One of the hallmarks of a quality landscape installation is that it looks fabulous when you first put it in and only gets better with time. The neat and tidy beds of a brand new landscape almost always look great, even when plants are relatively undersized. Then, as plants start growing to their optimal size, the view just keeps getting better. With a great installation, the landscape continues to look picture-postcard beautiful for years.

But if there’s one thing that can spoil that perfect look, it’s weeds gone amok. When one of your landscapes is dotted with weeds, it’s as though someone splashed big black marks on a canvas you painted. Your work of art no longer looks like it’s supposed to…yet its still on display for all the world to see.

In the landscaping business, your living “works of art” are your best marketing tool. Each landscape is a full color, 3-D brochure that gives you free advertising for years. With a very small extra investment, you can help make sure that your landscapes keep their eye-popping appeal. That investment is landscape fabric.

The world of weed barriers has evolved considerably over the last thirty years. Black plastics kept out weeds but also kept out air and water. Today’s woven or spun fabrics prevent weed growth but let plants breathe easy. They block sunlight from undesirable plants but allow air, moisture, and fertilizers to penetrate, making for healthy, weed-free beds

Today’s fabrics are sturdy enough to hold up to tough conditions yet flexible and easy to cut. Many also contain UV inhibitors. Installed correctly, they can last for many, many years.

But landscape fabrics aren’t just for weed control. They also keep rocks or other mulch from infiltrating soil, and some can help with stabilizing soil behind retaining walls, under pavers, and in other hardscape and erosion control projects.

Perhaps one of their biggest advantages is in the area of water conservation. “Fabric limits evaporation,” says Steve Gambla, president of Ground Cover, Industries in Arlington, Texas. “It allows air and water to permeate and get to the plant. But by having an extra blanket over the soil, your evaporation rate isn’t going to be as high.”

An Investment In Your Work
If you’re the one maintaining your installations, you’ll do whatever it takes to keep them looking good. But when you’re at the mercy of homeowners and other customers to take care of your work, an investment in landscaping cloth will more than pay for itself.

“Let’s face it, Americans as a whole don’t want to be spending their time pulling weeds,” says Larry DeWitt , president of the DeWitt Company, manufacturers of a variety of horticultural textiles and products. “This is a very cost-effective method of weed control,” says Dewitt, whose company is based in Sikeston, Missouri. “The big, big advantage is that you don’t need to use chemical herbicides.”

“Some people think they’re saving money on a job by not using landscape fabric,” says Patrick Blackburn, National Sales Manager for Fabriscape, Inc. based in Bedford Park, Illinois. “But in the long run their customers aren’t going to be as satisfied with the job. In the beginning, two yards may look the same. But if you don’t use the proper products, eventually it’s going to tell.”

Gambla agrees. “Fabric is just a miniscule amount of the price for the complete landscape. But it’s simply going to give you a better finish. Landscaping jobs are long term and landscaping fabrics are long-term products.”

“We always use them,” says Pete DeForrest, Operations Manager for Tranquil Settings, a full-service design/build and maintenance firm located in Wausau, Wisconsin. “We use a fabric that’s rated to 25 years. All of our materials are always the best we can get because everything we do is guaranteed. We find that this pays off for us. We’re often competing with people who can do things for a lot less money. But in the long run, the job holds up better, and that pays off with more jobs. We’re putting our name on the line. If the job doesn’t look good five years later, we don’t want people saying, ‘Look what Tranquil did.’”

He points out that weed control is just one of its advantages. “We also use it as a soil separation fabric. Later on, when you want to make changes in a bed, it’s much easier to move mulch that’s on top of fabric.”

If you’ve ever had to dig a hole for a new plant in a bed covered with rock mulch and no soil separator, you’ll appreciate the difference. “Stone won’t get mashed into the ground,” explains Gambla. “This makes it easier to add future plantings. You simply remove the rocks, cut the fabric, install the plant and put the rocks back in place.”

When doing the initial installation, there are several steps you can take to insure success. Many manufacturers and contractors recommend completely removing the sod and even using pre-emergent and post-emergent herbicides before placing the fabric. Gambla points out that this important first step helps the fabric do its job. “It’s like waxing your car,” he says. “You have to make sure you wash it first.”

