Landscape fabric – a cautionary tale

This isn’t the first time I’ve ranted about bad mulch choices and it certainly won’t be the last. But this pictorial cautionary tale is too important to pass up.

We already know that sheet mulches can be death to microbes, plant roots and animals living in the soil underneath. Our newly published research shows that landscape fabric reduces carbon dioxide movement between the soil and atmosphere about 1,000 times more than wood chip mulches do: plastic mulches are even worse. Oxygen movement will be likewise affected.  And while gaps and holes in these barriers can lessen the impact, the question remains: why would you use ANY mulch that reduces gas movement? Yet people persist in using fabrics and plastics, usually to “smother” weeds (and that verb should set off alarm bells for anyone thinking about collateral damage to soil life). But weeds are weeds for a reason, and they will eventually colonize the surface of sheet mulches as soil, organic matter, and water collect over time.

So without further ado, here is a case study of what happens when sheet mulch is used for landscape weed control.

These irrigated landscape beds are in Wenatchee, Washington, which has hot, dry summers. As you can see, bark mulch has been used to hide the shame of sheet mulching. And from a distance it looks…okay.

Upon closer inspection, you can see the shroud of death emerging from the bark mulch (which has no means of staying in place, especially on a slope).

And even close you can see the soil that’s blown in, along with the bark and other organic matter. Just add water, and you get weeds!

Weeds, weeds, weeds! Lots of weeds. Sunny weeds!

And shady weeds!

Border weeds!

Rocky weeds!

The weeds are thriving – but the trees are not. The crowns are dying…

…and the trunks are suckering.

But you’ll note that the trees in the first photo outside of the beds are thriving.

And it’s all because of that “weed control fabric.” Which is working so well that this landscape had to be treated with herbicide the day I was there – to control the weeds.

Published by

Linda Chalker-Scott

Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott has a Ph.D. in Horticulture from Oregon State University and is an ISA certified arborist and an ASCA consulting arborist. She is WSU’s Extension Urban Horticulturist and a Professor in the Department of Horticulture, and holds two affiliate associate professor positions at University of Washington. She conducts research in applied plant and soil sciences, publishing the results in scientific articles and university Extension fact sheets. Linda also is the award-winning author of five books: the horticultural myth-busting The Informed Gardener (2008) and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again (2010) from the University of Washington Press and Sustainable Landscapes and Gardens: Good Science – Practical Application (2009) from GFG Publishing, Inc., and How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do from Timber Press (2015). Her latest effort is an update of Art Kruckeberg’s Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest from UW Press (2019). In 2018 Linda was featured in a video series – The Science of Gardening – produced by The Great Courses. She also is one of the Garden Professors – a group of academic colleagues who educate and entertain through their blog and Facebook pages. Linda’s contribution to gardeners was recognized in 2017 by the Association for Garden Communicators as the first recipient of their Cynthia Westcott Scientific Writing Award. "The Garden Professors" Facebook page - "The Garden Professors" Facebook group - Books:

22 thoughts on “Landscape fabric – a cautionary tale”

  1. Not to be pedantic, but “suckering” is a trigger for me. I agree these sprouts are indicators of tree stress, but they aren’t “sucking” anything more than other branches do.

      1. I think this is more of a casual definition than a scientific one, but I’ll accept it. In that case, aren’t the roots suckering (not the trunk, as stated in the caption)?

  2. whoa – it looks like they *wrapped* the tree flare with plastic! Landscape fabric comes up over and over when customers complain about tree/shrub decline. I’ve learned to ask “how did you prepare the bed,” and sometimes uncover this step. “How else am I going to keep down the weeds?” is how they respond. Nobody wants to *tend* their gardens, they just want to have them done – I show them around the nursery – we weed ALL the time by hand and hula-hoe! Otherwise “pave paradise and put up a parking lot!”

  3. As I recall, the practice of ‘mulching’ with plastic began in the 1970s. When we moved into our current garden 14 years ago, I discovered that an enormous area had been landscaped in the mid-1970s with heavy black plastic topped with about 12 inches of soil, then another layer of black plastic (into which shrubs were planted) and then topped with 4 inches of river rock. It probably looked good at first but the plants obviously suffered over the years.

    Leaves and other debris filled in spaces between the rocks and eventually the shrubs’ roots began to grow into the rocks. What a mess! It took me 3 years to remove most of it but I couldn’t get it all. Several of the sickly rhodos died in the process.

    That landscaping philosophy is still alive and thriving today. Too often I hear friends and relatives talk about their landscaping plans which they assume includes the need to put down landscape fabric.

