For chemical free weed control and for use under mulch, put away the clear or black plastic and get out the polypropylene landscape cloth instead. Known as landscape fabric or garden cloth, there is nothing magical or difficult in it’s use. However, the benefits gained by using it favor it’s use.
Plastic sheeting kills plants and soils. It cuts off both water and air to the ground beneath it. This creates an atmosphere that encourages fungus, bacteria, rot, mold, and diseases to grow. Using dark plastic raises the soil and ground temperature.
Landscape fabrics control weeds two ways. First, they smother weeds that emerge below it by limiting sunlight to anything beneath it. Second, landscape fabric prevents weeds that emerge in the mulch above the fabric from penetrating through and getting established in the soil.
Landscape fabric is easy to cut with garden (or kitchen) shears, and very easy to install. They are resistant to tearing and puncturing. Most of them are rot and decay resistant. They are available in many colors such as green, white, black, brown, mottled, yellow, and several other colors. It is usually sold by the linear foot, in precut lengths, or in whole bolts.
The material is manufactured in non-woven, woven, spun bond, needle punched, or netted varieties. It comes in different qualities, weights, and thickness. Each weight has a different durability, lasting from a few seasons up to 25 years.
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Those fabrics which have a long life span are called semi-permanent, and/or permanent barriers. Some even have a printed grid on them for plant positioning! In reality, a good three ounce per square yard fabric is suitable for most home use.
Spun bonded fabric is a polyester, non-woven fabric. It is used in permanent landscapes, usually under rocks, stepping stones, pathways, or heavily traveled, heavy use areas. The polyester is moldable and allows maximum air and water permeation and drainage.
Needle punched non-woven geotextiles (landscape fabric) are made for long term lining, such as those for landfills or in those areas where superior puncture resistance is a must. It is made from needle punched polyester or polypropylene felted fibers.
Sometimes, the fabric is made from flax (linen). Berms, water gardens, water features, and high traffic areas benefit from this fabric. This is usually cost prohibitive for the average gardener.
The material is usually treated for UV protection and hydrophilic treated for water permeability. This allows air, water and nutrients to flow through. However, with some types and brands of fabric, there’s a tradeoff between the level of permeability and the level of weed control.
One of the major sources of fabric deterioration is sunlight. Sunlight will cause more damage to your landscape fabric than anything else. What this means is, don’t skimp on your ground cover and replenish yearly as needed.
Another polypropylene fabric, mixed with leno yarn and tape to provide strength and durability, is called Poly Jute Netting. It is used as a soil stabilizer, and for erosion control. It’s best for slopes and to prevent wash outs. It is photodegradable, and environmentally safe.
Many gardeners insist that landscape fabric “shrinks.” The usual cause of shrinkage is sunlight or not overlapping (at least 4 inches) when laying the next row of fabric. Make sure you test the fabric before putting your entire yard in an uncertain brand. Sometimes that use of the word “professional” or “commercial” are over used. Try tearing it with your bare hands. If it tears or stretches out of shape, it’s not strong enough for your garden needs. Weeds and grass will probably grow through it.
Some gardeners and landscapers use ground cover anchoring pins to hold the fabric in place. These look like long staples, about six inches long. Personally, I don’t use pins. I don’t like to step on them in the yard. It’s best to just overlap the edges of fabric, and lay plenty of mulch or rocks on top.
When placing plants or trees in the fabric, cut the hole only as big as will allow the plant to grow through. Cutting a larger hole than is necessary encourages weed and grass growth.
Here’s a short tutorial about how to actually lay landscape fabric. Just for an example, let’s say that you have a section of lawn that you want to turn into a shrub bed.
First, grid out a drawing of what you want the bed to look like, onto graph paper. Use cut outs to represent the new shrubbery. “Place” the plants onto the graph paper, where you think they should go.
Next, measure the same space for real — out in your yard. This part might send you back to the drawing board. It’s better to make mistakes on paper than to make them in your garden.
It is hotly debated whether or not to remove the grass from the area before laying landscape fabric. Some gardeners don’t wish to double dig and shake the soil out of each shovelful. This is tedious work, but it makes sure that the grass roots are all removed.
To take out the sod in rolls, make a slicing cut with a shovel into the grass all along the edge of your marked line. About two feet out, make another slicing cut with your shovel parallel to the first. Carefully roll the sod back between the cuts and remove it.
Measure and cut the landscape cloth to fit the area, making sure to overlap the edges. Lay the fabric into the measured space and secure your chosen edging. Carefully make x-cuts into the cloth where you plan to place your new shrubs. Fold back the landscape cloth and plant your shrubs in the hole.
When all your new shrubs are planted, close the x-cuts in the fabric, toward the shrub trunk or stem. Carefully spread whatever mulch you choose several inches deep. It should be spread on top of the landscape cloth all the way to your chosen edging. Stand back and enjoy your new garden bed!