Why Landscape Fabric Should be Avoided in a Garden

It causes ecosystem damage and limits functionality. There are better options.

plant with landscape fabric around the base

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Landscape fabric is unfortunately often used in landscaping beds or borders in a garden. But I always advise my clients against its use. Here are some of the reasons why I believe using landscape fabric is not a good idea—and what a better approach would look like.

Sustainability Concerns Surrounding What It Is Made From

Landscape fabrics are mostly derived from fossil fuels, which we need to keep in the ground if we are to stand any chance of limiting global warming. 

Microplastic particles and harmful compounds can break off over time and enter the environment. This can be particularly problematic if you are growing edible plants (which you should definitely be considering). But even if this is not a food-producing zone, this is still potential for ecological concern. 

Ecosystem Damage Can Be Caused by Landscape Fabric

One of the main reasons why I always recommend avoiding the use of landscape fabric in a garden is that its use can seriously damage and degrade the soil ecosystem below it.

Landscape fabric can leave the soil beneath it more compacted. And as you may well be aware, soil ecology is important. Compacted soil won't be healthy, as nutrients, water, and air will not reach the roots in the rhizosphere as effectively.

Where a landscape fabric is left uncovered, or gaps appear in a mulch covering, darker colored materials can heat up, heating up the soil below and causing more harm to the soil web.

In my experience, while the fabric will let water through, it does not allow for as effective water ingress to the soil, so it may be particularly detrimental in lower water areas.

The key problem is that microorganisms in the soil won't get the air and water they need as effectively, and so soil health will be reduced. And what is more, soil health won't improve over time since organic matter cannot be incorporated into the soil below by earthworms and other soil life when landscape fabric is in place.

Functionality Issues With Landscape Fabric

The whole purpose of using a landscape fabric is to suppress weed growth and create a garden that requires less of your time and effort. But even in its primary purpose, in my opinion, landscape fabric falls short. Depending on the specific fabric, of course, landscape fabric is not always quite as effective at eliminating weeds as some people imagine. 

In my experience, some grass and other weeds will break through over time, even if not right away. Or they will grow on top as the mulch breaks down and seeds are deposited by winds or wildlife. Those weeds are then entangled in the fabric and are consequently much more difficult to remove.

Landscape fabric also gets in the way of creating truly low maintenance and self-sustaining systems. You won't be building soil health and maintaining a healthy soil environment to help plants thrive. You won't be creating water-wise systems.

What is more, native plants, which could have created lush and productive low maintenance spaces, will be unlikely to self-seed or spread and clump out as effectively when landscape fabric is in place. So, the garden will not fill in as productively.

It is also more difficult when making holes for planting in landscape fabric, to alter plans and adapt to change in the garden—and using and adapting to change is a key strategy for good garden design.

A Better Approach

There are better ways to keep weeds down and create a low maintenance space. Start by avoiding spacing your plants in an area covered with landscape fabric and imported mulch. Instead, choose eco-friendly and sustainable natural options to make your life easier in the garden.

  • Select a diverse range of plants suited to your location. Perennials and self-seeders will help to create a more affordable and low maintenance scheme that just gets better over time.
  • Combine plants to create areas of dense, layered planting, with less space for weeds. By choosing the right combinations of plants for your polyculture (which will not compete overly with one another), you can sow more densely, with a layered planting scheme.
  • Use ground cover planting to protect the soil and reduce weed growth. 
  • Line beds, borders, or pathways with spring bulbs or other plants to suppress grass and weed ingress into growing areas.
  • Choose organic mulches wisely to suit the setting, and ideally source materials from elsewhere in your garden or as close to home as possible. Thick organic mulches won't eliminate weeds entirely but they can help to keep them under control, while adding fertility and conserving water in the soil.