10 Best Landscape Fabric Alternatives

pine straw mulch spread throughout a garden and around plants

If relentless weeds have a stranglehold on your garden or flowerbed, landscaping fabric has been the go-to to keep weeds at bay. And while landscape fabric is okay, there are many more cost-effective, eco-friendly, and garden-friendly alternatives. To help you decide which weed-free method to choose, we’ve made a list of the 10 best landscape fabric alternatives.

What is landscape fabric?

Landscape fabric is typically made of inorganic materials, such as linen, polypropylene, and recycled materials. The sheet-like fabric often comes in rolls and spreads across the garden area around your plants to prevent weeds from sprouting.

Homeowners can choose from many different types of landscape fabric. The weed barrier is non-woven geotextile (permeable fabric). It usually comes in individual woven strands of material or as a solid sheet with perforated holes. Landscape fabric’s design helps minimize weed growth while allowing water and air to pass through the soil. 

10 Best landscape fabric alternatives

small rock mulch spread out on top of landscape fabric

Using landscape fabric isn’t the only answer to controlling weeds. The following 10 landscape fabric alternatives are excellent — if not better — weed suppressors that promote plant health and stop soil erosion. And many of these options will save you a few bucks, too. 

1. Wood chips

wood chips in a pile, with darker wood chips forming a heart shape

Wood chips make an excellent mulch around shrubs and trees. The organic mulch is made from the inner tree, and breaks down slowly, supplying nutrients to the soil. Landscape fabric isn’t biodegradable and adds no nutritious value to your plants.

Wood chips retain moisture in the soil and help regulate soil temperatures. You can buy wood chips at your local garden center or contact a local tree care company for a wood chip delivery. If you’re lucky, an arborist might even make the delivery for free.

Having a tree chopped down? Ask the arborists if they can toss your tree in the wood chipper.

Where should you apply wood chips as a landscape fabric? 

This mulch might be a bit too coarse for your vegetable and flower gardens. A 2- to 3-inch thick layer of wood chips can provide weed control around your trees and shrubs. Don’t apply mulch right against your trees’ trunks, as this can cause insect and disease problems. Leave about 6 inches of space between the trunk and the mulch.

You might have concerns about using wood chips or wood mulches in the landscape, so let’s answer those questions. 

Do wood chips attract termites? 

No, wood chips don’t attract termites. But they do provide an ideal habitat for termites that are already present or happen to discover the mulch as they forage. In other words, wood chips don’t emit a smell or other feature that will help draw termites to the wood chips.

Can wood chips deplete my soil of nitrogen?

When you apply wood chips as a surface mulch, nitrogen depletion will only occur at the soil’s surface. Nitrogen depletion at the surface can be a good thing because this may be one of the reasons why wood chips hinder weed seed germination. But the depletion is also another reason why you might not want wood chips in your vegetable or flower garden. 

2. Bark mulches

spring hyacinth growing up through wood mulch
Coernl | Pixabay

Like wood chips, bark mulches suppress weeds, retain moisture, add nutrients to the soil, and help regulate soil temperatures. Bark mulches come from the outer part of the tree, and come in various textures, including bark chunks, bark granules, and shredded bark. Popular bark mulches include cedar, pine, and hemlock. 

Bark mulch’s most noticeable features include its deep colors, like red, brown, and black, resistance to compaction, and beauty in the landscape. 

According to Purdue University, improperly stockpiled bark mulch can turn sour, making the mulch toxic or deadly to young plants.

Mulch should be applied 2 to 4 inches deep. The extension stresses that bark mulches are most likely to damage plants if the mulch is too deep, if many plant roots are near the soil’s surface, or if the mulch particles are small. Bagged bark mulches are usually the least likely to harm your plants because they have likely weathered long enough to remove toxins.

Where should you apply bark mulch as a landscape fabric?

The University of Georgia Extension recommends applying bark mulches to vegetable gardens after a nitrogen application. You also can use bark mulch near shrubs, trees, perennials, and annuals.

3. Pine needles

dead pine needles layered around small bushes as mulch
pseudo obscure | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Are needles dropping from your pine trees left and right? Instead of tossing them into the compost, use them as your weed suppressor in the garden. Pine needles retain moisture in the soil, minimize erosion, and add nitrogen to the soil.

There is a misconception that pine needles will acidify the soil. Pine needles are acidic when they’re still attached to the pine tree, but they lose their acidity shortly after dropping from the tree. A layer of pine needles won’t change your soil’s pH. 

