on-the-lake

Fine Gravel Pathway at the Toronto Botanical Gardens

Pea gravel courtyard and path in a private garden.

Pea gravel pathways in a private garden

I always loved the look of gravel pathways and courtyards. They seem very old-world and even a bit romantic to me.

So when I planned out my garden, a little over ten years ago now, I included gravel pathways that would give the large circular garden at the very back of the property the European look I so admired.

This type of pathway also appealed to me as an affordable alternative to more expensive hardscaping with bricks or stone.

On top of the pleasing aesthetics, gravel paths seemed like a very doable project: you simply lay down some landscape fabric and cover it over with gravel. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?

As best as I knew, landscape cloth was what professionals used for such an undertaking. Its use as a weed deterrent in flowerbeds was also very familiar. Here in Ontario, landscape cloth is commonly used as a low maintenance method of keeping weeds at bay in the public gardens that skirt new housing developments.

Only a few weeks ago, I watched a Chelsea gold metal winning British garden designer named Adam Frost install a landscape membrane (the English version of "cloth" or "fabric") to suppress weeds in his own personal garden.

Watch a clip from BBC's Gardeners' World showcasing Adam Frost's gravel garden.

Though this method seems like a great way to suppress weeds, I have found that it is actually fraught with problems. It appears to work initially, but the benefits are short-lived.

I even would go so far as to say I would never ever use landscape fabric in a flowerbed. 

And here's why:

• Even with regular raking, flowers and leaves are bound to fall onto the surface material (gravel, mulch, bark, etc.) and break down. That little bit of compost, added to the excellent drainage the landscape cloth provides, will actually work contrary to the originally intended purpose of suppressing weeds. 

Here you can see a good example of the debris that falls onto a pathway.

• Moving or dividing perennials will be more work than it would be in a conventional flowerbed. You'll have to rake away the surface covering (mulch, gravel etc.) and attempt to dig out the plant whose root ball will have grown well beyond the size of the original hole you cut into the landscape fabric. 

Planting the new division involves more raking away the surface material, cutting a new hole, planting and finally raking back the surface material. Trust me, you are going to be cursing that darn landscape cloth!

The landscape cloth will make it impossible to add nutrition like compost or manure that your plants may require.

Beneficial insects and earthworms, which aerate the soil, will find the landscape cloth blocks their natural movements and will avoid the area.

Jean emailed me back sharing her own experience using landscape cloth in a flowerbed:

"....Two years ago, I first killed weeds in an area along my side yard by laying down cardboard. Then I put down a double layer of landscape fabric over that and covered it with several inches of medium-sized bark chips. Last year, it looked fine. This year I have weeds poking through. I assume that the cardboard disintegrated and that squirrels or chipmunks dug into the wood chips and created holes in the fabric."

As Jean discovered the hard way, even the tiniest hole in your cloth is an open invitation for weeds. I have even found that weeds don't even need a hole. They will sometimes spread out there roots along the surface of the cloth and live quite happily.

Weeds in my garden growing on landscape cloth covered with cedar mulch.
The choice of cedar mulch turned out to be a HUGE mistake.

In an upcoming post, I will expand on my own experiences and express further concerns about any use of landscape cloth. 

Sadly, there aren't a lot of alternatives, so I'll touch on the various grade of cloth available, as well as share what I have found is the best way to work with this problematic material.


  1. I totally agree about weed control fabric, for all the reasons you say. We have quite a large garden and I put the darned stuff everywhere, then the leaves from the huge trees fell and I never cleared them, so a lovely layer of compost was formed....sighs, I'm still trying to dig down and pull the darned stuff up!xxx

  2. Thank you! So timely for me. I have never used this material because of the many times I have seen it folded back on itself or wrinkles and rips showing through the material used on top. I have also heard how temporary it is, and how difficult it is to remove, but what is the answer? I have used bark on the paths through my garden for years and replacing it will be the very first thing I do next spring, if not this year. I spray vinegar, soap and salt on weeds in the paths before they set seed and that's about it. We gardeners love looking at garden design, plants and flowers, but so many garden blogs leave out the nitty gritty of all the underpinnings that make gardens work. My gardens are in a pine grove, which provides wonderful shifting dappled light that works well even for roses, but I rake piles of pine needles every day. I have found that fine bark is easier to rake than coarse. The fine bark goes right through the tines of the rake whereas the coarse gets raked up right along with the pine needles. I have noticed most of the French gardens have grass paths, which are easy to rake, but I don't want to add mowing to my list of garden chores. Looking forward to the next posts.

