The first year I grew flowers, my cutting garden was a delightful jungle of flowers and waist high weeds. While I loved the process of selecting varieties, planting, tending and picking I hadn’t anticipated just how much energy would be used battling weeds to ensure a healthy and abundant harvest. The following spring, determined to have a more successful experience, I borrowed a thousand dollars from my Mom and ordered enough landscape fabric to cover my barely half acre plot.
While it was a huge investment, it was the only way I could see being able to manage the weeds, wrangle our two small children and grow my budding little business. That spring, Chris burned close to 15,000 holes in landscape fabric and I finally had a thriving and relatively weed free garden.
A lot has changed since then, both the kids and the garden have grown rapidly, but that initial batch of landscape fabric is still in use and has been added to each season.
While weed suppression is our main reason for using landscape fabric, there are a few additional benefits worth noting. Unlike plastic, landscape fabric is reusable. The majority of our stock is in its eighth season and shows little to no wear. I recently inherited a batch from a former flower farmer that dates back to the early 90’s and is still in pretty good shape considering its age. I am hopeful that ours will last for 20+ years.
Things like Zinnias, Celosia and Basil which like warmer soil and added heat thrive when planted into the fabric. And moisture retention seems to be greatly increased with the use of fabric. Another great bonus is that fabric makes for a tidy, clean looking garden. Proper plant spacing is a snap when the holes are already preset.
Lastly, weed pressure is greatly decreased. We generally only have to do two early rounds of weeding on the fabric beds before they can coast for the rest of the season untended. Compared to the typical four or five rounds of weeding needed on our open field crops, the cost of the fabric quickly pays for itself in saved labor.
Sunbelt is the brand of landscape fabric we always buy, but if you can’t find it locally, Johnny’s Selected Seeds carries some too. It is shiny on both sides (avoid the type with a fuzzy bottom), is super durable and comes in a number of different lengths and widths. We prefer the 6 foot wide x 300 foot long rolls which allows four feet for the growing bed and if overlapped with another swath of fabric, an 18” wide path in between the beds, which is just enough room to get down for planting, weeding and harvesting.
In the spring we get some pretty crazy winds whipping through the valley so to help anchor the newly laid fabric we have to set down cinderblocks and other heavy farm scraps down the paths. It looks pretty junky (pictured above) but sure does do the trick.
It’s important that when making holes, that the fabric is burned, not cut, to prevent unraveling. To burn the holes you need a small propane canister with a trigger switch called a Bernzomatic. These can be found at most hardware stores for around $60. For perfect spacing and increased efficiency, a burning template should be created beforehand.
The first season, I was in such a rush to get started, that I made my templates out of cardboard, tin foil and duct tape. As cheesy as they were, they certainly got the job done much better than just eyeballing the spacing.
We have since graduated to a metal template that Chris made using a standard 4×2 foot piece of sheet metal that he picked up at the hardware store.
To make your own metal template, start by marking out the desired plant spacing grid with a sharpie onto the metal.
Then using a 2.5” hole drill attached to a basic drill gun (these can be found in the drill bit section of the hardware store) cut the holes in your piece of sheet metal.
You’ll want to slip a piece of plywood under the metal before you drill, to give the drill bit something to go into.
Because the sheet metal has a tendency to be floppy, we zip tie a bamboo stake across the top edge to provide extra rigidity. Additionally, we add a wire handle, so that the template can be easily pulled along as you burn the holes in the fabric.
In past years we’ve burned the fabric outdoors because the fumes are pretty toxic but when wind free days are scarce in the spring, we sometimes have to move the project inside. Our garage has a large concrete floor and plenty of big doors that can be rolled open for good ventilation. With music going and someone to help move the template, we are able to burn a 300 foot roll of fabric in about an hour and a half.
There are five main spacing grids that we like to use here on the farm:
6×6” spacing = 7 rows per bed
9×9” spacing = 5 rows per bed
12×12” spacing = 4 rows per bed
18x 18” spacing = 3 rows per bed
8” between plants and 12” between rows = 2 rows per bed, one on each side of the trellis
Before laying the fabric, beds are amended with compost and fertilizer, then lightly tilled and given four lines of drip irrigation each. You can get the full scoop in my recent post about soil preparation.
Fabric is then rolled out over the beds and irrigation lines, and is anchored into the soil with 6″ metal earth staples which are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
Seedlings are then tucked into the holes with our favorite planting tool, a butter knife. Nothing does the job better! The babies are then given a light overhead watering, a long drip irrigation soaking and then are left to do their thing. We come through a few times with compost tea and then as the plants grow add a layer or two of Hortonova flower netting for support.
After the crop has been harvested, we remove the netting, mow the remaining foliage down with either our brush hog set a foot above the ground, or with a weedwhacker. We then chain the ends of the fabric to our tractor bucket and pull it up. But before we had a tractor, it was all done by hand.
While using landscape fabric is certainly more labor intensive than straight field planting on the front and back end of the season, we’ve found that the added weed suppression, heat, and perfect plants spacing far outweigh the drawbacks.
If you know someone who wants a million dollar business idea, tell them they should invent a way to mechanically pre-burn holes into landscape fabric. I’ve heard that it’s available in other countries but have had ZERO luck finding it here in the states, at least in really large quantities. If you know a source, please pass it on.