Caution about using pine needles as landscape fabric

Pine needles are flammable. They might not be an ideal landscape fabric alternative if you live in an area susceptible to wildfires. 

Where should I apply pine needles as a landscape fabric?

A 2- to 3-inch layer of pine needles is safe for your vegetables, flowers, shrubs, and trees. 

4. Shredded leaves

pitchfork leaning against a tree with leaves on the ground
Annette Meyer | Pixabay

It’s essential to remove leaves from your yard. But bagged leaves will only take up space in the landfill and remove nutrients from the environment. Take a more eco-friendly approach and use shredded leaves as a weed barrier in the garden.

Shredded leaf mulches minimize soil compaction, retain soil moisture, limit weeds, and add nutrients to the soil.

You don’t want to use whole leaves in your garden. Whole leaves won’t decompose as quickly as shredded leaves, and they create a mat that prevents water from reaching the soil. 

Shredding leaves is an easy DIY task. Here are three options:

  1. Run your lawn mower over the leaves. A bag attachment can make collecting the shreds especially easy. 
  2. Use a leaf vacuum mulcher to collect and shred the leaves.
  3. Place the leaves in a large, clean trash can, and then put your string trimmer or weed wacker into the bin.

Where should you apply shredded leaves to use as landscape fabric?

Apply 3 to 4 inches of shredded leaves to your shrubs and trees and 2 to 3 inches to your flower and garden beds. 

5. Grass clippings

wheelbarrow full of grass clippings

Your grass clippings are packed with nutrients, so it makes sense that there are plenty of ways to use grass clippings as mulch, especially for your lawn and garden.

Similar to throwing away leaves, bagged grass clippings also take up space in the landfill. Instead, learn how to compost your grass clippings or create an effective weed barrier around your fruits and veggies. 

The Colorado State University Extension recommends not to mulch with grass clippings that you’ve treated with herbicides within the last two weeks. Otherwise, you risk harming your plants. You also want to avoid mulching with diseased grass.

Where should you apply grass clippings as landscape fabric?

Apply this weed blocker to your trees, shrubs, and gardens. Do not apply more than 1 inch of grass clippings at a time. Otherwise, you may get foul odors. Once the grass layer is dry, you can add more grass. Wet grass can mat together and prevent water from reaching the soil.

6. Compost

Large pile of compost with a wheel barrow next to and i sign stuck in it that reads "Compost"
Oregon State University | Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Compost is a nutrient-boosting mulch that enhances soil health –– but that doesn’t mean you should be tossing your banana peels and lemon wedges in your garden. The basics of composting say to use compost that’s fully decomposed before adding it to your garden beds. Food scraps that haven’t decomposed can attract pests and even damage your plants.

Here are some household things that make excellent compost:

  • Scrap paper
  • Teabags
  • Coffee grounds and used filter
  • Eggshells
  • Leaves, twigs, and branches
  • Untreated grass clippings
  • Pine straw
  • Fruit peels
  • Vegetable peels

Here are some household items that don’t make good compost:

  • Dairy products (experts are divided on whether dairy makes good compost or not)
  • Meat and its trimmings
  • Fatty foods or oils
  • Pet waste
  • Charcoal or coal ash
  • Bones
  • Anything treated with chemicals
  • Black walnut tree debris

Compost is a great insulator during winter and spring. The organic matter helps your soil retain moisture, blocks weed growth, and adds a steady supply of nutrients to the soil. 

Where should you apply mulch as landscape fabric?

You can spread compost mulch just about anywhere in your landscape. Add 1 inch of compost to your flower beds and vegetable garden and 2 inches of compost under a tree or shrub. Remember not to spread the compost too close to the plant’s stem or the tree’s trunk. 

7. Newspaper 

You might not read the newspaper anymore, but you can still look forward to it being delivered. Newspaper is the gardener’s secret tool for smothering weeds. A few layers of newspaper can even smother large areas of grass in a process called sheet mulching.

Don’t worry –– newspaper ink won’t leach toxic chemicals into your soil. A majority of newspaper ink is made of soy, which is safe for your edible plants. Don’t use magazine paper or the colorful, shiny inserts in the newspaper, as they aren’t safe for your soil.

Where should you apply newspaper as landscape fabric?

Your biodegradable newspaper mulch will need to be four to eight sheets thick to block sunlight from those eager weed seeds. Use newspapers where weeds are a problem, including around trees, shrubs, flowers, and veggies.