    1. I was worried that this post might be so practical that it would bore readers. I am glad that you found it helpful.
      Sad to say, I don't have all the answers when it comes to creating pathways, but I can share my experience and hope it will save other gardeners from making the same mistakes. Pine bark pathways aren't perfectly weed free, but I am not sure using landscape cloth will be much better.
      I also want to pick up on something else you wrote Annie. Recently, I listened to a podcast on A Way to Garden on the subject of homemade "natural" weed sprays. I think you should listen to it as well. In the post and podcast there is a concern expressed about using epson salt, vinegar and soap to kill weeds. Here is a link:

    2. A million thanks for the link .. a wealth of information. I only use the vinegar concoction on the weeds in the pathways, not in the beds, but there's no point in using something that doesn't kill the roots! No wonder I have to do it every year. Besides weed seeds blowing in from the open fields around me, they're also coming back from the roots. Now I know better.

  3. I hate the stuff. I'll use ground covers wherever I can to choke out the weeds and just pull out the excess whenever I need to. Much easier!

  4. I have used landscape cloth many times, specifically for weed control, and although it works quite good for me, I definitely agree with you, Jennifer, where it comes to transplanting, and even working fertilizer into the ground around the plants. The landscape cloth is now down in all of your gandens now, but I don't think I'd used it again/

    You have a wonderful week!

  5. I did some volunteer work at the Missouri Botanical Garden and many, many years ago, someone had the idea to put landscape cloth down under all the gravel paths. They are still fighting with it. I guess it's a huge cost to tear it all out, so it is very slowly disintegrating. The weeds are everywhere and are being sprayed instead.

    In your post, you said at the end that pine mulch turned out to be a huge mistake. Why was that? Was it because of the landscape cloth underneath or for some other reason. I just layed a huge amount of pine bark chips in my flower garden this year. Did I do something wrong??

    1. Sorry Karen, I should not have hinted at something wasn't going to cover until the next post. I also meant to write natural cedar mulch (mistake now corrected). I use cedar mulch on all my flowerbeds to keep the weeds at bay. I am sure natural pine mulch is just fine too!
      It is putting mulch as a surface covering for the landscape cloth that was the huge mistake. In the area where I have my raised beds I used cedar mulch over top of the landscape cloth and it has been a huge disaster. I spend more time weeding the pathways between the beds than I do the raised beds themselves. Unfortunately weeds love the combination of landscape cloth and natural cedar mulch!

  6. Yikes! I thought that read that the landscape cloth was a huge mistake. I need to know about the pine mulch before I order a truck load. Hurry with the next installment on this topic.

    1. Apologies Annie on two counts. I meant to write cedar mulch not pine mulch (now corrected). I also should not have hinted about the subject of the next post without explaining myself.
      I use cedar mulch to keep the weeds under control in my flowerbeds. I also use it on a couple of pathways. It's as a top dressing for landscape cloth that it doesn't work well at all.
      It not even just the weeds that like the cedar mulch/cloth combination. Self-seeders like forget-me-nots readily self-sow in the area where I have the mulch over the landscape cloth.
      I think you are safe to order the pine mulch. Just don't put it overtop of landscape cloth! More to come on this soon! I promise to get working on the next instalment.

  7. I learned from experience not to use landscape cloth in flowerbeds. Weeds still grow on top or through the cloth--how do they do that?? But the worst is when you want to dig something out of that area. I've never used much of it, but a friend of mine had. When she moved, I helped her dig out many of her plants to take to a new garden. Trying to dig a mature plant out of landscape fabric is a bear!! I do want to put down a couple gravel paths, though, and I'm curious to read what you recommend putting down first.

