Laying down landscape fabric is the easiest and often the most effective method for fighting weeds. It prevents weed seeds from germinating in the soil or from landing and taking root from above the soil. And because landscape fabric is "breathable," it lets water, air, and some nutrients to flow down to the soil to feed desirable plants.
Landscape fabric works fine on its own, but it's usually best to cover it with a decorative mulch, rock, or other ground cover. The fabric separates the cover material from the soil, keeping stone and gravel clean and slowing the inevitable breakdown of organic mulch. Black plastic (another type of weed barrier) performs a similar function, but plastic is prone to tearing, and it forms an impervious barrier that prevents water and air from reaching desirable plants.
Installing landscape fabric isn't much harder than spreading out a bed sheet, but it's important to prepare the ground properly to ensure a flat surface and prevent damage to the fabric. It's also important to overlap and secure the edges of the fabric to prevent weeds and cover material from getting through the seams.
Working With Landscape Fabrics
Landscape fabric is a weed barrier, but not all weed barriers are landscape fabric. Cheap, thin plastic barriers are far inferior to quality fabric and can tear very easily. It never pays to use the cheap stuff because you'll most likely need to replace it sooner or later. By contrast, quality landscape fabric is long-lasting and is resistant to sun damage and tears. Some products are guaranteed for up to 20 years.
Another benefit of quality fabric is that it's reusable. If you decide to change an area that is covered with fabric and mulch, simply remove the mulch, unpin the fabric, shake off the soil and other material, and roll up the fabric to keep it for future use. While it may be a little dirty, reused fabric works just as well as new material.
Most quality landscape fabric is made of spun synthetic-fiber material that blocks sunlight but permits the passage of some water and air. The material is tough, but it can be damaged by sharp rocks, tools, and roots. For this reason, it's a good idea to rake and smooth the ground before laying the fabric. Many fabrics are UV-protected but will last longer if they are not directly exposed to sunlight. A layer of mulch or other ground material provides this coverage.
Equipment / Tools
- Garden hoe
- Steel rake
- Utility knife
- Landscape fabric
- Landscape fabric staples
- Plants (optional)
- Mulch or other ground cover (optional)
Remove All Vegetation
Dig out all weeds, grass, and other vegetation, using a garden hoe, shovel, or other tool. Dig deep enough to get the roots; if you miss the roots, some plants can spread even when covered with landscape fabric. Use a hoe with a swinging motion, bringing the blade down toward the ground and slightly back toward your body, striking the ground at approximately a 45-degree angle. Ideally, you'll penetrate the soil deeply enough to get under the roots and lift out the whole weed, roots and all.
Alternatively, you can kill the plants with a non-selective, or broad-spectrum, herbicide (such as Roundup). Apply the herbicide as directed by the manufacturer, and allow time for the plants to die completely. Herbicide is often recommended for weeds that spread with rhizomes or stolons, which can be difficult to eradicate with digging alone.
Clear and Level the Soil
Rake the area thoroughly with a steel garden rake, also called a bow rake. Pull up any uprooted weeds and rake out all twigs, stones, and other sharp objects that could damage the landscape fabric. Discard the loosened rocks and debris as you rake until the soil surface is smooth and flat.
Lay the Landscape Fabric
Roll out the landscape fabric so it is parallel to the long dimension of the area. Cut the material off of the roll, as needed, with a sharp utility knife (it helps to replace the blade frequently so it is always sharp). If desired, you can run the pieces long and trim them later; it's better to have too much fabric than too little.
If you need more than one row of fabric, overlap the pieces by at least 6 inches. Fabric manufacturers may say 3 inches is enough, but 6 is better. If the fabric has different sides (such as one shiny and one dull side), be sure to install it with the proper side facing up, as directed. Temporarily weight down the fabric, if necessary, with stones or other heavy objects.
Secure the Fabric With Staples
Confirm that the fabric is positioned properly, then secure it with landscape fabric staples, using a hammer or small hand maul. Drive a staple every 10 feet, or so, along the edges and seams and as needed over the interior areas (keep in mind that your ground cover, if you are using it, will help hold down the fabric). Trim the fabric along the edges, if needed.
Plant Through the Landscape Fabric (optional)
If you're adding plants in the area, make an X-shaped incision in the landscape fabric for each plant, using scissors or a utility knife. Cut from the outside toward the center, and make the incisions just big enough for digging a hole for the root ball of the plant. The fewer and smaller the holes you put in the fabric the better.
Pull the flaps aside to dig the hole, and dump the soil into a wheelbarrow or tub, rather than onto the surrounding fabric. Install the plant, back-fill around the root ball with soil, and lightly tamp the soil to eliminate air pockets. Lay the four flaps of fabric snugly against the base of the plant to cover the soil.
Landscape fabric, while permeable, will likely limit the amount of moisture from rainfall or spray irrigation from reaching the soil below the fabric. When planting within fabric, keep a close eye your plants to make sure they are getting enough water.
Add Mulch (optional)
Cover the landscape fabric with mulch or other ground cover, if desired. If using natural mulch, such as wood chips or pine needles, add no more than about 2 inches of the cover. If using stone, you may need less than 2 inches for full coverage, depending on the stone and the planned use of the area. Spread and smooth the ground cover with a rake, being careful not to damage the fabric.
Landscape Fabric Tips
Areas covered with landscape fabric need some maintenance to remain weed-free over time. Soil and dust that blows onto the top of the fabric can build up and eventually support the germination of weed seeds. Any organic mulch applied over the fabric inevitably breaks down into soil, creating fertile ground for weeds and grasses. When the area becomes choked with soil and debris, it's time to remove and clean or replace the ground cover.
Stone ground covers can be raked off and hosed down to remove accumulated dirt. Organic mulches must be replaced. For this reason, there's no sense in using a thick layer of organic mulch over landscape fabric because all mulch biodegrades and turns into soil; a thicker layer just means more soil that can harbor weeds as well as a higher replacement cost. And, because you have the landscape fabric to stop weeds from below, there's no benefit to having a thick layer of mulch on top, as you would use when trying to suppress weeds without fabric.