Once you’ve placed the newspaper, lightly water the newspaper with a garden hose to help the layers stick together. Then, sprinkle a layer of mulch – such as grass clippings, compost, or shredded leaves – on top of the newspaper. 

8. Cardboard

garden using sheet mulching, aka lasagna gardening
Ryan | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Your order of gardening tools just arrived at the front door –– why not put the durable cardboard box to good use in the garden, too?

After removing all the tape, stickers, and nonbiodegradable materials off the cardboard, you can use it as a biodegradable landscape fabric alternative in the garden –– and the earthworms will love it!

Where should you apply cardboard as landscape fabric?

Lay two layers of standard cardboard or one layer of heavy-duty cardboard wherever weeds are causing you trouble. If you’re working with extra-thick cardboard, one sheet is enough. Wet the cardboard to hold it in place and add a layer of organic material on top.

9. Burlap

landscape fabric laid in a flower bed surrounding plants

Burlap is an alternative weed barrier that looks and functions similarly to traditional landscaping fabric. The alternative fabric blocks weeds from growing while being porous enough for air and water to pass through.

Also known as hessian or jute, burlap is made of jute plant fibers, but it also can be made from other plant materials, such as hemp.

Remember to use natural burlap in your garden instead of synthetic burlap. Synthetic burlap is often used for upholstery because it doesn’t rot or smell. It’s typically made of polypropylene or polyester and isn’t ideal for your plants.

Unlike many alternatives in this list, burlap isn’t sitting on your doorstep. You’ll likely need to plan a trip to the store for this one or shop online. When it arrives, you will have two weed barrier options — burlap and cardboard!

Where should you apply burlap as landscape fabric?

Burlap is safe to use around your trees, shrubs, and gardens. 

10. Native groundcover plants

Adding groundcover to your garden blocks out the sunlight, preventing it from reaching the weeds below. They also make it more difficult for weeds to get water and nutrients from the air. Plus, many groundcover plants have rhizomes, which are thick, creeping, carpet-like roots, making it difficult for weeds to break through or get nutrients from the soil.

Using native groundcover plants means your beautiful new additions will thrive and flourish while also being low-maintenance since they’re already adapted to the environment.

What groundcovers are good for choking out weeds?

Some great ground cover plants to add to your garden include:

  • Creeping mazus
  • Creeping juniper
  • Creeping thyme
  • Stonecrop
  • Creeping Jenny
  • Irish moss

Can you choose a groundcover by color?

Yes! Many homeowners choose all their garden and landscaping plants by color. The color of plants can make parts of your home’s exterior stand out, attract birds and pollinators, or match the existing plants.

  • Blue: Choosing blue groundcover plants gives your home a calming feel and atmosphere. They look striking against light-colored homes or dark-colored home features. Some popular choices include:
    • Periwinkle
    • Blue bugle
    • Violets
  • Yellow: Yellow groundcover flowers are cheerful and sunny and look lovely with warm-hued homes. Common choices include:
    • Evening primrose
    • Wild ginger
    • Woolly yarrow
  • White: White groundcover flowers make your home look serene and classic. They compliment light-colored homes and look prominent against dark-colored homes. Great choices to consider include:
    • Snow-in-summer
    • Lily of the Valley
    • White delight
  • Pink: Pink is a happy color and can mesh well with both warm and cool tones, depending on the shade. Pink groundcover flowers can brighten up a neutral-colored home. Some options include:
    • Coral bells
    • Cheddar pink
    • Groundcover rose
  • Purple: The color purple is regal, mysterious, and sophisticated, so purple groundcover flowers are popular choices to make gardens stand out. They pop against white or light-colored homes and blend well with darker cool-toned homes. Wonderful options include:
    • Royal candles
    • Ice plant
    • Dalmatian bellflower

Advantages of landscape fabric

If you mentioned your weed problem to a friend or neighbor, they may have suggested landscape fabric, and for good reason. It’s a popular method for controlling weeds, and it has quite a few benefits.

Perfect under stone landscaping materials

Choosing to install landscape fabric underneath rocks, like gravel pathways or gardens with river rock mulch, is a really good idea. This is because small rocks will often sink into the soil, making the soil difficult to dig and handle. 

Landscaping fabric acts as a barrier between the ground and stones to prevent sinking, and it also makes removing the stones more manageable. Landscape fabric won’t degrade either, so you don’t need to worry about the stones sinking as the barrier decomposes.

