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Pointers and Pitfalls of Landscape Fabric



BUYER BEWARE!

This product comes with a name that practically sells itself! "Weed barrier"....what's not to love? Well, BUYER BEWARE!- as this is somewhat of a false advertisement. Almost every single client that I have ever met wants to have beautiful landscape beds while avoiding the back-breaking labor of weeding. So, what’s so awful about weed barrier? This article will discuss why landscape fabric may not be the "cure-all-remedy" that you've been searching for and also review some potential weed-busting solutions that can be used in lieu of this product.


Weed Barrier to prevent weed growth
Weed Barrier

WHEN SHOULD LANDSCAPE FABRIC / WEED BARRIER BE USED

OK- I realize that intro might seem pretty biased...but in my professional opinion, the cons typically outweigh the pros with respect to using landscape fabric in most planting beds. That being said, there are certain applications where this product can provide some real benefits. However, these benefits will undoubtedly diminish over time as debris accumulates and the product begins to break down.

Below, I have stated three useful applications for landscape fabric....


1). One of the most practical uses of weed barrier is for planting beds where decorative stone is used as a mulch. Typically, a landscape bed is first prepped and planted. Then a weed barrier is installed on the bare soil (with 'cut-outs' for the existing plants) and finally the decorative stone material is placed on top. The main advantage here is that landscape fabric prevents the decorative stone from migrating into the underlying soil. Thus, keeping the stone material relatively clean of dirt and debris while also (somewhat) mitigating the chance of settling.


2). Commercial grade landscape fabric is also used in garden applications to help keep weeds at bay (usually between row crops). Heavy duty woven polyethylene products offer the best protection as they (mostly) prevent the penetration of plant roots. Furthermore, the product will not leach chemicals into the soil and is safe for organic farming.

3). When using landscape fabric for hardwood mulch planting beds - it will initially prevent weeds from popping up through the barrier. And for the first several months, any weeds that emerge at the surface will be very easy to pull out. However, as time marches on- the benefits begin to fade as we will now discuss.


Weed Growth Under Landscape Fabric
Weed Growth Under Landscape Fabric

WEEDS CAN STILL GRO ON TOP!

The simple truth here is that weeds can be pesky. It doesn't take much for weeds to proliferate (pretty much anywhere). Any nearby established weeds....like those in the neighbor's yard....can easily travel to a planting bed that you are trying to keep neat and tidy. Weeds can invade your site by means of wind, vehicles, birds/critters or spread by roots (or rhizome).


One of the biggest challenges is that weeds do not need a very extensive 'seeding bed' to take root and spread. A small amount of soil or organic matter is all that is necessary for weeds to sprout. Hardwood mulch will eventually break down and this debris will accumulate on top of the landscape fabric. This is where weeds can actually take root and spread.

The same is also true for landscape beds with decorative stone. After a while, dirt and dust will blow into these stone beds, leaves will break down and all of this material will settle into the cavities between the rocks and on top of the landscape fabric.


For this reason, it is very important to remove leaves from the surface of decorative stone planting beds as soon as possible. Many clients choose decorative stone because of ease in maintenance (in that you don't have to continually re-apply as is the case for hardwood mulch). However, leaf removal is still very necessary! Otherwise, the accumulation of organic matter and presence of air and water between the decorative stone will become the perfect haven for weeds on top of the landscape fabric.


PRO TIP: Leaf blowers work great in removing small debris from stone planting beds with ease (especially if the decorative stone is larger......i.e. not pea gravel size).


TRANSPLANTING BEDS WITH WEED BARRIER IS A PAIN

One of the main issues I personally have with landscape fabric is that I believe it drastically reduces the workability of a respective planting bed. In most cases, perennials need to be split every 3 - 5 years. Without splitting, existing plants will eventually become overgrown. This will result in non-flowering clumps of plants or a center area of 'die-back' where the innermost section of the plant is choked out (receiving less sunlight, nutrients, water, etc.)


