Best Landscaping Fabric Alternatives

pine straw mulch spread throughout a garden and around plants

Is your garden caught in the grips of relentless weeds? Your neighbors might recommend landscaping fabric as a permanent weed control solution. But “permanence” is one of landscaping fabric’s many myths. 

These nine alternatives to landscape fabric are effective weed blockers, and they’re healthier for your garden. And did we mention money-savers, too? From shredded leaves to the weekly newspaper, you can find many alternatives right in your home or backyard. 

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 to prevent weeds from sprouting. 

There are many different types of landscape fabric. The weed barrier 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. 

What are the advantages of landscape fabric?

Landscape fabric is a superb choice for gravel pathways or gardens with river rock mulch

Why? 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. 

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. 

A garden with a built-in weed blocker also requires fewer herbicides, a great perk for gardeners who wish to avoid using chemical weed killers.  

What are the 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. 

  • Landscape fabric requires regular replacement and is not a permanent weed control solution.
  • Landscape fabric does not decompose in the soil. This can be a good thing when you need a longer-term solution to support your rock pathway, but not so much in a veggie or flower garden. 
  • Landscape fabric adds no nutritional value to the ground. 
  • Wind can blow soil and weed seeds from neighboring lawns and gardens onto the landscape fabric. The weed barrier will not block any weeds that are growing on top of the fabric. 
  • Weeds growing above the landscape cloth will send their roots downwards, which then intertwine with the barrier. Their stubborn roots can make your weeding chores especially difficult.
  • Landscape fabric will eventually clog and block water and oxygen from reaching the soil. 
  • Landscape fabric will kill earthworms and many other beneficial insects in the soil by blocking their access to oxygen. 
  • Landscape fabric can be detrimental to plant and soil health. Why? Because 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. 
  • Exposed landscape fabric can be unattractive in the landscape.

Nine landscape fabric alternatives 

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

1. Wood chips

Wood chips make an excellent mulch around shrubs and trees. The organic mulch breaks down slowly and supplies 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 to apply wood chips: 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 against your plants’ trunks, as this can cause insect and disease problems. 

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

Do wood chips attract termites? 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 spread diseases to my trees? According to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, wood chips spreading disease to your trees is very unlikely. 

Can wood chips deplete my soil of nitrogen? When you apply wood chips as a surface mulch, nitrogen depletion would 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 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, resistance to compaction, and beauty in the landscape. 

According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, there is some concern regarding fresh or improperly stockpiled bark mulches being toxic to young plants. 

The extension stresses that bark mulches are most likely to damage plants if the mulch is particularly 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 to apply bark mulch: 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: Pine needles are flammable. They might not be an ideal landscape fabric alternative if you live in an area susceptible to forest fires. 

Where to apply pine needles: 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: 

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

Where to apply shredded leaves: 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

Your grass clippings are a nutritious mulch for your lawn, and they’re a good mulch for your garden, too. 

Similar to throwing away leaves, bagged grass clippings also take up space in the landfill. Instead, decompose the grass in your compost bin 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 to apply grass clippings: Apply this weed blocker to your trees, shrubs, and gardens. Do not apply more than 1 inch of grass clippings at a time. Otherwise, foul odors may develop. 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. You want 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. 

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 to apply mulch: 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 to 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 to apply newspaper: 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 the garden hose to help the layers stick together. Then, sprinkle a layer of mulch on top of the newspaper, such as grass clippings, compost, or shredded leaves. 

8. Cardboard

Your order of gardening tools just arrived at the front door –– why not put the 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 to apply cardboard: Lay two layers of standard 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

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

There’s more to gardening than weed control

When weeds are running amok in your garden beds, landscaping fabric can sound like a great solution. It blocks those weeds from growing while still allowing the soil access to air and water. 

But your garden needs more than weed control. Landscaping fabric adds no nutritional value to the soil, and it doesn’t decompose. And over time, the fabric can be detrimental to your soil’s health. Biodegradable alternatives like shredded leaves, cardboard, and compost are healthy foods for the soil –– and the hungry earthworms! 

Landscaping fabric can be a superb addition to a gravel mulch bed or pea gravel pathway because the fabric helps prevent the stones from sinking into the soil. Laying landscape fabric might work up a sweat, but the barrier will later come in handy when you need to remove the stones from the landscape.  

Need help with your landscape fabric alternative? Hire a local lawn care professional to spread the wood chips, shred the leaves, or mow the lawn so you can gather the grass clippings. A professional also can help you install a new garden bed in the landscape for your next plant project. 

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

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.