Helps prevent erosion

Garden fabric also can be helpful in landscaping projects that require erosion control, such as placing the fabric behind a retaining wall to prevent the soil from escaping through the cracks.

Need to use fewer herbicides

A garden with a built-in weed blocker also requires fewer herbicides. If you like to avoid chemical weed killers, landscape fabric means you won’t have to use nearly as many herbicides as you would without the landscape fabric.

Disadvantages of landscape fabric

Many gardeners put landscape fabric into their garden, thinking it’s a healthy solution for their weed problem. But that’s not quite the case. Over the long term, you’ll likely run into the following issues with your weed fabric.

Needs regular replacement

Landscape fabric requires regular replacement and is not a permanent weed control solution. On average, landscape fabric lasts 2 to 3 years, but its lifespan varies by material. Once you see more than a few weeds poking through, it’s time to replace your landscape fabric.

Material doesn’t decompose

Landscape fabric does not decompose in the soil, but weeds will eventually start poking through. With holes in the fabric, more weeds will spring up, making Swiss cheese out of your landscape fabric. Soon, it’ll need to be replaced, but because it doesn’t decompose, you’ll have to dig it out.

Doesn’t add nutrients to the soil

Unlike many alternatives, landscape fabric adds no nutritional value to the ground. The organic matter from the landscape alternatives breaks down over time, increasing the soil’s ability to retain potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. 

Weeds can still grow on top of the fabric

Wind can blow weed seeds from neighboring lawns and gardens onto the landscape fabric. Weeds growing above the landscape cloth will send their roots downward, which then intertwine with the barrier. Their stubborn roots can make weeding more difficult.

Fabric blocks water and oxygen

Landscape fabric will eventually clog and block water and oxygen from reaching the soil. When this happens, your plant roots can’t soak up the vital water they need, causing them to shrivel and die.

Kills beneficial life

Landscape fabric will kill earthworms and many other beneficial insects in the soil by blocking their access to oxygen. According to the Xerces Society, “Other soil-dwelling invertebrates, such as springtails, ants, dung beetles, and ground beetles, help with improving soil health, breaking down organic matter, spreading beneficial fungi, and reducing pathogens like e. coli.”

Can be harmful to plants

Landscape fabric can be detrimental to plant and soil health. Clogged landscape fabric suffocates plants, and the lack of earthworms hinders soil health. When removing the landscape fabric, you might injure roots that have grown into the weed barrier. 

Not aesthetically pleasing

Exposed landscape fabric can be unattractive in the landscape. The uncovered pieces look like black plastic tarps or trash bags, which visually minimizes all the hard work you’ve done to get your garden looking it’s best.

FAQ about landscape fabric alternatives

Can I use plastic instead of landscape fabric?

No, plastic is not a good landscape fabric alternative. The non-permeable plastic prevents the exchange of water, air, and nutrients between the soil and atmosphere.

Can I use old cotton sheets instead of landscape fabric?

Yes, you can use old cotton sheets as a landscape fabric alternative. It’s eco-friendly and cost-effective (free!). However, the cotton fibers break down quickly, so cotton sheets aren’t the best choice for all areas.

  • Best place for cotton sheets as landscape fabric: Places that regularly need landscape fabric replacing, like garden beds that are dug up annually.
  • Worst place for cotton sheets as landscape fabric: Places that rarely have landscape fabric replaced, like under a deck or walkway.

When should landscape fabric be avoided?

When establishing new plants and transplants, avoid landscape fabric. Landscape fabric inhibits water, air, and nutrient growth, making it difficult for new or weakened plants to take root.

Want a weed-free garden? No sweat!

Landscaping fabric alternatives help avoid many common problems, but there’s a reason it’s a common method to create a weed-free garden. Whichever option you choose, laying landscape fabric is hard, dirty work — and so is creating and maintaining your garden and landscaping.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to tackle the entire load, you’re not alone. Millions of homeowners need help with all or part of their garden and landscaping. But finding a reliable, experienced, affordable professional is a nightmare. Lawn Love will connect you with a local garden pro so you can sit back and enjoy your outdoor space without breaking the bank.

Main Photo Credit: Malcolm Manners | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Nicki DeStasi

Nicki DeStasi is a writer, author, and teacher who grew up in western Massachusetts and currently resides in the Austin area. She enjoys flower and vegetable gardening, reading, cooking, listening to true-crime podcasts, and spending time with her husband, two children, dog, and cat.