ask-tom-pictureNote: This month’s article is a re-print of one that Tom wrote for Growing for Market.

THESE FARMERS CALL LANDSCAPE FABRIC “THE MARRIAGE SAVER”

A few years ago farmer friends decided to relocate to South America and sold all their farm equipment, including several rolls of landscape fabric. I was curious about this material but too frugal to buy a whole roll. We tried it, found it very helpful, and now own enough to cover our market garden.

The term “landscape fabric” is applied to a variety of materials. I refer to a black, woven geotextile with narrow green stripes every foot across the width of the fabric. It is most commonly used for greenhouse floors and in container nurseries. Typically it is held down by sod staples — metal wires bent into a U shape and pressed through the fabric and into the soil.

We expected weed suppression, and that certainly occurs, but other unadvertised features are at least as important on our farm. Other benefits include more even moisture across the bed, warmer soil in cold weather, cooler soil in hot weather, and most importantly — cleaner produce. Once the crop grows bigger than the transplant hole, rain and overhead irrigation no longer splash soil on the crop. Clean crops result in quicker harvest and less waste.

In contrast to container nurseries, flower and vegetable growers need holes in the landscape fabric. Melting rather than cutting holes is important to avoid unraveling of the fabric. Our system involves stretching the fabric in a convenient location near a roaring fire. We use staples every three feet around the perimeter and down the “pathways” every four feet across the twelve-foot fabric. In advance we assembled a branding iron style gizmo comprised of four feet of half-inch rebar, locking pliers like Vice-grips, and a hose clamp to attach them to each other. We use a pipefitting that is three inches wide on one end and two inches on the other. For us, four-inch holes let too many weeds grow and two-inch holes are hard to transplant through. We decide in advance what pattern of holes is needed. One-foot spacing on one-foot centers is good for lettuce and we use wider spacing for cabbage and vine crops.

Getting back to the roaring fire, we throw in the pipefittings and wait until they glow. Grabbing one with BBQ tongs, we leave the others to keep heating. After clamping the fitting with the vice grips on the gizmo, we melt some holes until the fitting cools (about 50 holes on a warm day). Then the warm fitting is replaced with a glowing red one and the hole melting is repeated 600 times on a 12 by 50-foot section of lettuce fabric. We cut the sections of fabric with another rebar heated in the fire so the ends of the fabric do not unravel.

Good timing helps with weed suppression. We try to till in supplements right before we stretch the fabric and transplant. Usually a two-inch lettuce transplant placed in a three-inch hole can outgrow any weeds that sprout around it. If the soil is prepared several days in advance, we sometimes need to spot weed once by hand around the growing transplants. Between rotations we pull back the fabric, add supplements, till, and restretch the fabric. Tight fabric is important to avoid flapping in high winds. Flapping fabric can lift the transplants before roots are established. After they are rooted the plants will hold the fabric down. To meet organic rules the fabric must be removed from the field at season’s end.

Is all this landscape fabric sustainable? We are using fabric that has been in use for twelve years and it looks fine. I predict 20 or more years of life although the manufacturers guarantee eight to ten years. The staples eventually rust through and need to be replaced each five to ten years. 1000 staples are about $50. The fabric is about $275 for a 12 by 300 foot roll (0.08 acre). We covered the capital expense in less than a year of avoided weed control labor so it seems to be economically sustainable. We use more petroleum in our tiller than is contained in the fabric that lasts many years. We try to avoid plastic generally but this application passes our environmental screen.

While I am on the topic of sustainability I should explain the “marriage saver” in the title. Picture this often-repeated conversation between a happy farm couple in the middle of a lettuce harvest. “Well, someone should have done a better job of hoeing this lettuce,” says one while pointing at a huge weed that has stunted the four heads of lettuce on each side of the weed. “You’re right. Someone should have hoed this bed a little better,” says the other. It’s nice if each couple contains someone that just loves hoeing and weeding, but no one like that lives at our house. We seldom have that conversation since landscape fabric arrived. As a result we continue to pursue domestic sustainability with this tool that Karen emphatically calls the “marriage saver.”

Our thank to Buffy and Steve White as well as to Alex and Betsy Hitt for their contribution to this article. Karen Thatcher, Tom Elmore and their daughter Elizabeth operate Thatchmore Farm in Leicester, North Carolina. They grow hollies and organic fruit and vegetables.

Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School

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Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore

Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.