Top 11 Landscape Fabric Alternatives – Eco Friendly Solutions

Landscape fabric is a pretty standard part of most people’s gardening repertoire, right?

But did you know that it’s actually not great for the health of your garden, it doesn’t actually work that well and there are much better alternatives?

No?

Well, keep reading then! I’m going to introduce you to 11 landscape fabric alternatives that will do a better job at keeping weeds at bay and your garden healthy and happy!

Contents

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Landscape Fabric Alternatives

You’re here because you’re wondering – what can I use instead of landscape fabric?

Luckily, there are some excellent alternatives:

  • Cardboard
  • Newspaper
  • Burlap
  • Pine Needles
  • Grass Clippings
  • Wood Chip
  • Bark Mulch
  • Shredded Leaves
  • Aged Compost
  • Pea Straw
  • Ground Cover Plants

These alternatives are all really affordable, maybe even free. And, many of them benefit the health of your garden through supporting soil health instead of making it worse like landscape fabric.

What’s not to love?

landscape with natural fabric

Let’s look at these options in a little more detail…

Cardboard

Cardboard is probably the best alternative to landscape fabric if you’re looking for something that you would use in the exact same way in your garden beds.

It is usually free and easy to source, it does an excellent job of preventing weeds from popping up from underneath, it allows air and moisture to pass through, and as it breaks down it provides food for worms and contributes to the organic matter of the soil.

To use cardboard as an alternative to landscape fabric, remove all of the inorganic materials that you don’t want polluting your garden (think staples, sticky labels and packing tape), then simply moisten the cardboard with your garden hose to soften it and lay it down in your preferred position, leaving holes for plants as required.

The only cons to cardboard are that if your area is prone to termites, the cardboard could eventually provide a source of food for them which might increase their population. They won’t be drawn to the cardboard per se, but if they’re already in the area and stumble upon it then they’ll happily munch away until it’s gone or decomposed.

Like landscape fabric, you will want to cover up the cardboard with a layer of mulch of some kind. Aside from looking good, this will help to keep the cardboard in place as well as eventually break down to add further nourishment to your soil.

Newspaper

If you don’t have a good supply of cardboard, a newspaper is the next best thing. (If you have some cardboard but not enough, you can even do a mixture of the two).

Newspaper has all the same benefits of cardboard in terms of soil health and is used in exactly the same way. You’ll need to use around 8-10 sheets to make sure that sunlight doesn’t get through and promote weed growth.

Burlap

Burlap, also known as hessian or jute, is a natural fiber alternative to landscape fabric that functions in the same way but doesn’t harm soil health as landscape fabric does.

The main con to burlap is that it isn’t free like cardboard and newspaper; you’ll need to source it from somewhere. But, it’ll take longer to break down so may provide a slightly longer term solution to weed control.

Pine Needles

Pine needles are an excellent substitute for landscape fabric as they form a dense covering that prevents weed growth but still allows water and air to pass through. They break down relatively slowly meaning they don’t need to be replaced every season, and as they break down, they are feeding the soil.

Pine needles are a little too coarse for your vegetable garden but they are perfect in flower beds and even around larger trees and shrubs.

Grass Clippings

Grass clippings are usually something people have a lot of lying around. But rather than send them to the landfill (please, don’t do this!) grass clippings make the perfect mulch that will suppress weed growth when applied in a thick enough layer.

raking a pile of grass clippings

If you’re looking for more ideas on what to do with excess grass clippings, have a read of this article.

The only time you wouldn’t want to use grass clippings as mulch is if you had recently sprayed your grass with any kind of herbicide or synthetic fertilizer.

While we’re on the topic, I have more great articles that might interest you including the difference between granular and liquid lawn fertilizer, and whether fertilizer goes bad so you can brush up your knowledge!

Wood Chip

Wood chip is one of the best alternatives to landscape fabric because it replaces both the landscape fabric and the ground cover that you would put on top of it.

Landscape fabric by itself (or cardboard and newspaper) isn’t particularly attractive, so usually, a layer of mulch of some sort is added for aesthetic purposes. With wood chip, you get the weed suppression and a ground cover that looks good all in one.

Wood chips also benefit soil health by retaining moisture and regulating soil temperature while slowly breaking down and adding nutrients. It’s not really suited for vegetable gardens as it takes a while to break down (years rather than a season), but around trees and shrubs, it is an excellent choice.

Bark Mulch

Bark mulch is really similar to wood chip but is made of bark instead of wood. It provides all the same benefits to your garden when used as an alternative to landscape fabric, it just provides a different aesthetic which might be the look you’re going for.

I wouldn’t recommend using bark mulch in your vegetable garden for the same reason as not using wood chip, but it’s an excellent option for almost everywhere else, including pathways between raised garden beds.

