Is your landscaping full of weeds? Are you finding yourself driving by neighbors’ homes, envying their perfect, weed-free plantings? If so, you may be in need of some easy-care landscaping. Many of the problems you see in your own yard and others are due to outdated landscaping practices or general neglect of installations that were assumed to be “one and done.” The good news is that you can have a low-care landscape, even if the upfront labor means giving up a few weekends.
What’s Going Wrong in the Landscaping?
It’s not hard to guess what’s gone wrong with your beds if weeds are popping up where they should never be or your mulch looks like it’s turning to dust. There’s something keeping that mulch from mixing with the soil and that something is probably a geotextile or plastic mulch.
Geotextiles are woven fabrics that allow water to pass through into the soil, but prevent evaporation. They can be good deterrents for weed seeds that are in the soil, but once an organic mulch like wood chips or pine needles is placed on top, they prevent the breaking-down mulch from mixing with the dirt below. Instead, that mulch powder creates a medium for new weed seeds to take root, eventually poking holes through the fabric below with their roots.
This is not awesome, as you might have guessed.
The best solution for this situation is to take out the old landscape fabric or plastic (if it’s plastic, you have a huge job ahead of you, as it tends to tear aggressively after only a few years in use) and rethink the whole situation. This is a demolition job that takes a lot of elbow grease, but no particular expertise. Just try to get most of the powdered mulch onto the bed below so it can finish breaking down.
The Pros and Cons of Geotextiles
As previously mentioned, geotextiles allow the soil below to absorb and retain water, but they don’t let nutrients from above mix in. They’re frequently used on landscape installations and overhyped as “maintenance free” barriers. What a typical homeowner hears is “I’ll never have to do anything with this again.” What the typical installer means is “you’re gonna get some good years of ignoring this, but wait too long and you’ll pay in backbreaking labor.”
Geotextiles are not a permanent solution, for a lot of reasons. We now know that they discourage insects and earthworms, since there’s not direct access to the surface of the soil. Since those creatures are needed to help aerate the various layers under your plants, soil compaction can become an issue. Then there’s the matter of that broken down mulch up above: it has nowhere to go. It can only clog the geotextile at worst and hang around to grow weeds at the best.
If you’re prepared to completely remove all your mulch when it starts to break down, or want to use inorganic mulches like stones, then a geotextile may be a fine solution. A careful installation of professional grade fabric, reserved for plants that have a central stem or that are already mature, is ideal. Keep in mind that spreading plants can’t function properly under any sort of weed fabric, as it stifles their growth, too.
Another Option: Mulch and Lots of It
For homeowners who are less interested in interacting with the landscape and more interested in just looking at it, organic mulch without a weed barrier is the best solution. You’ll need to replace broken down mulch yearly, but a few pre-emergent herbicide sprays throughout the season should be all you really need to keep the beds healthy.
Organic mulches like bark, shredded wood, pine needles and cotton seed hull break down, eventually feeding the plants below. They also allow you to plant whatever you want, since anything from single trunked trees to spreading rhizomes like Iris can move through and above the soil with equal ease when necessary.
If you’re installing a mulch-only cover, remember to use a four to six inch metal retainer so the mulch won’t slide away during heavy rains or winds. There are several on the market that you essentially just pound into the soil around your beds, they’re a snap to install.
With that skirting installed, you’ll want to fill your bed with two to four inches of fresh mulch, depending on local weather conditions and the size of your plantings. Just make sure that the mulch doesn’t touch any trunks or stems. Create a little donut-shaped moat around each plant for best results.
It may be less expensive to buy mulch by the truckload if you have a lot of beds, make sure to check with your local municipality about free or low-cost mulch created from limb and yard waste from your area. This isn’t the most attractive mulch sometimes, but it can help lower the costs of a whole yard makeover. Just top with about an inch of nicer mulch for a gorgeous, inexpensive mulch job.