The solution?....split your existing mature perennials into several smaller plants to transplant. The problem?....weed barrier makes the transplanting process much more difficult.


The main obstacle here is that after you have removed the mature plant and split it into smaller chunks, now you have to move mulch and cut holes into the landscape fabric wherever you want to place the new plantings. Furthermore, if any soils are displaced on top of the fabric when digging the hole, it essentially defeats the point of the barrier. It's not the end of the world but when dealing with larger beds, it can become a real pain in the (neck).


ROOTS OF PLANTS CAN GROW INTO LANDSCAPE FABRIC

Landscape fabric is meant to stop weeds from growing....but how does it affect the roots of perennial and shrub plantings within the bed? For plants that tend to have shallow root systems, landscape fabric can create some issues as root systems may cling to the barrier. During transplanting this root mass may be completely lost and shock the plant. In addition, you may find that when you are removing the mature plants to split, the roots grab onto the fabric, pulling it up and causing a time-consuming mess to fix.


PREVENTS PROPER SOIL CONDITIONING

Landscape fabric does not allow for organic material to break down and enter the soil below. It also inhibits air exchange between the mulch layer and soil beneath. When weed barrier is not used, the interaction between organic material, plant roots, air and water improves the underlying soil. Thus creating a loamy mixture that is rich in nutrients, oxygen and ideal for plantings. Even poor soils such as heavy clays will eventually improve and physically change composition as beneficial nutrients are introduced to the top layers of soil. However, this natural process of soil conditioning is completely blocked as soon as a barrier is placed between the layers of mulch and soil.


WEED BARRIER ALTERNATIVES

OK....most of this blog has been dominated by a 'Debbie Downer' perspective on the disadvantages of landscape fabric. So, let's turn this discussion around and explore some alternative solutions to weed control. Below are several methods to consider for landscape bed maintenance with a brief description for each....


Dense Plantings
Dense Plantings

DENSE PLANTINGS: Planting perennials closely will reduce the amount of real estate available for weed proliferation. The issue with this approach is that if plantings are placed too closely, they may become overcrowded over time. Always research the mature size of selected varieties and provide proper spacing for optimal plant health.

It may be helpful to consider a phasing approach for installing new planting beds. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Focus your attention on one manageable section at a time. That way you can utilize splitting's from existing transplants before moving on to another area.

Mulched Bed
Mulched Bed

GROUND COVERS: Certain plants are known to be low growers that spread and provide coverage for wide areas. Some major benefits of living mulch include ease in maintenance, moisture retention, nutrient loading for improved soil conditions and erosion control. A huge advantage to living mulch is that over time the ground cover plantings will spread densely enough to choke out any invading weeds (and thus save a ton of time in bed maintenance).


LIVING MULCH PLANT VARIETIES

-Ajuga....(unique burgundy foliage with showy flower spikes)

-Stonecrop sedum....(ideal for crevice plantings and can tolerate rocky soil)

-Creeping phlox....(provides blanket coverage with multiple flowering options)

-Pumila astilbe....(relatively quick spreader that can tolerate wet or dry conditions in shade)

-Sedges....(unique, grass-like fine texture)

-Hens and chicks....(succulent that prefers full sun)

-Creeping thyme....(hardy, low growing- dense mats that is deer resistant)

-Japanese forest grass....(incredibly thick coverage and unique color)

-Cranesbill....(hardy spreader that can develop into larger flowering clumps)

-Blue rug juniper....(low growing shrub that horizontally spreads)


*NOTE: Many living mulch plant varieties may be aggressive spreaders. Be sure to research possible plant selections to ensure they are not invasive to your region. Also choose a planting location where you don't mind extensive plant propagation. You can first place selected varieties in contained beds to test out how aggressively they spread before introducing them into larger planting spaces.