When an area is all cleared, it’s best to level out the ground and pin the fabric in place. Less pinning is necessary when using a stone mulch, but it’s important for the fabric to lay flat on the ground. “The flatter it is to the ground, the better it will work,” says Blackburn. “A tenting effect can give weeds a chance to get started.”

Depending on the plan of the garden and how many plants are going in, DeForrest sometimes puts plants in first and lays the fabric over them, cutting X’s for the plants to come through. “If you put the fabric down first, be careful when you go to plant that you don’t get soil all over it and defeat the purpose,” he cautions. “We take the bucket the plant came in and place it over the top. Then we cut X’s around the bucket. When you remove the bucket, the X is the right size to fall correctly over the plant. If you’re using rock mulch, leave the bucket in place until the rock is down. Then you can touch up the area with rocks when you remove the bucket. This way, you’re not squashing your plants with rocks.”

Tim Ludwig, Landscape Designer for Centerville Landscape Company, located in Centerville, Ohio, says that his company uses landscape fabric for a variety of things. “The first is as a weed barrier in planting beds,” says Ludwig. “It works extremely well with inorganic mulches, gravel, rocks, etc.”

Ludwig points out that while it also helps with weed control under organic mulches, it’s not a panacea. “It’s not for people who think that landscapes aren’t a living thing. If you’re using organic mulches, it’s important for the customer to be aware that when the mulch breaks down, it serves as a medium for weed growth.” No bed is completely maintenance free, and seeds that are blown in or otherwise find their way on top of this medium can still sprout and should be eliminated.

Ludwig also uses it for a variety of drainage and hardscaping applications. “We use it as a barrier between soil and gravel for drainage issues. When installing drain tile, we wrap tile with fabric to keep soil from infiltrating tile or we set the tile, cover it with gravel and wrap the gravel with fabric to keep soil from washing into the gravel.”

Behind retaining walls, Ludwig uses it as a barrier between soil and a gravel drainage layer. “Under pavers, we use fabric under a compacted base layer of gravel,” he says. “This keeps the soil from pumping up through the gravel layer and adds strength and stability to the whole system.”

Choosing your fabric
Not all fabrics are alike, and it’s important to use one that’s appropriate for your purpose, whether you’re using it strictly for weed control or for the drainage and stability applications described by Ludwig. The strength of the fabric and the longevity of the fabric are key considerations.

“Longevity is determined by the quality of the fabric,” says Gambla. “You get what you pay for. Quality products pretty much last indefinitely.”

He points out that a product with a UV-inhibitor is a must. “Sun is the biggest enemy to anything outdoors. If the fabric doesn’t have a UV-inhibitor, it will eventually get brittle and fall apart.”

DeWitt agrees. “Sunlight is the only thing that breaks it down. We add UV-inhibitors to all of our products. Some people think you don’t need it because it’s covered with mulch, but that’s unrealistic. You’ll always get some wash out or some mulch that’s kicked off. If you have a UV-inhibitor and also cover it with decorative stone mulch, it will basically last forever.”

A variety of products and grades are available to help contractors balance cost with needs. “It depends in part on the area of the country you’re in,” says Blackburn. “States like Arizona and Florida are really tough on fabrics. In the Midwest you might be able to get away with using a lighter grade.”

“Make sure you're choosing something that fits the quality of your installation,” says DeForrest. “Otherwise, you’ll be working twice as hard because you’ll end up re-doing it.”

Manufacturers are producing new, more effective products all the time. For example, a new fabric from DeWitt, Weed Barrier Pro, guarantees 100 percent weed control. According to Larry DeWitt, even the roots of weeds that happen to sprout in the mulch layer above fabric won’t be able to extend into the fabric. DeWitt is also working on a fabric that blocks harmful UV-rays while allowing non-harmful rays to pass through.

When you talk to successful contractors about how they’ve managed to build a stellar reputation in their area, they almost always mention that it’s all about the details. Sometimes it’s the seemingly little details that separate the good from the great. Landscape fabrics are just one of the many details that help make a landscape project the best it can be. As Steve Gambla puts it, it’s one more way you can give your customers “long term results, healthier plants and weed-free weekends.”