Shredded Leaves

A thick enough layer of shredded leaves will provide a barrier against weeds growing up from below while reducing soil compaction, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil and helping to retain moisture.

There’s little sense in going out and sourcing leaves to use for this purpose, as some of the other options on this list are probably better and you may already have access to them. But if you have just raked up a whole pile of leaves from your garden and are wondering what to do with them, don’t add them to the landfill! Use them as mulch!

Note that the leaves do need to be shredded though. Simply run your lawnmower over them and then rake them back up into a pile or use a leaf vacuum mulcher.

Aged Compost

Aged compost is the best possible mulch for all areas of your garden when it comes to promoting soil health. A thick enough layer will prevent weeds from growing up from below, but as with some other ground cover options, weeds will eventually settle on top.

grass and leaves compost

You can minimize this by combining two or more forms of ground cover. Some people recommend a layer of newspaper, followed by compost, followed by pea straw or wood chip.

Pea Straw

Pea straw is a really common choice for ground cover in garden beds. It creates a thick mesh of straw that weeds can’t penetrate from below. Once it starts to break down, you can get some determined weeds growing in the straw, but they generally have pretty weak roots and are really easy to pull up and remove simply by lifting up the mat of pea straw.

With pea straw, you also get the benefit of added organic matter once it breaks down. Simply top it up with another layer once per year and you’re good to go.

Ground Cover Plants

Last but definitely not least, ground cover plants are a fantastic substitute for landscape fabric, possibly requiring even less maintenance than the options above.

Organic ground covers will need topping up every year or so but ground cover plants continue to live on, and depending on the species, may require little to no maintenance.

Simply choose a plant that forms a nice dense mat of foliage that will prevent light from reaching the soil. The plant will outcompete weeds for light and space, preventing their growth.

Great options for ground cover plants include lily of the valley, creeping thyme and creeping juniper.

While you’re busy landscaping, do you have any old tree stumps that you need to be free of? Have a read of my guide to the best stump killers.

Disadvantages of Landscape Fabric

After reading all this, you still might be wondering why we would want to find a substitute for landscape fabric.

Let me explain in a little more detail why you don’t want landscape fabric on your garden beds.

It Isn’t Natural

Landscape fabric is a synthetic material made from polypropylene or plastic. Aside from the environmental and human health consequences of manufacturing plastic, over time it will fall apart and contribute to the world’s significant plastic pollution problem.

The breaking down of synthetic materials like landscape fabric is basically just a process of breaking into smaller and smaller pieces that leach chemicals, get eaten by animals, and end up in waterways. There is no decomposition in the way that biodegradable materials would break down.

It Doesn’t Support Soil Health

As a result of not being naturally biodegradable, landscape fabric does nothing to support soil health. It is designed to allow water and air to pass through, but this isn’t enough by itself to support soil health.

Over time, the soil quality will degrade, the population of earthworms will disappear, the nutrients will become depleted and the ability of the soil to hold on to water will decrease.

Scary stuff, right?

It Doesn’t Actually Work

What? I know, right?

Despite being so widely used, landscape fabric is not a surefire way of doing what it’s designed to do, which is prevent weed growth.

Landscape fabric will effectively prevent weeds from growing up from underneath the fabric  (although it’s arguably no better at doing this than any of the materials above). However, all weeds need to grow is a tiny bit of soil. Soil particles in the air will eventually land and accumulate on top of the landscape fabric and provide a growing medium for windblown seeds.

Consequently, while landscape fabric may appear to be the perfect solution, the benefits are short-lived and the area will still need regular maintenance to remove and control weeds that start to set up shop on top.

When Should I use Landscape Fabric?

In saying all this, there is one instance where landscape fabric is the preferred choice, and that is in pathways or areas where you are choosing to put down a surface material that won’t break down, like gravel or river stones.

If you were to use a biodegradable alternative to landscape fabric like one of the options listed above, eventually the stones would be exposed to the bare soil underneath and form a messy, muddy mix – not a good look for your pathway.

rock bed garden without weeds

Landscape fabric is the better choice for gravel pathways where soil health is not the priority. But, for the rest of your garden beds, steer clear and choose one of the substitutes for landscape fabric listed above.

Summary

Hopefully, by now you’re brimming with possibilities for landscape fabric alternatives and understand the benefits that natural alternatives will bring for your garden.

Feel free to share with me the material you decided to use and how well it worked! I would love to hear what you’re up to!

Andy Gibson

My name's Gibson. Andy Gibson. I like to think of myself as the Bond of the backyard, that is if yard work ever became sexy. I write about everything about indoor and outdoor gardening and the dread-it-but-still-need-to-do-it chores around the yard, like cleaning out the gutter guards.

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