Why Landscape Weed Barrier Fabric is Ugly & WastefulSeptember 26, 2012
Weed barrier (aka landscape fabric) sounds like the perfect solution for reducing garden maintenance. Unfortunately, it isn’t. And, it can even end up causing more headaches and ugliness than you might imagine.
Once you’ve draped weed barrier all over your exposed beds, do you cut holes in the barrier and stick plants into the holes you make? If so, your plantings may not thrive, but odds are the weeds still will.
Perennials and ground covers will try to spread as they mature. Either the weed barrier will strangle them or they’ll pop new holes in the barrier or they’ll spread under the barrier, heaving it skyward for all to see.
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Trees and shrubs may send up suckers that pop holes in the barrier or, as their trunks widen, the weed barrier may strangle them.
Plus, every hole you make in the barrier is an opportunity for those sneaky weeds to gather sunlight and thrive.
And all of this assumes that the barrier doesn’t keep water from getting to your plant roots. Yep, any material — even permeable materials — can deter water from seeping downward. So, weed barrier may stop or limit rainfall and irrigation water from making it to your plants’ roots. And, in some situations, it might even lead to runoff and erosion issues as well.
So, if those reasons still aren’t enough for you, consider what happens after you’ve put in your weed barrier, installed your plantings and then you start top-dressing your plantings with a healthy layer of composted mulch. You know that the mulch material will provide a finished look to your beds. It will help protect roots, feed the soil and help hold moisture. That’s all great.
But what happens later when the weeds pop up through the barrier or a shrub dies and you need to remove it? Once roots have grown through weed barrier and a layer of soil or mulch has built up over the cloth, it becomes very difficult to clear up an area without breaking through the barrier.
Once you begin removing dead plants or trying to do planting divisions in an area filled with weed cloth, odds are digging and dividing will be really hard to do. A sheet of material, weighted by layers of mulch or soil, in-grown with roots isn’t easy to dig through. And, once you begin breaking through the fabric, it is unlikely you’ll get all of it out as you divide or remove plantings. And replacing a swath of fabric in an established bed is near impossible without removing everything and starting over. So, after a few years of working in your cloth-lined beds, you’ll likely have several raggedy bits of ugly fabric waving about above the soil line. Yes, you can cut those bits out, but you’ll be finding them for years.
Several years ago, I helped a client renovate her entry bed before putting her home up for sale. When we dug our shovels into the ground to install a few decorative plants, we immediately came upon a sheet of old landscape fabric someone had installed years ago. Uh-oh!
It appeared that someone had laid down landscape fabric and then covered it with several inches of topsoil. Then, they’d dug through the topsoil, fabric and into the clay below to plant. There was no wonder all of the plants were stunted or dead, and water seemed to never saturate the soil. It ended up taking hours of back-breaking labor to dig out the root and weed-filled topsoil layer in order to get to the fabric to remove it. Then, it cost quite a bit in labor and materials to renovate the dead soil below that fabric line before we replanted the area. Oh, and all of that fabric was filled with plastics, so she had to carefully remove the roots and soil from it so that the plastic garbage could be sorted for the landfill and the soil and weeds for the topsoil recyclers.
And, before you decide that weed barrier might still be a good idea to lay under a new permeable pathway, think again.
One of my first DIY projects involved installing a pea gravel pathway around some raised beds. We took the advice of the box store salespeople and purchased a roll of miraculous weed barrier to install under the gravel. And, we’ve regretted it ever since.
The pea gravel itself was a mistake, but that’s a post for another day.
Over the years, weeds readily seeded into the pathway. Every time we pulled a weed from the path, soil came up with it, and the barrier below ripped. So, as more soil mixed into the gravel path, more weeds germinated in it despite compaction, which makes pulling weeds hard. As we made more rips in the fabric, its raggedy edges began waving in the wind looking like an exposed landfill under our garden paths and beds. Oh, and some bits even became tripping hazards as an extra bonus.
Yep, we’d all love to find those magic wands to keep weeds at bay. Sadly, in my experience, weed barrier is more of a burden than a helping hand. Try installing without it and spend your leftover dough on good tools, a bit more mulch or a weeding partner to help you keep your garden healthy and looking great.