One of the most labor-intensive parts of starting or updating a garden bed is weed control. Without the proper preparation, you could soon find your flowers, shrubs, or vegetables overrun by unwanted intruders.
Landscape fabric has been the preferred weed barrier for many years. Though it’s true that landscape fabric can stop sprouting weeds for a short time, it’s far from a perfect solution. And if you care about following eco-friendly practices in your garden, this plastic-based material is one of the last things you want to bury in the soil.
In this article, I’ll explain why I (and so many other gardeners) avoid landscape fabric whenever possible. More importantly, I’ll also recommend some of the best landscape fabric alternatives to use as a weed barrier instead.
- 1) Ground Cover Plants
- 2) Compost
- 3) Grass Clippings
- 4) Shredded Leaves
- 5) Newspaper
- 6) Cardboard
- 7) Burlap
- 8) Woodchips
- 9) Bark Mulch
- 10) Pine Needles
- 11) Straw
- 12) Gravel or Rocks
- 13) Plastic Sheets
Why Use Alternatives To Landscape Fabric
In my experience, landscape fabric is an effective tool when used correctly. However, its benefits are often oversold. This results in countless well-meaning gardeners using landscape fabric in areas it doesn’t belong or expecting it to last forever with zero issues.
Applications I would consider using standard landscape fabric for include:
- As a supportive barrier beneath gravel or landscaping rocks
- To prevent erosion on slopes or behind retaining walls
- To temporarily minimize weed growth around vegetables and annual flowers
For all other projects, landscape fabric can be a tempting solution for pesky weeds. But the reality is that its short-term benefits rarely outweigh the trouble it can cause in the future.
It’s a common misconception that landscape fabric is made from organic materials like cotton. Unfortunately, nearly all landscape fabric available contains a large amount of plastic. This means that any landscape fabric abandoned or forgotten in the soil won’t degrade for a very, very long time (if ever).
While the plastic content of landscape fabric offers some added durability, holes can still form in the material surprisingly fast. Landscape fabric is far from a permanent solution against weeds. I estimate most materials start to break down within a couple of years.
In my own garden, I’m currently working to remove landscape fabric installed by the previous owner — again, a well-meaning fellow gardener — that has deteriorated to the point of allowing all kinds of weeds through.
It’s been a strenuous chore since the fabric is pinned down by mature tree roots but must be done before new shrubs are planted. If the previous owner could see the state of the beds now, I’m sure they’d think twice about installing landscape fabric in the first place!
13 Great Landscape Fabric Alternatives
Personally, I’m happy to see landscape fabric fall out of favor. But there are still countless professionals and home gardeners who rely on this material for their landscaping projects. A big reason for this is a lack of knowledge about the alternatives.
With the alternatives below, you can achieve the same level of weed prevention while maintaining soil health and keeping unnecessary plastic out of the environment. While I have a few favorites — I’ll highlight them at the end — I find that each of these alternatives can be effective in the right scenario.
1) Ground Cover Plants
If your primary reason for installing landscape fabric is to prevent weed growth or soil erosion, I highly suggest looking into ground cover plants suitable for your area instead.
Ground cover plants are those that spread and grow very low to the ground, forming a carpet that keeps soil in place and chokes out weed sprouts. Turf grass is actually an example of a ground cover plant. But there are countless other species to choose from.
Some of my favorite ground cover species include:
- Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum)
- Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum)
- Native clover (Trifolium spp.)
- Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera)
- Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
Many of these plants offer visual appeal in the way of interesting foliage or flowers. However, you can also let them fade into your garden’s background.
Despite their many benefits, ground cover plants aren’t ideal for all applications. For example, they may outcompete more delicate annual plantings. They also won’t meet your needs if you want to maintain the empty space within your garden beds.
Most people think of compost as a rich source of organic nutrients. However, it can also be used as a natural weed barrier.
One of the notable drawbacks of landscape fabric is that its barrier goes both ways. While it prevents weed seeds from sprouting, it also slows the introduction of water, oxygen, and essential nutrients into the soil. According to the University of Florida, landscape fabric can restrict gas exchange in the soil by up to 1,000 times versus bare soil. Organic weed barriers like compost are great because they don’t interfere with this exchange.
Adding a layer of compost to your garden beds will smother many weed seeds within the soil. It will also act as a natural fertilizer. I recommend replenishing this layer annually as the compost breaks down into the native soil.
3) Grass Clippings
If you lack the space or patience to compost your lawn clippings, you can instead repurpose them as mulch or op-dressing directly. I recommend setting fresh clippings out to dry before spreading them in your garden.
Grass clippings work as a weed barrier by blocking sunlight. Without adequate sun exposure, the majority of weed seeds in the topsoil won’t germinate and sprout.
Because dry grass clippings break down relatively quickly, you’ll need to replenish covered beds throughout the growing season. But the clippings will also introduce organic nutrients to the soil as they naturally decompose.
4) Shredded Leaves
Another excellent organic weed barrier can be made from dry, shredded leaves. This material is known as leaf mulch and can easily be sourced at home. If you have several deciduous trees on your property, I highly suggest reusing the fallen leaves for this purpose rather than putting them out for trash pickup.
Whole leaves will take much longer to break down and may smother some garden plants, so be sure to shred the leaves first. You can do this by running a lawn mower over the raked leaves before laying them in the garden. For the best results, swap out your normal mower blade for a mulching blade.
Paper makes a wonderful weed barrier, and newspaper is one of the easiest forms to get your hands on in large quantities.
