How to Use Cloth as Vegetable Garden Mulch

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Garlic mulched with cotton cloth
“Cotton cloth used as mulch can do most things plastics can do, only better, while closing a small gap in your personal recycling loop.”

It started with Mr. Cat, who decided to sleep on a tablecloth left folded near his favorite bird-watching window. It was my mistake for leaving it there, but cat hair being what it is, the tablecloth could no longer be used near food. What do to with this old piece of non-donatable cotton cloth? I was just setting out my early greens under a tunnel, so I cut it into strips and used it as a weed-deterring mulch between the rows.

Lettuce with cloth mulch
A cloth mulch between rows of salad leaves keeps weeds under control

This was my first experiment using cloth as a vegetable garden mulch, and no bad things happened. The strips of cloth moderated soil moisture and temperature, smothered weeds, kept the plants clean, and did not attract slugs or other pests. My second trial involved some old cotton kitchen curtains, which I used to mulch the garlic. This worked out well, too, as did growing direct-sown radishes between cloth strips, and placing cloth alongside emerging carrots.

I see no end to this.

I’m mulching my tomatoes and peppers with waste fabric, and my friend Ashley Tyree is using old bed sheets covered with straw for her garden pathways. She calls the method “brilliant.” Cotton cloth used as mulch can do most things plastics can do, only better, while closing a small gap in your personal recycling loop.

Beans with cloth mulch
Direct-seeded bush beans get a weed free start between strips of cloth mulch

A More Sustainable Landscape Fabric

How did we get to the point where roll-out plastics, weird geotextile fabrics, or itchy burlap define the concept of “landscape fabric”? These materials, which were initially developed for mega agriculture and retaining walls, were supposed to make gardening really easy! Starting in the mid 1980s, DuPont and other manufacturers claimed that their new landscape fabrics would give you healthier beds with less work. Within a few years the market exploded.

Like many people, I bought into the magic pill promise that geotextile fabrics would control weeds in garden pathways, around bed edges, and I even put some in a rock garden. I was a slow learner, and I’m still digging out scraps of degraded landscape fabric I never should have used.

Meanwhile, like other modern humans, I generate my share of textile wastes. The average American discards more than 80 pounds of textiles each year. The bulk of that is clothing, of which a small percentage is donated for re-use, but some of it is worn cotton bedsheets, stained tablecloths, faded curtains, and other items that can be reused as a landscape fabric alternative.

A vegetable garden path made from straw over cloth mulch
Hidden from view, old bedsheets are used as the base layer in garden pathways mulched with straw. Photo by Ashley Tyree

Mulching with Bedsheets

Most of us have used multi-layered mulches to suppress weeds in garden pathways, for example cardboard or newspapers covered with straw or wood chips. Gardeners who have switched from cardboard to a double fold of old bedsheets as a base layer say the cloth is more permeable to infiltration by rain and less slippery underfoot. Best of all, garden-worthy cotton sheets are easy to find at garage sales.

What about mulching with bedsheets that have a high polyester content? Figuring it’s better than black plastic, I’m using a black satin polyester sheet from the thrift store to reduce splashing and warm the soil for my early tomatoes. It’s working well. Very few weeds are sprouting under the sheet, and soil temperatures 6 inches (15 cm) below the surface are three degrees higher than in adjacent tomatoes growing in open soil. I plan to take up the black sheet when the weather turns hot and use it again in the fall.

Satin mulch around tomatoes
A black satin bedsheet is used as a temporary mulch for early tomatoes

Tips for Using Cloth as Vegetable Garden Mulch

Like cloth shopping bags, pieces of cloth used as surface much may be reused many times before they are eventually composted or discarded. After my tablecloth strips were used twice, for lettuce and then radishes, they were very dirty, with weeds starting to sprout on top of them. I took them up, let them dry in the sun, and shook them out well. Three changes of cool water rid them of embedded dirt and weed seeds.

Once they were dry again, I laid them between rows of germinating wax beans. I’m having trouble finding downsides to using cloth as vegetable garden mulch, and my backyard research is the best kind of free fun. Yet it is all very new, so should you try using cloth in place of plastic or cardboard in your garden, please let us know how it goes in the comments below.

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Comments

 
"This is brilliant! Can't wait to give it a try. I'm thinking some black sheets would be perfect to warm soil around my little fig trees and give them a earlier start next year. Going to look for dark sheets while thrifting this summer and have them ready for next year. Trying to gro figs in a climate too far north is my fun project over the last few years. So far I have harvested a grand total of one ripe fig but I'm still experimenting and trying :D"
Linda S. on Friday 7 June 2024
"What a wonderful idea! I have plenty of scraps left over from sewing, especially cotton muslin. They are often long and narrow which would work perfectly in between plantings as you have here. I'll be giving it a try this year! Thank you for sharing."
Amanda on Saturday 8 June 2024
"Such a helpful article! I came looking for inspiration as I pondered what to do with the growing stack of stained, unusable (in the usual ways!) linens as I clear out our little attic. As I am running low on cardboard, fabric will now be what I use under old hay when I am mulching paths, for sure. And I know I will think of more and more places to use them now. Thank you so much... "Make do and mend the earth!""
Lesley Austin on Saturday 15 June 2024
"Thanks so much for your encouraging comments!"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 17 June 2024
"Do you worry about the dyes leaching into the soil?"
Carol on Tuesday 18 June 2024
"Good question, Carol. So far I am using old pieces that have been washed many times. The sun bleaches out the colors in no time. Compared to plastic, cardboard or newspapers, cloth is pretty clean!"
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 19 June 2024
"Can old cotton towels be used as well"
Janet on Sunday 23 June 2024

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