Your gardening friends have told you the joys and woes of landscape fabric. But now you’re ready to make your own assessment of the controversial weed blocker. Our how-to guide will show you how to install landscape fabric around existing bushes and trees and help you uncover whether the weed barrier is the right choice for your plants.
- What is landscape fabric?
- Is landscape fabric good for my trees and bushes?
- What are the disadvantages of landscape fabric?
- Which landscape fabric should I use around my trees and shrubs?
- Should I add organic or inorganic mulch above my landscape fabric?
- What supplies do I need?
- How to install fabric around your existing trees and shrubs
- Step 1: Measure the area
- Step 2: Clear the area of weeds
- Step 3: Gather the debris
- Step 4: Level the soil
- Step 5: Apply soil amendments
- Step 6: Roll out the landscape fabric
- Step 7: Secure the landscape fabric
- Step 8: Apply mulch
- Step 9: Check in on your plants
- FAQs about installing landscape fabric
- Need help installing your landscape fabric?
What is landscape fabric?
Landscape fabric is a geotextile typically made of polypropylene, linen, polyester, or recycled materials. The fabric is spread across the planting bed to limit weed growth, control soil erosion, insulate the soil, and minimize evaporation. Most landscape fabrics are porous enough to allow water and air to seep into the soil.
Landscape fabric isn’t the material’s only name –– it’s also referred to as garden fabric, weed block fabric, landscaping fabric, weed control fabric, and weed barrier fabric.
Is landscape fabric good for my trees and bushes?
It depends on who you ask. Some gardeners swear by the weed barrier, while others will warn you to stay far away. The material might have its drawbacks, but it has its advantages too.
Landscape fabric is effective at preventing vegetative competition around your young trees and shrubs. In other words, weeds won’t compete with your plants for nutrients, space, light, and moisture.
But if the fabric blocks weeds, won’t it block water too? Don’t worry –– most garden fabrics are permeable enough to allow water and oxygen to pass through the barrier.
If you’re installing rock mulch or a rock garden underneath your tree, landscape fabric can prove especially useful. Small stones such as pea gravel and river rock can sink into the ground, making removing the stones or digging the soil especially difficult. Landscape fabric acts as a barrier between the rocks and the soil.
What are the disadvantages of landscape fabric?
While landscape fabric can provide a quick solution for controlling weeds, its benefits begin to decline after a year or so. Many gardeners install their landscape fabric thinking it will provide a permanent solution, but permanence is one of landscape fabric’s many myths.
Although most landscape fabrics are permeable, they tend to clog over time. The clogged fabric prevents water and oxygen from reaching the soil, ultimately leading to poor soil health.
But poor soil isn’t the fabric’s only flaw. Landscape fabric:
- Suffocates earthworms
- Adds no nutritional value to the soil
- Girdles trees when not installed properly
- Requires regular replacement
- Jeopardizes plant health when roots grow into the fabric
Landscape fabric also won’t completely eliminate your weeding chores. Wind can blow weed seeds from neighboring lawns and gardens onto the mulch that’s on top of the fabric. And these sprouting weeds can be tough to remove because their roots often intertwine with the fabric.
Which landscape fabric should I use around my trees and shrubs?
There are many different types of landscape fabrics, all with varying degrees of durability and permeability.
You’ll want a landscape fabric with good permeability so that your plants’ roots get enough water and oxygen. Woven fabric is typically the best landscape fabric to install around trees and shrubs. We’ll list the various fabric types below so that you understand your options.
The four major types of fabric are:
This garden fabric is typically made of tightly woven linen or polypropylene fibers. It contains tiny holes that water and air can pass through.
Rating: Woven landscape fabric is an excellent weed barrier around trees and shrubs. It’s also a suitable choice for flower gardens that don’t need new plants often.
Typically made of polyester or polypropylene, this fabric is a solid sheet of non-woven material.
Non-woven fabric options are typically installed underneath rock mulches, rock gardens, or rock pathways to help prevent the small stones from sinking into the ground. The fabric also helps make removing the rocks from the landscape much easier.
Rating: Non-woven landscape fabric allows some water movement, but it’s not as permeable as other landscape fabrics. It might not be the best choice around your trees and shrubs, as there is a higher risk of suffocating your plants.
Spun landscape fabric is a type of non-woven fabric. It consists of long polyester fibers that have been bonded together with compression or heat.