  8. Using landscape fabric in flowerbeds or borders is completely new to me and I should never do that. When the flowerbeds are densely planted, weeds don't have much chance within a few years. Only first years you have to hoe or pull out weeds between the new plants. Nevertheless, I am glad we have the landscape fabric nowadays, for we have a long gravel path to the frontdoor and it helps to prevent the weeds, but of course it is not sufficient, sometimes we have to pull out some weeds. What also helps: in our country it's an old custom raking the gravel paths on Saturday, so it looks nice on Sunday.

  9. I have used it both under gravel and mulch. It is expensive used over a large area and eventually the weeds seem to always come through and then are far more difficult to remove. It also has the habit of "peeking" out and that looks awful. I really don't know what the solution is. I look forward to hearing more about it.

  10. I think these are fine to use under gravel ... but definitely not good news for a flower bed.
    Interesting read, thank you.

    All the best Jan

  11. The problem with landscape fabric is that over time "dirt" accumulates on top of it, whether it from falling in from nearby beds, leaves, etc. breaking down, dust storms (who knows). And all those seeds need is a tiny bit of dirt to take hold. I did landscape fabric under my pea gravel paths a decade ago and two years ago I got so sick of dealing with it that I ripped it up from under the path. What a mess.

  12. Our problem is that our weeds are the long and tangle rooted, hard to pull out, grass type weeds like crab grass and quack grass. I simply can't keep up with them,and we can't seem get rid of them. I was hoping something like landscape fabric would be the solution. I put it in a small area last year, covered with bark chip mulch, and it's been great (I don't mind the cutting into for more planting), but I don't want to use it in the larger areas if there are problems to come...
    I look forward to continuing to read more about it! (and you thought we'd be bored by the subject? No way!)

  13. I learned the hard way about the horrors of landscape fabric when I was gardening in South Carolina. Everything rooted into the fabric and the plants were always thirsty since their roots were so shallow. The only place I've used it in my current garden is to line the riverbed but I still get weeds.

  14. I have never used landscape fabric on the soil for all the reasons that you mention. As for the gravel I like the softness of its appearance but it does tend to get stuck in the crevices of the soles of shoes and wellingtons and the blackbirds scatter it everywhere when searching for worms. The garden vacuum does manage to suck up the leaves and not the gravel.

  15. Jennifer, having recently become a convert to the pea gravel, I have to say I am surprisingly pleased. I did put down a weed supressing fabric. Apart from helping to prevent weeds coming through it also prevents the gravel from disappearing into the soil. I agree, it would be total a nuisance in the flower border.

  16. Jennifer, I used the landscape cloth for my patio some years ago. Then the cloth was getting old and weeds began to grow between the tiles. But I have never used this cloth on flower beds.

  17. I so agree with you Jennifer, I have tried both ways and I never use fabric in flowerbeds anymore! I started out with fabric in all the beds in my previous garden, 14 years ago, but removed it over the years and didn’t replace it as it became a nuisance whenever I was going to plant something new. Besides, with the type of beds I used to have, filled to the rim with plants, the weeds didn’t have much chance anyway.
    I did however use weed liner on my gravel path, that’s the only place I was really pleased I put it down, and I didn’t remove it. I used a broom and a brush and pan to clear the gravel path, and sometimes I just sat on my stool and picked up leaves. I never had any weeds on my gravel path as both sides of the weed liner were tucked in under the log border before I put the gravel on. The weed liner we get over here are good for at least 15-20 years. Here in my new garden I am doing the same; no weed liner in my flowerbeds, just bark mulch in all of them, and the bark mulch we use here is a mixed pine bark.

  18. It breaks down over time, but is useful under gravel paths. It helps to keep the gravel from getting mixed with soil and looking dirty. You are right about including it in flower beds, it is far more a hassle as the years go on. I like the use of gravel paths ( and use them often in design), but the upkeep is something I prefer not to do each year myself. Nice, well thought out post.

  19. Very good posting, Jennifer. I have landscape fabric (the heavy duty one) in only one place in my garden -- under the lava rock in the Stone Garden. I've had no problems with it there, but wouldn't use it any other place. I look forward to your next article. P. x

  20. I still am on the fence to use this so I am glad to read your posts!


I love to hear from you. Thanks for leaving a comment.