Landscape Fabric Alternatives: Top 7 Options

Patricia Oelze
by Patricia Oelze

Landscape fabric has been used for years to cover the ground around gardens and other landscaping where you are trying to prevent weeds. But many of the landscape fabrics are costly and can actually be bad for your plants and soil.

Fortunately, there are several alternatives to landscape fabric that work just as well, if not better. These include mulch, compost, straw, cardboard, newspaper, burlap, and gravel or rocks. Most of them are less expensive and safe for the environment too. Keep in mind you don’t want to poison the ground that you are trying to protect.

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What is Landscape Fabric?

Many people use landscape fabric for weed control, soil stabilization, and aesthetics. But what exactly is landscape fabric? The typical landscape fabric is a flexible material made of natural or man-made fibers you spread over the area you want to protect from weeds and sun damage.

Some types of landscape fabric are made of recycled synthetic or organic materials. But there are many made of plastic and other sources that are not eco-friendly. A lot of the newer landscape fabrics are made of healthier alternatives with air holes to allow your soil to breathe while still preventing weeds. But they have their drawbacks as well.

You May Kill the Plants You Are Trying to Save

A lot of landscape fabric has petroleum and other chemicals, which can kill those plants you are trying to save. And if that is not bad enough, most of these fabrics are not perforated so the water and sun cannot get to the roots of your plants. The ones that are perforated end up getting clogged up by dirt, leaves, and other debris.

Don’t Kill the Worms Either

Most of the landscape fabric has the downside of killing and preventing earthworms, which are needed for healthy soil. Your soil needs worms for aeration and providing certain byproducts and organic chemicals. They cannot breathe underneath many of the landscape fabrics, leaving your soil compacted and unhealthy.

The Top Seven Alternatives for Landscape Fabrics

No matter what your reason is for not wanting to use landscape fabric, you are in luck because there are many alternatives to choose from. It really depends on what type of garden or landscape it is, what kind of plants you have, how much you want to spend, and what you want from your landscape fabric alternative.

1. Mulch

The number one alternative to landscape fabric is mulch. After all, there has to be some reason that giant bags of the stuff go on sale every spring. Most mulch is made of naturally recovered forest wood that does not contain any chemicals, nails, and other debris. Do not use mulch made from old construction projects because they may have more chemicals than the landscape fabric itself. Also, mulch is inexpensive and easy to use.

2. Compost

This is one of the best ideas for your garden because not only is it healthy for the soil, it recycles your kitchen scraps and grass clippings. All you have to do is add all of your lawn waste, biodegradable scraps from the kitchen, and even some manure or another fertilizer into a container or pile. Over time, you will have all the compost you need for covering your garden in nice healthy organic material.

3. Straw

Although it is considered a type of mulch, straw is easier and most often cheaper, if not free. This is especially good for vegetable gardening because of the nutrients in the straw. It is also easy to use. All you have to do is toss it in the garden in a thick layer and wet it down. As it decomposes, nutrients go into the soil, helping your plants as well as the worms. Straw mixed with hay is typically cheaper, but the hay may help weeds grow, and this is what you are trying to avoid.

4. Cardboard

This is one of the most inexpensive types of weed barrier you can use. In fact, it is free if you have old boxes laying around. If not, get them from Walmart or some other store. They do not mind giving you their old boxes if you come early in the morning before they get thrown in the compactor. It is also safe and porous so light and water get through without letting the weeds grow.

Using cardboard is not only free, it’s also a biodegradable alternative to landscape fabric. By applying cardboard to an area and mulch on top, you stop weeds or grasses from passing through. As an added bonus, the cardboard will be broken down by the earthworms in the soil and doesn’t inhibit with biological processes.

5. Newspaper

Another cheap alternative. If you get newspapers delivered, don’t throw them away. Use them to keep the weeds out of the garden. If you don’t have newspaper delivery, you can usually get some free from a neighbor or family member after they are done reading them. Just lay down about five layers and water them down to keep them from blowing away. As it decomposes, it even adds nutrients to the soil.

Newspaper also breaks down fast, typically lasting only a single season. Similar to landscape fabric, using newspaper blocks weeds while also still allowing oxygen and moisture to penetrate the soil. Also, there’s not need to remove the newspaper each year, it will just be turned back into soil and you can place more on top when you replant.

6. Burlap

Although it may cost more than some of the others, burlap is still an inexpensive choice for controlling weeds naturally. It works just like landscape fabric only it is better for your soil, plants, and earthworms. Since it is all-natural, you do not have to worry about any chemicals seeping into the ground. It is also biodegradable, so it breaks down in the garden and adds nutrients to the soil.

7. Gravel or Rocks

One of the more expensive choices, buying gravel or rocks to keep weeds out of the garden is typically only used in decorative landscape gardening in front of homes and businesses. It just does not make sense to use it in a backyard vegetable garden. The cheapest garden rocks cost about $0.15 per square foot while the most expensive can reach about $60 per square foot.

Other Options for Weed Control

Rather than covering them up, why not get rid of weeds another way? You can kill weeds with weed killer, but you have to make sure to get something that is not going to kill your plants as well. There are many organic weed killers on the market that you can sprinkle or spray into the soil to keep those weeds at bay.

  • Corn gluten can prevent weeds but does not kill the ones already growing. It is so safe that it will not harm any of your garden plants, but you will have to pull those weeds that are already in the ground.
  • Vinegar solution works well, but it can kill the other plants too so use it for spot treatments only. Mix one gallon of white vinegar, one cup of salt, and one tablespoon of dish soap. Pour it into a spray bottle and spray it on the weeds. They will typically die within a few days, but sometimes you need more than one application.
  • Another way to get rid of weeds is to mix two tablespoons of rubbing alcohol with one quart of water and spray it on the leaves of the weeds. However, it will not prevent more weeds from growing.
  • Glyphosates work well in killing those weeds that are already there, but they will not prevent new growth. Do not get it on any plants you want to live, though. Also, there has been some controversy about how safe this product is so use it sparingly, if at all.

Do it the Old-Fashioned Way

There is always the old-fashioned method of getting down there and pulling those annoying weeds by hand. This is absolutely free but can be hard time-consuming work. And you have to make sure you get the whole thing, including the roots, or else they will just keep coming back.

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Related Questions

Can I use plastic instead of landscape fabric?

In short, plastic can be used in place of landscape fabric. Since fabric is more porous, it allows water to penetrate, whereas, the plastic causes water to run off of the material. However, as the fallen organic material and mulch decomposes atop the plastic, weeds can grow.Although plastic offers the benefit of not breaking down like landscape fabric does, it’s not a permanent solution. You’ll need to replace the plastic often to keep your garden completely weed-free.

How do you get rid of grass growing in gravel?

The best way to prevent grass from growing in between gravel is to element the grass before you install it. However, when weeds start to grow you can use a chemical weed killer. For a non-toxic alternative, sprinkle table salt over the gravel area. Salt works to remove moisture from soil and plants, making the area unable to support the weeds.You can also try using vinegar. Vinegar strips the protective coating on plants, causing them to dry out fast. Dilute some vinegar and spray in on all the problem areas.

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Patricia Oelze
Patricia Oelze

I am a DIYer who loves writing about anything home-related. When I am not writing, you can find me studying for my PhD in Psychology, photographing nature, and swimming at the lake with my grandkids.

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