Ministry Of ControversyShut Up And Dig

Who uses landscape fabric and why?

All About Trees14 comments599 views
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The landscape fabric has been removed and compost added. Soon the space will be completely replanted.

Last fall I had the idea of doing something nice for the rather boring and minimalist plantings outside my office. The building itself is great—an 85k-square-foot former railway signal factory (circa 1904–6) that has been repurposed into a mixed use complex including our offices, residential units above, banquet spaces, a yoga studio, a bar, and an inner courtyard that had previously been completely hidden from public view because all the windows were bricked over. I love my office; it’s one of the coolest places to work in town.

However. The few planted areas (aside from the courtyard, which is green and beautiful) are pretty dismal. There isn’t much green space in front, as this is in an industrial streetscape; gardens start to appear behind us on the residential side streets. The triangular planted areas in front of the complex are filled with a few shrubs, daylilies and hostas, with—considering how small the spaces are—an overabundance of bare mulch. I found out why this was when I decided to perk things up a bit by adding 100 daffodil bulbs, tightly planted on either side of the central shrub (some kind of serviceberry, I think). My spade was impeded by a black barrier underneath the mulch. I saw that it was everywhere and tore enough away so that I could get the bulbs in. The soil underneath came away in large heavy clumps; I broke it up as much as I could with my shovel, and piled it back on the bulbs, hoping they’d be able to get through it. (Of course, I do not own this space, our company leases here and we have no responsibility for the landscaping.)

The daffs did come up this month, and I guess they only served to remind my boss of how dismal the rest of it is, so we are completely redoing the bed with the landlord’s permission. I’ll get to that later. The thing is, why landscape fabric? I saw weeds come up through it so it can’t be that—anyway, they had piled mulch on top of it, which works just as well and benefits the soil in the process (though not when it’s on fabric). Shouldn’t this crap be outlawed? It suffocates the soil, probably acting as a better barrier to water and oxygen than weeds. Who does this? Why do they do it? How can we stop them?

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on May 3, 2016 at 11:54 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy, Shut Up and Dig.


  1. I find it a useful barrier between soil and informal gravel patios and pathways. Keeps the gravel from disappearing; makes it easy to pluck errant weeds trying to root in the gravel. I’ve not noticed weeds coming through it except at seams where two pieces meet. That said, it takes only about 10 – 12 years for enough detritus to build up in the gravel itself to support plants (weeds, perennials, trees…) to the extent it becomes a nuisance and the area needs to be re-thought. In my experience, anyway.

  2. As a professional garden designer and gardener, I despise the stuff. It prevents moisture and air from reaching the soil, prevents a lot of the shallow roots of shrubs and trees from reaching the soil and creates a place for a lot of roots to really hang on to making them near impossible to remove except with chemicals. This stuff is what landscapers (i.e.: guy with truck and lawnmower) puts in because he has no specific plant knowledge. More and more homeowners use these guys for maintenance and now believe the plastic barrier to be “the proper way”.

  3. Have to differ with this rant! I am 75 years old, a major gardener, on a property (1 1/8 acre with a house on it) in Nova Scotia, featuring Hybrid teas and climbers -red, pink, white, yellow, and mixed rose beds, 100’s of tulips and daffodils, hundreds of oriental lilies, Japanese and European plum trees, 1/2 dozen pears, nectarine, apples, cherries, blackberry/raspberry/strawberries/highbush blueberries/currants, plus raised vegetable beds. Then I have one bed of 15 gold Azaleas that are simply stunning when in bloom, another 10 rhodos, hydrageas, over 40 Clematis, etc. Been gardening all my life and my solution to prevent weeds, is simply lay down ashphelt shingles and cover them with light colored crusher dust. Works perfectly, and will last long after I’m gone. Very inexpensive and very attractive. Nothing will ever grow on top of it, or through it! For the purists, these are no more toxic than the exact product on most house roofs. I have all my plants and trees, circled with black plastic hoops, about a foot in diameter. The only place worms come up is within that circle, and they do, right where you want them. Use whatever you want to prevent weeds. Cheers

  4. Frank, I have to disagree about the toxicity of asphalt shingles, which I’m pretty sure are made essentially from dried-out oil…..I bet they do a good job of preventing weeds though.

  5. The cheap plastic stuff at the BBSs is worthless even for paths. The heavy duty felt stuff otoh is great for paths. It also makes a good hanging basket liner. If you have a container nursery, it makes a good wicking groundcover to set pots on.

  6. I can’t wait to hear about obtaining permission for planting your office. I keep daydreaming about planting out dismal small public areas with some drought tolerant natives (like the entrance to my daughter’s school), but worry about the hoop jumping that will be required because I am not a professional gardener. Looking forward to the post!

  7. My understanding is there are two “grades” of landscaping fabric, one for professionals and the other is available at box stores for the general public. Let me know if I’m wrong.

  8. When we first moved into our current home, hubby put in the back yard – patio, grass, raised area for fruit trees and shrubbery. I put in the plants through that damn fabric he insisted on.
    “Just cut a hole in the fabric and put in the plant,” he said. “Pull the DG back on top. It’ll be fine.”
    Fifteen years later, I’m in charge of the yard and every chance I get, I remove the fabric. The soil underneath and away from plants looks almost sterile. It’s like it is stuck in a time capsule, looking as dull and lifeless as the day the fabric rolled over it.
    Removal is not such an easy task. In open areas there are pins holding seams down, and weeds that have rooted on top and anchored themselves underneath. The fabric shreds if you try to cut it, leaving a frizzy mess. Around plants, tiny feeder roots weave themselves through the ventilation holes – tear them out and risk damage to plants? Or leave the fabric and just deal with it?
    When I took out our lawn a few years back, the new DG did not get a sheet of landscape fabric between it and the soil. I have no fewer weeds there than I do where the fabric remains.

  9. Thank you for this article! It confirms what I’ve discovered – in my area with heavy clay soil and LOTS of crabgrass, landscape fabric does not prevent weeds. I believe it to be detrimental to plants, shrubs, etc. I removed some from a bed of pathetic, spindly Korean lilacs when we moved to our property 3 years ago and proceeded to mulch. Now, 2 years later, those same lilacs are twice the size and thriving. They are covered with blooms and will soon perfume the whole yard with their fragrance.

  10. Well, this page is for ranting so I’ll add my rant against landscape fabric. I put it in 14-15 years ago in my brand new yard because shows on HGTV told me to. Really, really hate the stuff. If you’re going to add more plants later, you have to carve new holes. The wood mulch washes off of it. As someone mentioned above, it’s terribly difficult to remove (I bought a serrated garden knife just for it). And the weeds grow on top of it just as much as anywhere else.

  11. I have to admit that, although I despise weed “prevention” fabric, it can be very handy. We use the professional-grade for French drains all the time. If someone asks me to use it in their beds, however, I will decline. It is wholly a waste of time in small urban gardens, and even in bigger suburban gardens its nightmarish qualities outweigh the short-lived benefits. Mulch is the way to go.

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