With less than a month to go until the Garden Conservancy July 7 Open Day, I’m, madly filling in spots in my borders with all my new plant purchases. That sounds easy—just dig a hole and pop it in, right? Well, that’s fine in beds that have seen active service for several years. But I have beds that I created years ago. They haven’t seen a spade since I planted the first trees and large shrubs in 1993. I always knew some day I’d go back and fill in with more plants.
Some day is here, and I now have to deal with a mistake I made all those years ago—weed cloth. You know the stuff, black spun fibrous material sold on rolls that allows moisture to go through but blocks weeds’ roots from getting down in the soil. Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Weed cloth seemed like the perfect solution for the large beds where I knew I wouldn’t be planting for a long time. But here’s the catch: I mulch. I mulch a lot. Mulch helps those tree and shrub roots to stay cool in summer. Mulch controls weeds. Saves on water. Looks good too. Over the years, I piled on the mulch, mostly chipped fir, because in the Northwest, it’s cheap.
Now, when I make a hole for a plant in those beds, I dig through inches of new mulch and below that lovely black decomposed mulch duff. Then I hit the weed cloth. In some cases, weedy roots have embedded in the cloth and continued their journey to regions below—so much for really blocking. The whole mass is a hideous tangle—much harder to pull up than the weed roots alone would have been.
In other spots, the cloth lies pristine. But below it, the heavy clay soil is in the same shiny sticky condition it was on the day I put the cloth down. The worms and all the other critters that love mulch and would have carried pieces of it down and mixed it throughout the layers of clay have been blocked. I know this mixing action occurs because in other areas of the garden where I have no weed cloth, I come back to find the mulch well incorporated below the surface.
So here’s how I have to dig every hole. Remove the mulchy top layers. Locate the cloth. Cut it out, or wrestle it back—this takes amazing amounts of time and energy, depending on the size of the hole. Then fork up the terrible clay. Add amendments. Throw in a handful of organic fertilizer—usually 4-6-5. Mix together in the hole Take out enough amended soil to position the plant. Back fill. Pull the mulch around it. Whew!
I hate weed cloth.
What works better? The good old New York Times, or my local Register-Guard newspaper.
Any paper will do if you have enough for thick layers. Depending on what I want to block, I use a quarter to a half inch thick. When I make new beds, I layer the paper to kill the grass. Or I put it down any place where I won’t be digging for a while. A layer of fir mulch over that holds and hides it.
Newspapers do a great job of slow decomposition—I can scrape back the mulch a year later and still read the headlines. But eventually, they will sog away. Then I simply put down another layer (with mulch to hide it) right on top. The worms are happy—if we go by the numbers I find. The microbes (I assume) are happy too.
I don’t mulch with newspaper in vegetable beds because of the inks. I know it’s soy-based, which sounds safe, but until I talk to someone who can assure me with authority that the inks won’t be taken up by something I want to eat, I’ll leave it alone. Besides, as the seasons go by you constantly turn over most vegetable beds, so long-term weed blocking isn’t needed there.
But this garden will have the legacy of my weed cloth mistake long after I’m gone. I can’t get rid of it all. Some day, some gardener will be digging through the wonderful top layers of duff and come across that hidden peril. And she or he will curse me. I know it. All I can say is, sorry in advance.# # # #