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We recently bought and moved into our home. The previous owner set up some great plants (natives, water smart, fragrant and pollinator friendly) and trees with watering automation as well.

The visible surface (and if I scratch or dig) shows at least 1 foot deep mulching. I think I understand that this is to protect the soil and water. Recently, I wanted to add another native plant (Mexican Bush Sage) but when I attempted to dig deeper than the mulch layer, I see a dark fibrous cloth-like material. (NOTE: As I was selecting the tags for this question landscape-fabric showed up and so I am back here adding this note.)

I tried other spots and it is almost like that layer was deliberately placed before mulching. I would imagine it may be to keep the soil compact under the mulch. So:

  1. In such a setup is it expected to never redo any gardening?
  2. Or is it okay to cut through that fibrous sheet?
  3. How do I go about planting new plants?

Note: Because of the seller's agent we haven't had much luck in contacting the prev owner to understand the answers to these questions or even get a landscape recommendation. Before I spend money on consultation or on a contractor I wanted to see if I could get good hints here.

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It sounds like it is landscape fabric - this is usually used primarily for weed suppression. It's laid on top of soil which has hopefully been dug over previously, then holes are cut into it, usually by making a cross, then folding back the flaps and planting into the gap. The fabric will be cut around any pre-existing planting, and then a mulch of some type is laid on top. Mulch a foot deep over fabric is pretty unusual though. The seller of your property may have done this when they decided to sell the property simply to keep the garden looking good to make it more attractive to buyers; hopefully it was not done to cover up any significant soil or weed problems present beneath the fabric.

The drawback with using fabric is, as you've discovered, putting in new plants is not as simple as digging a hole and planting. If you want to redo a large area, then the fabric has to be removed, but as you only want to add one plant, then you will need to remove the mulch where you want to plant, cut a cross into the fabric and fold back the corners, then dig your hole and put the plant in, then place the fabric back round the plant, trimming off any excess so its not covering the plant. If the mulch really is that deep, this presents a bit of a problem, because it means the stems and leaves of your plant will be buried in the layer of mulch when you put it back in place. Of necessity, you may have to reduce the amount of mulch you place back round the plant to avoid half or more of it being buried.

Because the mulch layer is unusually deep, if some of the existing planting is fairly new looking and are not tall plants, you might just want to check one or two plants (before planting your new plant) by carefully pushing aside the mulch to make sure that they are actually planted into the soil beneath the fabric, and not into whatever material the mulch is above the fabric. Hopefully all is well and I am just being overly suspicious, but the last time I came across such a deep mulch was in a short border adjacent to concrete which had 12 inch deep wood sleepers all around it; it turned out the seller had planted into the mulch because there was a mix of a thick layer of broken concrete and aggregate beneath, and this had been done simply to dress up that area for sale.

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  • That was fairly elaborate. Thanks for your response. It doesn't look like a last minute dress up because the plants are well established and even the trees. Perhaps 6-8 inches on average and the one or two spots seemed deep and I overestimated. Aug 17 '20 at 2:45
  • 'fairly elaborate', that made me laugh so much... yea, sorry about that, I tend to try to cover all the bases in an answer. If its not a foot deep all over, then I'm less sceptical!
    – Bamboo
    Aug 17 '20 at 12:37

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