When you’re searching for a way to keep your garden beds weed-free, most sources will probably point you in the direction of landscape fabric (aka landscape cloth). They aren’t exactly wrong, per se … but they aren’t exactly right, either.
As a weed barrier, landscape fabric is hit-or-miss. It can smother weeds that grow in the ground, but new weed seeds can easily take root in the mulch on top of the fabric.
Plus, landscape fabric usually is made of woven polypropylene, which you can tell isn’t natural just based on how many syllables there are in the name. Polypropylene landscaping fabric isn’t biodegradable, so it adds no nutrients to your soil and can even interrupt your soil’s natural biological processes.
So, what can you use for weed control instead? Here are five easy and affordable alternatives to landscape fabric.
- Ground cover plants
Let’s take a closer look at these landscape fabric alternatives and their pros and cons.
5 Landscape Fabric Alternatives
Our first alternative weed barrier is something you probably have loads of laying around your house. Every time you make an online purchase, you get a cardboard box that can be used as a plant-friendly, biodegradable landscape fabric alternative.
The idea of cardboard as a method of weed control comes from the concept of sheet mulching.
To install cardboard “fabric” in your vegetable garden or flower beds, first remove all staples, tape, and other inorganic material that might be attached to your cardboard. You don’t want all that extra junk polluting your garden.
Next, wet the cardboard to make it more pliable, so you can fit it into the spaces between your plants. You will want to lay down two layers of standard cardboard, or one layer if you’re working with a heavy-duty extra thick type.
When you’re laying the cardboard pieces, make sure they overlap by a few inches at every seam, so weeds don’t have any space to break through.
Once you’re satisfied with your cardboard weed barrier, cover it with a layer of mulch (preferably organic mulch such as wood chips or bark) to make your garden more aesthetically pleasing.
Pros of using cardboard
- It’s biodegradable and earthworms like it, so it won’t hurt your soil. Instead, it will add nutrients as it breaks down.
- It’s super cheap or even free if you already have a supply of cardboard boxes.
Cons of using cardboard
- It doesn’t pair well with inorganic mulch like gravel or rubber. As the cardboard decomposes, inorganic mulch will stay intact and sink into the soil, turning your garden bed into a mess.
- Cardboard can become a food source for termites.
Most people get their news online now, but newspaper is still good for something. You can use newsprint as another cheap, biodegradable weed barrier for your garden.
Installing newspaper in your garden as a landscape alternative is similar to placing cardboard on the surface of your garden area. The only difference: Since newsprint is so thin, you will need 4-8 layers of newspaper to effectively smother weeds.
You also can use shredded newspaper, which will let more moisture and sunlight reach your plant’s roots. Even under mulch, though, shredded newspaper tends to get loose and blow away.
Note: Make sure you don’t use glossy, colored newspaper (think magazines) in your landscape, since this type of paper won’t break down.
Pros of using newspaper
- It’s biodegradable and good for your soil. Newspaper makes great food for earthworms, which your garden needs.
- Like cardboard, newspaper is cheap or free.
Cons of using newspaper
- Because it’s biodegradable, newspaper won’t work with inorganic mulches. Stick with organic mulch like wood chips or bark, which will decompose along with the newspaper.
- Newspaper won’t last as long as cardboard, and you’ll have to replace it regularly.
Of all the alternative options we’ve compiled, burlap is the most similar to traditional landscape fabric. You install it essentially the same way, by laying it in sheets with holes or slits cut out for your plants and then using pins to hold it down.
Burlap also functions similarly to landscape cloth in that it suppresses weeds but is permeable enough to let water reach the soil. Burlap, however, is made of organic material, so it will eventually break down into the soil and won’t hurt earthworms.
Pros of using burlap
- It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a natural landscape fabric.
- Burlap is biodegradable and beneficial for your plants and soil.
Cons of using burlap
- For most people, burlap won’t be as cheap or easy to find as cardboard or newspaper (although it’s still significantly cheaper than most traditional landscaping fabric).
- Like other biodegradable weed control options, it’s not good for garden beds with inorganic mulch like rubber mulch or pea gravel.
4. Ground cover plants
Ground cover plants block sunlight before it can reach weed seeds and young weeds that want to sprout in your garden. Essentially, these plants choke out the weeds without interfering with the other plants, shrubs, and flowers in your garden bed.
Aside from their function as a weed barrier, ground cover plants also can add an extra aesthetic element to your garden. Even better news: Most ground cover plants are low-maintenance and thrive in almost any climate.
Some of the best evergreen ground cover plants for preventing weeds include creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis), ajuga (Ajuga reptans), and mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus).
Pros of using ground cover plants
- This is the most natural way to smother weeds.
- Ground cover plants are a more long-term solution for weed control than landscape fabric or any of the other alternatives listed here. You won’t have to replace ground cover as long as you choose an evergreen variety and keep it alive.
Cons of using ground cover plants
- Depending on what species you choose, this option can get expensive if you need to cover a large area.
- Even though most ground covers are low-maintenance, you’re still adding another plant to your garden that you’ll have to take care of.
If you don’t like the idea of using landscape cloth or any of these alternatives, you can prevent and kill weeds with herbicides. You have tons of chemical-based and natural weed killer options.
Pre-emergent weed control products (such as Preen) will keep weeds from germinating and growing in the first place. As long as your other plants have already germinated and reached about 2 to 3 inches in height, pre-emergent weed control products shouldn’t hurt them.
Post-emergent weed killers (commercial sprays, vinegar, etc.) are your solution if you already have a weed problem that you need to quash.
Pros of using herbicides
- You can use any kind of mulch in your garden you want, including pea gravel, river rocks, rubber, and other inorganic materials. (Remember your options are more limited if you use a biodegradable weed fabric like burlap or cardboard.)
- Generally speaking, herbicides are the most effective method for keeping your garden weed-free.
Cons of using herbicides
- Some weed control products can be bad for the environment and cause damage to your plants.
- Using herbicides will require more work on your part, as you’ll have to reapply them every few months to keep the weeds at bay.
FAQ About Landscape Fabric Alternatives
Can I use plastic instead of landscape fabric?
The clear or black plastic used in landscaping has many of the same drawbacks as landscape fabric. It can be bad for your soil and plants, and weeds can sometimes grow on top of it.
In some ways, plastic is even worse because it isn’t permeable, which means it doesn’t let water reach the soil. It also can cause standing water in your garden, which can rot and kill your plants.
Do you need landscape fabric under gravel?
Biodegradable weed barriers such as cardboard and newspaper don’t mix well with rock mulching. If you have your heart set on using gravel for landscaping, you might need to use landscape fabric after all.
Just keep in mind that the polypropylene fabric can cause negative side effects for your soil and plants. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons and decide if using landscaping gravel is worth it to you.
When to Call a Landscaping Professional
Hiring a professional landscaper takes the work out of weed control for you. Whatever kind of weed barrier you choose, they can install it. They can even design and install the whole plant bed if you want.
With their trained eye for landscape design, pros can make your garden look better all around, not just by keeping it weed-free.
If you want to protect your precious plants from weeds, think beyond the basics. Your soil will benefit from you using one of these alternatives to landscape fabric.