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Multi-Use Landscape Fabric

Jeff Gottesfeld | Landscape

Would you believe an advertisement for a product that can do absolutely everything?

Just imagine the late-night infomercial:

Breathless pitchman going a mile a minute...

It’s a microwave oven . . . and a shoe polisher! It’s a tennis racquet . . . and an urban assault vehicle! It’s a citizen’s band radio . . . and an intravenous fluid delivery system! All in one simple tool the size of a potato peeler that can handle the toughest spuds from Idaho!

Ridiculous, of course. Nothing can do everything. Yet in our highly specialized industry, some products and tools are more versatile than others. Those are the ones you want to keep on hand at all times.

One of these multi-purpose products is geotextile landscape fabric. Most landscape contractors know it for its utility for weed suppression, but that is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Landscape fabric can also be used in hardscape applications, for winter protection of plants and shrubbery, and for mulching trees in a way that lessens the chances of a harmful insect infestation.

The better you understand the potential uses, the better you can serve your customers. All this for as little as four cents a square foot.

The most common use of landscape fabric is for weed suppression and control, while still allowing desired plant material to flourish. “Landscape fabrics have come a long way since I started working with them several decades ago,” explains Larry DeWitt, president of the DeWitt Company in Sikeston, Missouri, a leading landscape fabric manufacturer.

“The most significant improvement I’ve seen is in water dispersal. The ability of water to penetrate landscape fabrics to the soil below is key; without that, the soil will dry out. With the newest generation of laminated landscape fabric, water penetrates like never before. Not only that, but the fabrics will not leach water from the soil. The fabric blocks when it has to block, and is permeable when it needs to be permeable.”

For most of human history, there were three options for weed control: block ’em, kill ’em, or hoe ’em. Each method had and has limitations. Mulches degrade; one windy rainstorm can pile it up at the leeward end of any planting. Hoeing weeds is thankless work and highly impractical for large areas. Weed killers were—and are—potentially toxic.

While there are important modern tools in landscape weed control, like rototillers, pre-emergent herbicides, and post-emergent controls, they’re not a panacea. Weeds, after all, are weeds.

Well-installed landscape fabric makes all the difference. Installation is the key.

First, you’ll want to prepare the soil, killing and removing as many visible weeds as possible, and follow with a pre-emergent herbicide. Then, rake and flatten the soil before placing the landscape fabric as close to the ground as possible, securing it every foot or so with garden staples. (Landscape fabric is fine for undulating terrain, too. You’ll just need more garden staples). If the area being draped is too wide to cover with a single strip of fabric, overlap layers of fabric to prevent weeds from snaking between the layers.

Once the ground is prepared and the fabric installed, emerging weeds will be stopped in their tracks. A simple “X” slit in the fabric allows for planting whatever and wherever you’d like.

To maximize longevity, most manufacturers recommend putting a two-inch layer of wood chip mulch, or a light layer of pebbles, atop the fabric. This layer will block UV rays, and extend the landscape fabric’s life. You may also want to put mulch under the fabric, so that it can decompose and add to the quality of your soil.

Thus placed and installed, landscape fabric will block weeds without the use of chemicals, permit irrigation, keep the soil moist, encourage the creation of new topsoil, and look good at the same time.

Jason Palat of Palat Landscaping, Monroeville, Pennsylvania, cautions not to use fabric that’s too light. “I’ve learned the hard way,” he says, “to use heavy-duty, commercial fabric. With the light stuff, you can’t even run a wheelbarrow over it without it ripping. I want to be able to dump gravel on top without worrying. Heavier fabric is a little more expensive than lighter fabric, but it’s worth every penny.”

To be fair, some landscape contractors are less than enthusiastic about using fabrics for weed control, citing difficulties with dust clogging, and fabrics that end up buried in topsoil as top mulch degrades. Then, removing that fabric can be messy. Marion Tray of Marion Landscaping, San Rafael, California, prefers to use sheets of cardboard for mulch. “We may need to replace it every couple of years,” he says, “but I don’t like what fabric does to the soil when it’s been in place for a while.”

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