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How to Install Landscape Fabric and Plastic

By: Julie Day

Landscape fabric and plastic can help prevent weeds and control erosion by holding the soil in place and keeping weeds from sprouting. While both products are easy to install, there are some important considerations to take into account when choosing the one that best fits your needs.

Landscape Fabric vs. Plastic Sheeting

Landscape fabric is a synthetic material that may be either woven or perforated throughout with tiny holes. Its main function is to block sunlight from reaching weed seeds and young sprouts to prevent them from germinating and growing while still allowing air and water to penetrate through it into the soil. Landscape fabric can be used around new or existing landscape plantings. It can also be an effective means of controlling erosion.

Landscape plastic is a nonporous material that prevents all air, light, and water penetration by forming a solid barrier above the soil. Plastic also traps heat, so this product will effectively smother everything underneath it, which often included the roots of landscape plants. Landscape plastic is best used in rock beds, under shaded decks and porches, and in areas where there plants and large tree root systems are not present.

Both products work best in areas where there are large spaces between plants or structures, so the fabric will require as few holes and cuts in it as possible.

Uses for Landscape Fabric or Plastic

  • Controlling weeds around trees, shrubs, or landscape plants (fabric only).
  • Preventing erosion on slopes and behind retaining walls.
  • Controlling grass and weed growth under walkways or decks (plastic).
  • Creating a clean, orderly look to the garden.

Installing Landscape Fabric or Plastic

You will need:

  • Garden rake
  • Scissors or razor blade cutter
  • Landscape fabric or plastic sheeting
  • Landscape staples or anchor pins
  • Mulch

If installing new plants, you will also need the plants, a shovel or trowel, and any soil amendments you wish to use.

Follow these steps:

Step 1: Make sure the area is smooth and free of weeds. Remove any sharp twigs, stones, or anything that could puncture the fabric. Rake the area to get a nice even surface.

Step 2: Unroll the fabric lengthwise across the area, and cut it to length. Trim the edges to follow the curves of your garden beds. The fabric should be completely hidden under the mulch when you’re done, so make sure to trim any edges that stick out.

Step 3: If you have existing landscape plants, cut a slit to allow the main stem to fit through. Once you slide the fabric into place, enlarge the hole if needed, to reduce pressure on the stem or trunk of the plant.

Step 4: Secure the fabric with landscape staples, making sure the edges are secure. If you have cut slits for existing plants, overlap and firmly staple the cut edges, or cover the slit with a scrap of fabric. Any cuts in the fabric will allow weeds and grass to grow, so be sure they are well secured and covered.

Step 5: If you are planting new plants, install the landscape fabric first then cut an “X” in it to make a space for planting. Dig your hole and plant as you normally would, making sure the fabric stays on top of the soil and is tucked around the stem of the new plant.

Step 6: Apply 2”- 3” of mulch over the fabric, and you’re done!

Use Landscape Fabric Wisely

Some gardeners swear by landscape fabric while others hate it. There are some definite benefits, as well as clear disadvantages, to using these products. Here are some tips for getting the best results from landscape fabric or plastic:

Replace the fabric/plastic and mulch every few years.

  • As your mulch layer decomposes, it will form a nice layer of compost on top of the fabric, which allows weed seeds to sprout on top of the fabric. The mulch and fabric need to be replaced every so often or it stops working.
  • Landscape fabrics and plastics degrade over time, leaving bits of shredded synthetic material in the soil. Meanwhile, those rips and tears allow weeds to penetrate and can entangle your plant roots. Breakdown is faster in sunlight, so make sure you have plenty of mulch.

Use drip irrigation or place soaker hoses under the fabric.

  • Water follows the path of least resistance, and at least some of it is likely to run off the fabric rather than soaking through. To prevent this from happening, use targeted watering rather than overhead watering.

Use landscape fabric and plastic only when needed.

  • The barrier of the fabric or plastic can interrupt the natural ecological balance, including the life cycle of insects, birds feeding, and the natural composting of organic matter. Even if it is “breathable,” landscape fabric will slow the rate of water evaporation and can contribute to mold growth.
  • Shrubs and trees with landscape fabric often grow more shallow roots than those without it, which makes them less healthy overall and less drought-tolerant. Over time, plant roots can become tangled in the fabric, making it difficult to maintain the area.
  • In general, your garden will always be healthier if nature is uninterrupted. While landscape fabric may be safer than chemical weed killers, it is still a synthetic material that blocks natural processes in the soil.
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3 Comments on “How to Install Landscape Fabric and Plastic”

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  1. Michelle Says:
    April 17th, 2011 at 11:09 am

    I am looking for long narrow strips of plastic to lay for a shelter belt we’re planting on our farm. I have seen farmers with them but don’t know where a person would find such a product. thanks for your help.

  2. Dawna Says:
    February 20th, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    I’m so glad I found this site. I’ve been struggling with bits of plastic EVERYWHERE I work in the yard of the fixer upper we moved into last summer. The plastic was laid down about 20 years ago and, from the looks of it, bushes were planted right on top. I have root systems from butterfly bushes, lilacs, blackberries, roses, and evergreens all growing across the sheeting, under all the weeds that have grown anyway. It’s such a nuisance! I think I’d rather have just weeds to pull!

  3. Brian Says:
    May 23rd, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Is there a top and bottom side to landscape fabric?

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