Spun landscape fabric is very durable. Many gardeners use the heavy-duty fabric as a physical barrier around the gardens’ borders to deter pests and invasive grass. It’s useful underneath rock mulches and behind retaining walls to help prevent soil and roots from reaching the cracks.
Rating: Spun landscape fabric is not the best landscape fabric for your trees and shrubs. Thin spun landscaping fabrics are often porous enough to allow water and oxygen to pass, but thick spun fabric options are usually not as permeable.
Perforated garden fabric has small, perforated holes. It’s a light-duty, permeable material perfect for beds where plants are changed often. It’s not ideal for areas that receive heavy foot traffic.
Rating: Perforated is best suited for vegetable gardens or annual flower beds.
Should I add organic or inorganic mulch above my landscape fabric?
The main difference between organic and inorganic mulch is that organic mulch decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil. Inorganic mulch doesn’t decompose, nor does it provide nutritional value to the soil.
Since you’re mulching above the landscape fabric, it won’t make a nutritional difference whether you apply organic or inorganic mulch. Why? Because the landscape fabric prevents organic mulch from replenishing the soil with its nutrients.
It ultimately comes down to which mulch you find to be an aesthetically pleasing ground cover that’s easy to maintain.
Inorganic options include:
- Shredded rubber
- Rock mulch
- Pea gravel
Organic options include:
- Wood chips
- Shredded bark
- Pine needles
- Grass clippings
- Shredded leaves
What supplies do I need?
Ready to start installing landscape fabric around your trees and shrubs? Here’s what you’ll need:
- Tape measure
- Bow rake
- Garden hoe
- Rubber mallet or hammer
- Utility knife
- Your choice of mulch
- Your choice of landscape fabric
- Herbicide (optional)
- Landscape staples
- Garden gloves
How to install fabric around your existing trees and shrubs
Step 1: Measure the area
Using your tape measure, measure the area where you want to install the landscape fabric. This step will help you determine how much landscape fabric and garden staples you’ll need.
When calculating the amount of fabric you’ll need, account for some extra material. Why? Because you’ll need a few inches of extra fabric for the planting bed’s edge and some extra fabric to install underneath any slits you make.
You’ll need to have enough garden staples for:
- Every foot along the fabric’s edge
- Every square foot within the bed’s interior area
- Every slit you make (you’ll need one garden staple for every one foot of the slit)
- Every time you overlap the fabric (you’ll need one garden staple for every one foot of overlapped fabric)
- Every time you make an X-shaped incision (you’ll need four garden staples for every X-shaped incision, more if the incision is particularly large)
Step 2: Clear the area of weeds
You don’t want to install your garden fabric over a dirty planting bed. Pull any existing weeds by hand or use your garden hoe to slice through the roots. Be gentle around your existing shrubs — you don’t want to hit their roots accidentally!
Another option is to use an herbicide. If you use an herbicide to clear out the weeds, you’ll need to wait about two weeks before you install the fabric.
Step 3: Gather the debris
Next, grab your garden rake and collect the debris. Gather and remove all the twigs, dry leaves, and weeds.
Step 4: Level the soil
Comb your garden rake through the planting bed and level out the soil.
Step 5: Apply soil amendments
Now is the time to add any soil amendments, such as compost. Once you install the landscape fabric, you’ll have limited access to your soil.
Step 6: Roll out the landscape fabric
Slowly roll out the landscape fabric, starting from one edge of the planting bed. It’s helpful to have one person stand on the material to hold it in place while a second person rolls out the fabric.
Read the instructions to see which side of the landscape fabric faces up. For most landscape fabrics, it’s fuzzy side down.
Around the bed’s edges, remember to leave a few extra inches of fabric.
Once your fabric reaches a shrub or tree, you’ll need to cut the landscape fabric. Here’s what you can do:
If it’s a tree you’ve reached, determine the spot on the landscape fabric where the tree will go.
Next, cut a slit starting from the landscape fabric’s closest edge toward where the tree will be.
Once your scissors have arrived at the designated spot, cut a large enough hole for the tree’s trunk. Don’t make the hole too small because you don’t want the fabric to girdle the tree. The fabric shouldn’t rest against the tree’s trunk nor cover its root flare. The root flare is where the trunk meets the soil, and the roots extend outward.
Open the slit and slide the tree through to the hole. Continue rolling out the landscape fabric until you reach the next plant.
Shrub (option one)
Once you reach a shrub, you’ll perform the same task as if it were a tree.
First, determine where on the fabric the shrub will be located.
