Making the decision between sticks or stones in the garden 

newDonnawebIt started with a query from Ken.

“Donna, if I recall, you are not a fan of using cloth under stones in a walk to prevent weeds from coming up amongst the stones. I laid down some cloth, but must have bought a factory defect where they accidentally embedded grass seed in the cloth. Less than a week after I put the cloth down, grass was coming up. I am thinking of using a soil sterilizer.”

Like ticks on deer, roots attach to landscape fabric with a talon grip. So, I reiterated to Ken I never use cloth or landscape fabric because germinating grass roots stick to it, making weeds hard to remove.

Instead of fabric and stones, I use a lot of cardboard and bark in my garden because I always reuse before I recycle. Also, a cardboard layer between the soil and the wood mulch slows down weeds. Over time, as the bark crumbles into compost, I add extra chipped wood.

Cardboard stops weeds because it stops the light from hitting the soil, and some weeds need light to sprout. Once weeds appear, it is simple to pull them out of the bark and cardboard because they have nothing to grab on to.

I like wood mulch, but Ken’s problem is with stones. And adding bark between stones is messy. Stones are never going to break down. The trouble is soil blows in, leaves fall and become compost, and within a short period, birds drop and wind blows in weed seeds. As weeds grow, they get stuck in the fabric. Weeds don’t just hang their hat in fabric. They hang on – for life.

Yet I still don’t want Ken or anyone to use soil sterilizers. Adding non-specific chemicals to the soil this way is like pouring antibiotics in your salad instead of washing the lettuce.

Chemicals in soil cause problems of their own. They drift and cause trouble in the water table, rivers and gardens as they move during heavy rains. Instead of fabric or soil sterilizers, I suggest that Ken consider a permanent hard surface if he wants to use stepping stones or landscape blocks or tiles. He can simply lay a shallow skim coat of concrete in place under the large rocks, letting the cement squeeze up between them. If he likes fine rocks, or the look of gravel with the permanence of concrete, a paving company can install exposed aggregate.

It seems a bit early in the season, but Ken’s email was coming from his winter home in Mexico. So, for Ken, who gardens in paradise, and to anyone who is planning to garden in Calgary, my advice is the same: Gardens are a work in progress. If you like the ongoing puttering of gardening, use products like cardboard and mulch. If you like to do a job and be done with it forever, use concrete.

Donna Balzer is a garden writer and entertaining speaker. Check out her blog at or follow her on twitter @NoGuffGardener.