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Is Weed Cloth EVIL?

Weed cloth is perhaps THE most polarizing landscape material amongst the gardeners I know. Opinions on weed cloth usually range from "It's mandatory" to "It's the devil".

What Is Weed Cloth?

Weed cloth, also known as Weed Barrier, Landscaping Fabric or Landscaping Cloth, is a synthetic material sold in rolls. Gardeners will typically install it when renovating or installing a garden in an attempt to suppress weeds, and secure it to the ground using landscape staples. The material typically has mulch or pebbles placed over it to hide the cloth and protect it from harsh UV rays. The goal is to block weed seeds from reaching the soil, by creating a barrier between fertile soils and weed seeds, as well as stifling weed seed under the cloth by shading out the weeds and being extremely difficult for all but the toughest stems to penetrate.

Weed Cloth Sympathisers

Weed cloth sympathisers love weed cloth because it greatly reduces weed activity. Weed cloth, as any good gardener knows, doesn't prevent weeds, but it slows weed activity to a crawl. Slow weeds are manageable weeds for gardeners and landscapers. Oftentimes maintenance companies will submit lower bids if they notice the garden beds are weed clothed.

Weed cloth sympathisers are typically busy homeowners, maintenance companies, and landscapers looking for a valuable upsell.

Weed Cloth Enemies

Weed cloth enemies hate weed cloth because it doesn't truly stop weeds, and may look unappealing if the mulch layer or rock layer gets thin, or the edges aren't pinned down enough. Weed cloth enemies know weed cloth has a finite lifespan and may start flaking off and looking rough due to UV exposure, especially when mulch or rocks are sparse. They know adding to the garden space will be difficult due to digging through the cloth. They despise the use of plastic in a natural area when more mulch or better mulch could be an alternative.

Weed cloth enemies believe water has a harder time infiltrating the cloth and can lead to drainage problems or dry plants.

Weed cloth enemies are typically permaculturalists, eco-gardeners, dutiful hobby gardeners who spend lots of time in the garden, and homeowners who just don't believe the benefits outweigh the costs.

So, is Winglewich a Weed Cloth Sympathizer? Or A Weed Cloth Enemy?

It depends on the time and the place.

As with most landscaping fixtures, I believe weed cloth is right for many gardens, but wrong for others! I used to be vehemently anti-weedcloth in the beginning of my career, but as I grew as a person and found better materials and install processes, weedcloth earned a spot in my gardening arsenal. Plus, it was an easy upsell. I never lost money on a weedcloth install because of how easy it was to bid and to train on.

When I Love Weed Cloth

I like weed cloth when I'm installing brand new landscaping in a big, flat area. I know my clients will have a lot of room to manage, therefore weed cloth makes it easier to manage. I will recommend weed cloth if my clients don't like garden work, or if the size of the area may feel overwhelming to weed themselves.

I also like weed cloth whenever I install ornamental gravel or rock areas. Gravel or rocks are heavier than soil and tend to sink into the ground if there is no layer to separate them.

Finally, I like to include weed cloth in windy areas or rural areas, where weed seeds are far more common and aggressive. I know if I'm landscaping a farm house or a home on a coastal prarie, that the amount of wind drift and weed seeds will be much higher than in a valley home, forest home, or suburban neighborhood home.

When I Don't Love Weed Cloth

I don't like weed cloth if the client doesn't like weed cloth! It's not MY home, after all. If the client says no weed cloth, that's the end of the story!

If I'm planning an eco-garden or a garden with a permaculture theme, I won't include it for water capture and low fossil fuel use reasons. Plus, leaving no barrier between the soil allows nutrients from natural mulches (cedar, redwood, pine, rice hull) to work down into the soil and decompose, creating more humus and nutritious conditions.

If I'm gardening on an exceptionally steep hill, I may avoid weed cloth. Oftentimes mulch and rocks will roll downhill on weed cloth. The material settling and sticking into the hill may be a good thing on a jobsite such as this.

If I'm installing a garden for someone who will inevitably be adding lots of plants themselves, I'll often skip the weed cloth so they can easily edit their garden.

Consumers on a very strict budget will often never be offered the weed cloth option due to the price increase weed cloth entails.