    1. How did you remove the fabric which is covered by layers of soil and “stuff”? We just moved last year and all the foundation plants around the house are planted in landscape fabric. I would like to remove it so I can plant new plants. I can’t even get a pointed shovel or knife through it! Been there for years. Thank you for your help.

      1. You will have to dig everything out. Use scissors to cut the fabric away from the plants and remove it piece by piece. When you’ve removed a section, cover the area with a wood chip mulch and water well to protect the soil and roots. It’s a slog but if you are careful you can do this.

  4. Because I have artillery fungus, I use flexible screening under pebble mulch at the house perimeter to prevent the stones from sinking into the soil and, of course, pull the weeds as they pop up; otherwise it’s wood chips throughout the landscape.

  5. A reputable landscape architect and instructor told me “Nothing is wrong with landscape fabric as long as it is made of coir (coconut fiber) [because it] is biodegradable.” Do you agree?

    1. Landscape fabric, as understood by most people, is densely woven fabric. That’s what you see in stores. Coir cloth is sold as such. It does not keep out weeds but serves to keep mulch in place. It is loosely woven so it does not block water, air or light for that matter. Its function is entirely different from landscape fabric and the names need to be kept distinct to reflect that.

  6. Moved into a new (old) house last August. Landscape fabric everywhere! Doing nothing to stop weeds, of course. To my horror, when I started digging and pulling it out, there was not a single worm under the fabric. I used landscape fabric at my old house under stone dust for a patio. Seeds land on the surface of the stone dust and sprout. It’s the only appropriate use of landscape fabric that I can think of and it certainly wasn’t perfect for the job.

  7. And then there are people online promoting both landscape fabric and plastic (!) as great alternatives to wood chip mulch. So much incorrect information on that site and no comments area to refute it (of course). Post that link to social media and thousands of people will think the information is gospel.

    I often think that scientifically based horticulture is a lost cause.

    1. Hi John –
      I had to edit your comment to delete the link to the offending website (we don’t give commercial websites free advertising here. I feel your pain! But I also see more and more houses with giant woodchip piles in front of them, and know from personal experience it’s getting harder to get chips quickly. So science is making its way slowly through the gardening community. The best selling point is visual evidence over the years: no weeds (wood chips) vs. weed disaster (fabric and plastic).

  8. I certainly agree with your recommendations to not use landscape fabrics in any location where one is gardening, growing, or landscaping due to the soil health issues it causes. One area where high-quality engineered fabrics have a lot of usefulness and utility in my experience, however, is with hardscape installation.

    I am building terraces on a strongly sloped backyard in heavy Maryland clay, and the SRW Products’ NW4 filtration and drainage fabric does a great job of providing a barrier between fine clay silt and base rock for drainage under and behind the terrace walls.

    The fabric seems to allow water to filter through without becoming too clogged with silt and enter the drainage column behind each wall. This reduces the freeze and thaw heaving in the soil behind each wall enough that it increases the stabilization and resilience of the wall, giving it a longer life and better function in creating level terraces on a significantly sloped yard, increasing the usability of the land for gardening.

    Hopefully you would agree that these applications of high-quality landscape fabric make sense. So far, they’ve worked great for me. Do you have any concerns for this kind of use?

    1. Since I don’t have any qualifications as an engineer I can’t say whether this is a recommended use. The application doesn’t involve plants or soil life, so it doesn’t really matter if oxygen can permeate. I can tell you that (1) fabric will break down if only by shearing force and (2) the holes will fill with soil particles and reduce water movement. I would think hardware cloth might be a better choice?

  9. I had a gorgeous peach tree growing on the edge of my lake and grandpa thought he’d cage it in to protect it from deer. Great intention but the finishing touches of putting down the lawn fabric was the trees undoing. It started getting leaf spot and usually defoliate completely by august (east coast). It took me 3 years to figure out why every subsequent tree experienced the same issue. Well, the lawn fabric was doubled up and prevented the soil from breathing. It retained lots of water to the point of ammonia odors. I had to remove all the mulch to discover the lawn fabric. I then amended the ammonia soil with ashes, citrus peels, corn meal, etc. Then added some shrubs to soak up residual water.

    This was a tough lesson to learn….through trial and error. The new cherry tree is doing well.

    1. Hi Roger –

      Congratulations on getting that fabric out of there! But I do want to caution you about adding all those amendments without having a soil test first to determine your nutrient levels. It is very easy to overfertilize and nutrient toxicities are difficult to eradicate.

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