No doubt you've seen black fabric laid over bare soil with holes cut out for plants. It's meant to stop weeds from coming up. How important is such "weed barrier fabric?" What are the do's and don'ts? Find out in this recent exchange in my Pests and Problems Forum. And if you have experience with the product yourself, do let us know!
Weed Fabric? "Huge fan!"
Reader comment: "I am a huge fan of landscaping fabric for weed control. I have never noticed any adverse effect on the health of my succulents. In fact, the succulents in the area I covered with landscaping fabric (and rock cover) look better than those planted in soil with only rock cover. I suspect this is due to better water retention in the fabric-covered soil. And saving irrigation water is crucial in California these days, as always."
DLB: "Not in MY Yard!"
My response: I know professional landscape designers who use weed barrier fabric routinely, others who don’t like it, and others who use it only in specific circumstances. Here’s my take on it.
The previous owners of my home (where I’ve lived 30+ years) installed weed fabric beneath gravel pathways and in some planting beds. Where the fabric has seams, it pokes up through the soil and looks messy. Burying exposed edges doesn’t help—dirt just slides off—so I take a sharp knife and slice the fabric back as far as I can. Even then, gravel or soil gets under it, causing it to lift again. Aargh.
When I looked at the ground underneath, it’s hard-packed and dry---not an environment conducive to earthworms and other beneficials that need a friable, oxygen-rich environment.
I’ve seen weed cloth in friends’ gardens installed on slopes…oh, don’t get me started! The topdressing—whether bark, mulch or crushed rock—eventually slides off from its weight and gravity. Double aargh!
As for holding moisture in the soil, keep in mind that barriers work both ways. Rain and irrigation need to percolate downward, and a barrier fabric diminishes its ability to do so. Moreover, healthy soil needs to breathe.
What I recommend
Hence my preference for using crushed rock topdressings, solely, to cover bare dirt. They stay in place, reduce evaporation, discourage seeds from sprouting, make weeding easy (if seeds do sprout), and lend an aesthetically pleasing finishing touch. Not to mention they're less work. Installing black fabric—although I’ve not done it myself—looks like a pain.
How to prevent weeds?
I try to avoid putting chemicals on my garden, and I won't use Round-Up, so I'm glad there's a less controversial option: pre-emergent herbicide. It’s a powder that stops weed seeds from germinating. It needs to be applied in fall or winter, ideally before the first rainstorm. One brand is Preen. (Affiliate link.)
After adding crushed rock topdressing to a newly planted area, I sprinkle it with "weed preventer" powder. Watch landscape designer Steve McDearmon do this at 5:05 of my video: “See a Succulent Collector’s Garden Redo." Btw, in the video, Steve also talks about weed barrier fabric.
Every spring, thanks to applying pre-emergent herbicide in winter, I have fewer weeds than the previous spring. In March and April, my gardener spends about an hour weeding my half-acre’s exposed, sunny areas. However, next door—for that matter nearly every yard in my ‘hood—it's a different matter: Weed removal requires a day or more of unpleasant labor and hauling away, after which nothing is done to keep weeds from coming back. Triple aargh!
So, what say you? Tell us in the comments below!
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