June 1 2001 12:00 AM

High-tech fabrics are playing a major role in the landscape industry today as contractors and architects look to provide low-maintenance designs for commercial and residential properties.

Versatile performers that provide a number of benefits for both landscape contractors and their customers, geotextiles can have a hand in achieving this goal.

Landscape fabrics or weed barriers are usually made of polypropylene. Some are perforated; others are woven or spunbonded. These fabrics are attractive to the landscape contractor for many reasons, but none more visible than their anti-weed capabilities.

Weeds are a never-ending problem for the contractor for obvious reasons ? they are unattractive, they distract from the appearance of the landscape, they compete with desired plants for space and nutrients and can harbor disease. To stop this unwelcome intrusion, landscape fabrics are gaining in popularity.

Landscape fabrics offer permanent weed control, which lessens the competition for nutrients, says Larry DeWitt, president and CEO of DeWitt Company, Sikeston, Missouri, manufacturers of a line of landscape fabrics. ?There is the added benefit of moisture control,? he says, ?and it is a proven fact that they allow you to have a no-till (job), so you don?t have to disturb the earth?s natural environment.?

Environmentally safe, these fabrics are a friendly solution to weed control, with no side effects to the soil?s earthworms or microbes. Placed around trees, flowers or shrubs and then covered with a layer of rocks or mulch, landscape fabrics can save the contractor many hours of hand weeding. Landscape fabrics have been tested, used, and approved by organic growers, the U.S. Forestry Services and Soil Conservation Services with overwhelmingly satisfactory results.

Geotextiles are much more durable than plastic mulch films, which were once the products of choice for weed control. There are many benefits to using a permeable landscape fabric as opposed to plastic films, according to Roger Ladd, president and owner of R.A.L. Landscaping and Garden Center, Inc., Schererville, Indiana. ?When you use plastic films, also known as visqueen, water will not go through it,? Ladd says. ?The plastic forms a barrier, and the water runs off it.?

?But when it comes to plants and other greenery, geotextiles are the way to go,? Ladd says. While landscape fabrics block weeds, their permeability allows the proper balance of air, water, and nutrients into the soil for plants and other greenery. Conversely, plastics keep air and water away from the soil and allow plant-killing diseases to develop. ?Landscape fabric will sustain your plant life much better. You will have much better drainage. With a landscape fabric the soil does not become stagnant around the plant, and the air gets right to the plant?s root system,? Ladd explains. ?And if you use a good fabric, you also will have good weed control.?

Initially, the cost of the fabric comes into play. Once a contractor uses these geotextiles, and realizes what he saves his customer over the long run, it?s not difficult to convince the client on its use. A number of people point out that you often have to use less mulch once you have installed fabrics.
Lance Sago, president of AAA Nursery in Festus, Missouri, says when he uses a landscape fabric he only has to use one-third of the mulch he would use without one. ?With the landscape fabric, you are reducing the cost of the mulch, and when the mulch doesn?t come in contact with the soil, it lasts longer,? adds Sago, whose company offers both retail and landscaping services.

DeWitt agrees that when using a landscape fabric, the contractor will have less of an expense in the cost of mulch. ?Mulch decays in the soil, for one thing, so (without the fabric) the contractor is just going to have to eventually go back and put down more mulch,? he says. ?And if you put down wood mulch on top of soil, then that is going to decay even more rapidly.?
Contractors can also save money by using geotextiles, because they can lay the fabric directly over existing grass. ?You are reducing the amount of labor in installation because you don?t have to peel up all the sod and pull stuff out of the way to lay the fabric down,? Sago says.

The long-term effect is a product that stands the test of time, as many years can pass before it needs to be replaced, which also is a cost-saver to customers. ?We have had sites where 15 years later we have gone in and found the bushes are so overgrown that the customer is ready to tear them out and do something different, and we still find the fabric there,? Sago says. ?You?d be surprised how stable it is.?

UV protection is an important criteria to consider when buying a landscape fabric, according to Sago. ?If it doesn?t have UV stability, it isn?t going to last very long, especially if you have rocks,? explains Sago. ?If you use decorative rocks, you might have a little bit of light going through that hits the ground. If you do, the light breaks down whatever it?s going to hit.? Even with mulch, Sago says, the use of a fabric with UV protection is important. ?There is no doubt that once it gets put down on the ground, mulch gets kicked off here and there, or it can get washed away,? he says. ?Whether it is rock or mulch, sometimes to do it right you have to go back a couple of times a year and straighten things out. Sometimes when you go back, you?ll find in some places that the mulch has blown away or was pushed aside. Without UV protection, the fabric will disintegrate.?

Geotextiles offer a natural way to maintain the site, says Sago. ?It?s the natural way of doing weed control versus going out there and spraying herbicides, which can get into your water sources,? he says. ?All the way around, using a landscape fabric is a win-win situation.?

Some landscape contractors are not licensed to use chemicals, points out Justin Grande, co-partner of Soundview Landscape Supply in West Haven, Connecticut, so geotextiles allow them an avenue to remain competitive. ?Landscape fabrics are a great alternative to chemicals,? says Grande. The chemical-free nature of landscape fabrics is very appealing to potential customers.

Geotextiles increase the survivability of the plants, says DeWitt, which can save the contractor money down the line. ?Usually a contractor has to give a warranty on plants, so using a landscape fabric really is a good value for the customer and contractor,? DeWitt says.

In the past eight years, there has been more of a trend to go with landscape fabrics for a number of reasons, Grande says. ?Weed control, ease of installation and soil retention make landscape fabrics popular products,? he says.

Brant Mitchell, sales manager for BBA/Reemay, Old Hickory, Tennessee, which manufactures a line of landscape fabrics, stresses that geotextiles have gained in popularity because customers want a low-maintenance approach when it comes to their landscapes. ?It?s just an easy way to do that,? he says. ?You just install the fabric and you really don?t have to worry about weeding any more.? Weeds might sprout up on top of the mulch that covers the fabric, Mitchell says, but those are easy to pull out because they do not have the opportunity to grow long roots.

In addition to these geotextiles, BBA/Reemay also makes a line called Biobarrier. This product line is made of a durable, nonwoven, polypropylene geotextile fabric with permanently attached nodules containing trifluralin. According to company officials, the nodules are engineered to slowly release the chemical herbicide, creating a zone where root growth is inhibited.
Biobarrier products can be used in a variety of applications. They are frequently placed in areas where mechanical trimming or spraying herbicides are expensive and/or dangerous, according to company officials. They can also be used in landscaped beds, where ornamental shrubs have roots more than two inches below the surface.

?Don?t be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The cost of the fabric ranges from two percent to five percent of the total cost of the landscape,? DeWitt says. ?An ounce of prevention may very well be worth a pound.?

With annual sales of over $100 million in the U.S. alone, fabrics have certainly earned their place in the landscape.

June 2001