Whatever name you know it by, weed cloth, weed barrier, landscape cloth, it is probably one of the most used products in the landscape business. Proponents tout it as the key to weed-free landscapes and easy maintenance. I see it constantly, under rockscapes, bedding plants, shrubs, even around trees. Let me tell you my own experience with this stuff.
Several years ago, before I became a Master Gardener and way before I got my schooling in organic gardening and living, I planted two apple trees in my yard. Following the generally accepted practices that I was told and saw, I dutifully removed as much of the Bermuda grass from the area where I wanted to plant the trees. I dug the holes for my new trees according to the directions on the labels and then placed a soaker hose around the trees. Over the soaker hose, I placed weed barrier and then covered it with a nice layer of pine bark mulch. I thought I had all my problems solved and had done the best I could do for the trees.
After a couple of growing seasons, the trees had not thrived. They were alive but not growing as I thought they should. In addition, weeds had begun to appear in the pine bark mulch. We then had a season of heavy rain and all the pine bark mulch promptly washed away into the other parts of the lawn. I found that there were now several inches of what appeared to be topsoil over the weed cloth. Weeds were quite happily rooted in the thin layer of topsoil as were now, a nice variety of wildflowers. I let this be for several more seasons until learning more about planting trees and tree root flare. I realized the two apple trees were planted to deep and that the root flares of both trees were well below the surface of the soil.
This spring, I resolved to fix this problem. I began trying to lower the soil level around the trees and carefully expose the root flare. I discovered several things.
Most of the weeds and wildflowers growing around the trees were rooted in the very top few inches of soil above the weed cloth. I also discovered that any water that was placed from the surface, such as a sprinkler, a hose or rain, simply infiltrated to the weed barrier and then ran sideways into the lawn. The trees were getting very little benefit. BY this time the soaker hose under the weed barrier had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer useable, so, for the past few seasons, the trees had been suffering stress from lack of water.
I began trying to remove the weed cloth. It was an enormous chore, made even more difficult by the places where the bermudagrass had infiltrated the bed and roots had penetrated the weed cloth into the subsoil. The weed cloth made it virtually impossible to remove the bermudagrass without physical digging it out in huge clumps and disposing of the topsoil, weed cloth, and Bermuda grass mixture.
I discovered a few other things as well. There was virtually no soil life below the weed cloth. I did find a few worms in the soil layer above the weed cloth, but the soil below it was devoid of life.
Once I managed to remove the majority of the weed cloth and carefully expose the root flare of the two apple trees, I laid down a thick layer of brown cardboard and then a thick layer of fresh wood chips. I made these changes early this spring.
Since then, I have had virtually no weeds and the two apple trees have put on more new growth this spring than they have since they were planted. Also, both trees have bloomed and set fruit. Nothing else was done, except to remove the weed cloth, expose the root flare, and water deeply and slowly when needed.
I have another small area in my backyard where I did the same process years ago when building a flowerbed along the fence. The flower bed is long gone, never having been successful at all. The brick edging is stacked neatly behind my shop. What is still in the ground is the weed barrier cloth. In this area, there is very little growing activity. The Bermuda grass has slowly started to infiltrate, but, by and large, the space remains an almost dead zone.
My experience has been that weed cloth gets a resounding NAY. Weed cloth really doesn’t perform very well as a weed barrier. This poor performance is especially true when you apply a layer of bark mulch over the weed cloth. Almost immediately, the mulch begins to decompose into soil. Over time you get a layer of fertile soil in which weeds and grass will easily root. Even if you mulch with rock, blowing dust and sand in West Texas will eventually deposit a nice layer of material that will eventually become home to some poor soil loving weeds.
The weed cloth also inhibits water infiltration. Yes, it is a permeable barrier, but as it silts in with sand and soil, the permeable openings seal, and it becomes a watershed that can easily cause erosion and prevent the infiltration of water into the subsoil layers.
Weed cloth also serves as an impermeable barrier to many of the organisms that make up a healthy soil biome. Earthworms especially are affected as they need to come to the surface on occasion, and without the infiltration of water, they will abandon the soil.
There are other ways to accomplish the same goals without the downsides I see in using weed cloth. Lasagna style mulching with cardboard and wood chips is a great alternative and, in my experience, works just as well. I almost always advise against installing weed barrier beneath permanent landscaping. It is not good for the plants. It isn’t good for the soil. It doesn’t perform over time as intended. It can be a nightmare to remove.
Do yourself a favor and avoid putting weed barrier in your landscape. Your plants and the soil will be happier and healthier in the long run. You will be much more satisfied with the results.
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