Landscape Cloth
March 13, 2013 03:16PM
For those of you considering using landscape cloth as a way to manage the row understory, I can offer a little anecdotal evidence and experience.

Our orchard is ten acres, with about 1.5-2 acres planted in a high density (trellised) vertical axis training system. The trees in that section were planted in 2009, with the remaining acreage planted in a different, slightly less dense system in 2010 (this becomes important because it's hard for me to directly compare the two, so take these observations with that in mind).

Here are the benefits of using landscape cloth:
    - Good suppression of most weeds (some grasses can actually pierce through over time), except in the small area around the trunk

    - Good tree growth during the early years (less competition)

    - I believe it retains more water under some conditions than bare soil (no direct sunlight). We experienced an extreme drought this summer, and the soil under the fabric held onto moisture longer than soil that was bare/had some understory growth. The trees with cloth also showed fewer curled leaves (again, these trees are a year older, and they also had surround coverage, which may have reflected more light, reduced heat stress, and reduced transpiration, so consider those factors)


Here are the downsides to landscape cloth:
    -Voles! You take a big gamble with voles. In bad years, there can be rampant vole damage (I'm seeing typical above ground vole damage that happened under snow cover, but there's also below-cloth damage. The hole right around the trunk of the tree acts as a little feeding hole where they can pop up to chew bark with very little danger of being eaten, since they can head right back down for safety. Predators can't reach them. I've seen lots of tunneling under the cloth, after opening it.

    -After a few years, the soil becomes compacted, and the best way I can describe it is like a big solid piece of dried mud. There seems to be very little infiltration or porosity, and I assume this is because the lack of plant roots to create those holes. Our soil in that spot is kind of a sandy loam, but under the cloth, it feels almost like a clay now. I think this compaction makes it difficult for water to move down through the soil, and may increase run-off.

    -It is difficult to amend and add nutrients to. I had to pull up one side of the fabric just to get nutrients where they needed to be. And if you plan on adding compost and other amendments yearly, this becomes a big hassle. Which leads to:

    -Labor. With all the time spent putting down the fabric and putting in all the pins, then pulling it up to add amendments, etc., I can't help but think it would take less time just to manage the understory differently. Maybe there are better ways to add nutrients under cloth, but I can't think of one.

    -Bacterial soil rather than fungal. Following Michael's ideas on the forest edge ecology, I don't think that landscape cloth is a good way of promoting fungal life in the soil. There's no way of adding wood chips and other organic matter to add to the slow decomposition and release of nutrients like in a fungal system.

Overall, I'd say the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. It might be worth considering putting in landscape cloth at planting and leaving it on for a couple years, but long-term, I don't think it's worth it for all the time spent. I'll be pulling ours out this year.

Orchard Ridge Farms
Zone 5a in northern Illinois



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 03/13/2013 03:17PM by John Zydowicz.
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