Next, cut the slit toward the shrub’s spot. If the shrub has a small trunk, you might not need to cut a hole. If the shrub’s trunk is thick, cut a hole.
Finally, slide the fabric’s slit over the shrub’s trunk and continue rolling out the fabric.
Shrub (option two)
Another way you can wrap the fabric around shrubs is to make incisions in the fabric.
First, determine where on the fabric the shrub will be located.
Using a utility knife, make an X-shaped incision that’s as large as the shrub. Place the incision over the shrub and pull the shrub through the incision. Continue rolling out the fabric until you reach another plant.
What to do if you use multiple sheets of fabric
The chances are good that you’ll need more than one sheet of fabric to cover the planting bed. When you apply multiple sheets of fabric, it’s essential to maintain a 6- to 12-inch overlap between each sheet.
Step 7: Secure the landscape fabric
Once you’ve spread the landscape fabric around the shrubs and trees, it’s time to put the garden staples into action.
Keep the landscape fabric taut and snug by beginning at one edge of the material and working your way across the bed.
With the help of your mallet or hammer, here’s where you’ll need to install the garden staples:
- Every foot along the edges of the fabric. Before you staple, fold the extra material underneath the fabric. Cutting the excess material off is an option, but it often frays the fabric. Fold the extra few inches of fabric underneath the sheet, and then install the staple.
- Every foot between the overlapping fabrics.
- Between every slit leading to a plant. Before you staple, slip a piece of landscape fabric underneath the slit –– this is to ensure no weeds grow through the opening.
- Between the triangular flaps of an X-shaped incision.
- Every square foot within the fabric’s interior area. In some areas, you might have already installed a garden staple to secure a slit or overlap.
Step 8: Apply mulch
This step is optional, but leaving landscape fabric uncovered can be an eyesore in the front yard.
Applying mulch incorrectly can be harmful to your trees and shrubs. Your tree might be large and mighty, but spreading too much mulch around it can be detrimental to its health.
Say no to mulch volcanoes
Have you ever seen a tree that looks like it has mulch climbing up its trunk? That’s a mulch volcano. Homeowners sometimes pile on the mulch and pack it right up against the tree’s trunk –– this is not the right way to install mulch.
How to mulch around trees
Trees need 2 to 4 inches of mulch, but no more. Too much mulch will suffocate your tree. The tree’s root system will grow too close to the soil surface in search of oxygen and potentially girdle the tree.
Spread the mulch as far as the canopy’s edge, also known as the dripline. Pull the mulch 6 inches away from the tree’s trunk and keep the root flare exposed.
How to mulch around shrubs
A 2- to 4-inch thick layer of mulch is enough for your shrubs. Pull the mulch at least 3 inches away from the shrub’s trunk.
Step 9: Check in on your plants
You might have installed the landscape fabric and mulch, but your job isn’t over yet. As your trees and shrubs continue to grow, it’s essential to check the trunks. If the trunks outgrow the hole you cut in the landscape fabric, the fabric will girdle the tree.
Pull back some of the mulch to check the trunk’s size. If the hole is too small, cut the fabric and make the hole larger.
FAQs about installing landscape fabric
The landscape fabric and mulch should extend out to the tree’s dripline.
Yes, landscape fabric is easy to install before you add your plants. After you secure the landscape fabric to the ground, make X-shaped incisions where you want your plants to go.
Pull back the incisions flaps and dig a hole the size of the plant’s root ball. Place the plant’s roots into the hole, backfill with soil, and then fold down the flaps. Remember to secure the flaps with garden staples.
Landscape fabric doesn’t decompose, which means it will remain in the soil for many, many years. But don’t get your hopes up. Landscape fabric’s benefits tend to decline after one year, which means you’ll need to replace it quite often.
Yes, alternative solutions to achieving weed-free garden beds do exist.
Many organic mulches, such as wood chips and grass clippings, are weed barriers. They also add nutrients to the soil and increase plant health.
Other landscape fabric alternatives include newspaper, burlap, and cardboard.
Need help installing your landscape fabric?
Installing landscape fabric can be a straightforward home improvement project if your plant bed has only one tree or a few bushes. But if you need to take into account multiple plants, the job can get overwhelming, especially if you’re concerned about the health of your plants.
Whether you’re worried about harming your plants with improper installation or you need an extra hand, hiring a local lawn care professional can ease the burden. Enjoy the spare time on your hands while a professional prepares your plant bed, installs the fabric, and spreads the mulch.
Main Photo Credit: Trong Nguyen | Shutterstock