We often forget that paper products are innately biodegradable. After all, they’re just plant matter (albeit, heavily processed). While you will need to replace a paper weed barrier every few years, it will fully degrade into the soil during the interim.
In my experience, you’ll want to use several layers of newspaper for the best weed prevention. I also recommend overlapping each piece by a couple of inches to smother all weed seeds in the soil.
Dampen the soil before laying down the newspaper. You can also lightly water the newspaper itself after installation to secure it into place. Once you’re happy with your recycled, biodegradable weed barrier, add a layer of topsoil to completely cover the paper.
Newspaper works surprisingly well for most projects but may not be thick enough to smother all weeds. In such cases, I turn to cardboard instead.
You can purchase cardboard sheets or repurpose old boxes from your recycling bin. Be sure to remove all tape, staples, and other non-paper materials from the cardboard first. Printed cardboard is generally safe to use as long as it does not have a plastic-like finish.
For the most effective weed barrier, you want the cardboard to completely cover the soil’s surface. I like to cut out holes just big enough for individual garden plants to grow through. I recommend overlapping the cardboard edges by an inch or two to ensure no weeds push through.
Once your cardboard weed barrier is in place, add a layer of topsoil to secure it. This final step will also hide the cardboard from view.
If you’re looking for a close alternative to regular landscape fabric, burlap is your best bet. It is just as easy to install but offers much better breathability and decomposition.
When selecting burlap for your landscaping project, be sure to choose a natural material. Burlap is normally made from a plant called jute. However, some types of burlap are manufactured with non-biodegradable materials like plastic. Avoid these.
As for actually using burlap in your garden, it works just like landscape fabric. Lay it out where desired, cut holes for your plants, and cover the weed barrier with topsoil. You may need to use metal pins to secure the burlap in place.
Wood chip mulch is extremely popular for a couple of reasons. In addition to giving garden beds a uniform appearance, wood chips also provide weed and erosion control.
I recommend using wood chip mulch around larger shrubs and trees. Some wood chips are too dense for herbaceous annuals and vegetables — bark mulch is a much better option.
Despite its many benefits, some gardeners see lackluster results when using wood chip mulch. Based on personal experience, this is usually due to (accidental) user error.
When installing wood chips, avoid mounding them against the base of plants. This increases the risk of fungal disease and moisture problems. Instead, aim to create a volcano shape with the trunk at the center. The highest part of the “volcano” should be a few inches from the shrub or tree.
9) Bark Mulch
My preferred type of mulch is shredded bark. It’s less likely to float away or shift down sloped soil than wood chips. Shredded bark may also be a safer option for dog owners (my dog loves to chew on and eat traditional wood chips).
Using shredded bark is really no different than wood chip mulch. Lay down a thick layer to smother weed seeds and sprouts in the topsoil. The bark will slowly break down into the soil, so be sure to keep some extra on hand to replenish your beds as needed.
Shredded bark is ideal for shrubs and trees as well as annual flowers and vegetables. Again, be careful not to pile bark mulch too close to woody trunks.
10) Pine Needles
While pine needle mulch can be quite effective, it’s not my first choice for weed prevention. It takes a lot of needles to create a layer thick enough to smother most weeds. But gardeners with access to many pine trees or with smaller areas to cover will see good results from this natural weed barrier.
Whilst pine needles are fairly acidic, they tend to become more neutral during the decomposition process. I’m comfortable using pine needle mulch around all but the most pH-sensitive plants. If you’re unsure about whether pine needles are appropriate for your soil, it never hurts to check the current pH level first.
Straw mulch is a great alternative to pine needles if you’re concerned about soil pH or have limited access to shedding evergreens. Straw is one of the most popular weed barriers for use in vegetable patches. However, it leaves something to be desired in ornamental beds.
Straw is lightweight, economical, and easy to source. I’m willing to bet your local gardening, hardware, or farm supply store carries it for just a few dollars.
12) Gravel or Rocks
Many homeowners gravitate toward rock mulch for the perceived lack of maintenance. But I caution anyone against installing rock or gravel in garden beds unless it is an aesthetic choice.
As a weed barrier, rock mulch usually works great for a couple of years. As time passes, however, the rocks will shift and weeds will make their way through. Rock mulch also often requires the use of landscape fabric, making it rather pointless as an alternative to the material.
With that said, we can all appreciate the clean aesthetic of a rock-filled garden bed in the landscape. You just shouldn’t expect this ground cover to offer long-term protection against weeds.
13) Plastic Sheets
It’s common to find black plastic sheeting sold alongside traditional landscape fabric. This material comes with the same number of drawbacks (sometimes more) as landscape fabric when installed permanently in the garden. I generally don’t recommend it.
The one worthwhile use for plastic sheeting, at least in my opinion, is solarization. Solarization is a process that uses black plastic laid on top of the soil for several days to weeks. The plastic heats up, killing all weeds, turf grass, and more underneath.
Solarization does not prevent future weeds from growing. But it is a wonderful way to start from scratch in your garden without the use of herbicides.
Best Landscape Fabric Alternatives Round-Up
I’m a strong believer in the utility of cardboard and newspaper as weed barriers. They work incredibly well when installed properly and — while they must be replaced every few seasons — won’t leave behind pieces of plastic when they break down. Natural burlap is a close second, in my opinion.
A mulch of any kind can also be highly effective against weed growth. You can use mulch alone or with other landscape fabric alternatives (such as newspaper or cardboard). In addition to weed prevention, mulch will give your garden a clean, manicured appearance.