*SPECIES TO AVOID: (Due to Invasive Attributes in WI/Aggressive Nature in Spreading):

-Bishop's Goutweed (Snow-on-the-Mountain)

-Lily of the Valley

-Crown Vetch

-Garlic Mustard


PREEN APPLICATION: This is a pre-emergent herbicide (granular weed control product) which means that it suppresses any new seeds from growing into plants. Preen will not control weeds that are already established (or harm any existing plants). So perennials, shrubs or existing weeds will not be affected by the application of this product.


Therefore, the ideal application process is as follows:

1). Remove existing weeds from planting beds.....

2). Apply Preen.....

3). Lightly water area.....

4). Application of hardwood mulch (if none already exists)....

5). Re-apply Preen on top of mulch (frequency depends on the variety of Preen)


HARDWOD MULCH LAYER: A fresh layer of hardwood mulch in planting beds is a great preventative measure in slowing down the spread of weeds. Several inches of hardwood mulch is beneficial to plantings and helps to suppress the proliferation of weeds. In addition, a mulch application helps to retain moisture and provide nutrients to the soil.


ELBOW GREASE: Frequent weeding is the best action that you can take to keep weeds from spreading out of control. I realize that is just about the most obvious statement in the world..... but it is the truth. Even if you spend a small amount of time weeding beds a couple times a week - the effect will be drastic.

Focus attention on one small area at a time. Eradicate patches of weeds that are the most prevalent to avoid further advancement. The more time that you allow one patch of weeds to take over, the more prolific the spreading will become and a small job will quickly become a much larger task.

Countless tools are available to help with the task of pulling weeds (knee pads, gloves, weeding tools, specialized shovels are just a few options to help minimize the strain). No matter your weapon of choice....the process is the same. The main objective is to remove the weed including as much of the root structure as possible. In most cases, if you fail to remove the root, the weed will quickly re-grow.


*PRO TIP: weed after rain events or light irrigation as the soils will become loosened and the root structures will be easier to eradicate when pinching and pulling at the base.

Herbicide Products
Herbicide Product

CHEMICAL SPOT TREATMENT: There are MANY herbicide products on the market and homemade concoctions that are easy to use and extremely effective. Always use caution when utilizing any chemical products for "spot-spraying" weed treatment. Take precautions to ensure that chemicals are kept far away from any plants that you want to keep healthy.

Always follow the instructions on product labels and use the minimum amount of chemicals necessary to get the job done. In most cases, a very small amount of herbicide should be applied to the leaves of the weed you want eradicated. If you spray an abundance of chemicals into the ground (and not directly on the foliage of targeted weeds), then these harmful chemicals can be absorbed by the roots of nearby trees, shrubs and perennials. Furthermore, avoid using these products in overly hot, dry conditions. If temperatures are too hot, there is a greater chance the root systems of surrounding plants will absorb the chemicals and cause irreversible damage.


MORAL OF THE STORY:

Continuous preventative maintenance is the best method for eradicating weeds in your planting beds. I realize that this is not what most people want to hear. Generally speaking, I just don't believe that landscape fabric is worth the extra material cost and installation time....especially considering the lackluster results.

Moreover, it may complicate future maintenance and transplanting. If the landscape barrier is accidentally pulled up, it can become a mess that is hard to fix without completely removing the mulch and starting all over.

Instead consider using a layered approach of alternative methods to help mitigate the spread of weeds. Combine different techniques and products to develop a routine that is best suited for you and your landscape.

OR take a page out of the "Tom Sawyer" playbook, hire the neighbor kids or grandchildren and pay them a (fair) rate per bucket of pulled weeds!


*DISCLAIMER: getting the kiddos to drop their devices and spend time physically working outdoors may take some expert convincing! Results may vary.


Do you have questions about your upcoming landscape project? Or need help in creating a tailored landscape plan? Contact Pool Pros today @ 920-771-0107. We are here to help answer any questions that you have about your pool, hardscape or landscape installation!

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