Good And Bad Weedcloths

Not all materials are created equal. As there are many different mulch, rock, and paving options, there are many weedcloth options.

Avoid These Weedcloths

Visqueen Or Black Plastic

Ewww. Not only does this explode into a hellstorm of microplastics when it degrades, it is truly impermeable. Not only does it prevent rainwater from getting in, it keeps the soil from breathing or accepting any nutrients. Don't walk, run from this option.

Blue Tarps From The Hardware Store

For the same reasons listed above. Less microplastics! More cost! Why, just why?!

Those Cheap Weedcloths By Jobes

There's a line of very inexpensive, very thin, rather stretchy weedcloths sold in small rolls at hardware stores. Oftentimes they have a hex shaped pattern or square-ish patterns and look plastic-y. Jobes makes them, and a few other brands sell a few similar genres. These seem inexpensive, but when compared to a big roll of pro grade cloth, they are more expensive per square foot. Plus, they are stretchy, thin, and not particularly durable.

8oz and 12oz Geotextile Fabric

This stuff's a little too tough. We love geotextile fabric for driveway underlayments, excavation work, soil stabilization under paving, french drain trench wraps, and decomposed granite, but it is overkill and high cost for weed suppression. Plus, this material is fairly slow to allow water to penetrate. Water works its way through in a french drain because of the immense hydraulic forces of water underground, but those forces have a much softer touch above the ground, and may direct rainwater or irrigation water to the wrong place if your plant is in a high spot.

Weedcloths we install and love

4 and 5oz Needlepunch, double punch, or woven landscape fabric

This material is a tough, woven cloth capable of letting water in and keeping weeds out. It's best in rocky gardens and higher traffc areas in the landscape. The fabric resists tears and does a decent job at halting pesky weeds. Usually this material has a sheen, and a few rows of green or yellow striping to help you line it up perfect during the install. Vegetable and marijuana farmers often buy it in bulk and use it with no mulch - a testament to the strength of the material.

Nonwoven 3oz weed fabric

This material has a somewhat abrasive texture and a dark gray finish. Thinner than woven fabric, yet still quite incredibly hard to rip, it remains the undisputed champion of water infiltration and comes at a very affordable cost. This is the best value for ornamental gardens and mulchbeds. We prefer it for hilly yards due to the permeability - it won't catch water and wash all your mulch downhill. We install more nonwoven 3oz than any other landscape fabric.

Honorable mention - cardboard

You read that right. Landscape supply houses stock 300 foot long rolls of cardboard for landscaping. You could use it with compost for sheet mulching, however it is fine to use it as a plastic free weed barrier alone. The goal of cardboard is to suppress weeds for the first few years of a new garden's life. Once the cardboard deteriorates, the mulch and the shade and nutrient competition from the dense, native plantings are supposed to do most of the weed blocking work. It is effective in practice, granted you have planned your project with the precision.

Quick Weedcloth Tips

  • The easiest way to install a garden is to lay the weedcloth before plants and drip lines. You can cut X's in the weedcloth to install the plants, pin the X back close to the plant, then run your drip close to the plant.

  • A utility knife is the preferred choice for weedcloth cuts. Scissors can be slow, and get gummed up with dirt and tough plastic fibers.If you struggle to make a cut, simply swap out the old blade for a new one.

  • Don't buy landscaping pins at Lowes or Home Depot. Buy them in bulk for a fraction of the cost at a local landscape supply house. They may be called irrigation staples or jute staples, and are longer, thicker and tougher.

  • A rubber mallet is a great tool for coaxing staples into tough clay. They won't hurt your fingers so much if you miss. Leave the aggressive waffle face hammers to the pros.

  • Roll the weed cloth out flat. Staple one side all at once. Then, tug on the cloth to tighten it and staple the other side taut. You can staple the middle last. This should create a wrinkle free install.

  • Plan on stapling in a 3x3 or 4x4 grid. This is the least wasteful spacing, yet the most efficient way. Double staple corners to keep them from popping up and being annoying.

  • Speaking of annoying, don't cut the weedcloth too close to the edge of the bed. Leave it an inch or two away from the edge of the bed, unless you want to see that edge pop up.

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