How To Use Plastic Sheeting In The Garden: Pros & Cons

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Plastic sheeting or mulch in vegetable gardens proves to be a useful tool for some garden crops.

Many crops do well with the support of garden plastic sheeting and plastic mulch. These innovative products have many uses in the garden.

plastic sheeting in the gardenPin

In the article, we will explore the following:

  • The advantages and disadvantages plastic mulch sheeting provide
  • The many different types of polyethylene sheeting used
  • How do you use the mulch in the garden
  • The Pros and the Cons Plastic Sheeting offers

Let’s get started!

General Advantages of Plastic Sheeting Or Plastic Mulch

There’s a lot to like about using polyethylene film in the garden. The USDA has even termed the practice as – plasticulture.

Solarization and occultation are simple methods to remove existing vegetation and get ahead of weeds. 

For one, garden plastic sheeting for garden beds can move your planting date to an earlier, more convenient period. The soil moisture stays more stable, effectively minimizing root damage and soil compaction.

This landscaping fabric acts as a great insulator, keeping the soil warm during the day and staving off the cold during the night.

Laying garden plastic can mean the big difference in producing sickly green or ripe red tomatoes, moldy or luscious strawberries, or in a good harvest of melons or none at all.

Clear Vinyl Sheets

The immediate advantage of using clear polythene sheeting is its ability to eliminate seriously annoying weeds such as onion weed, ivy, dock, rhizome grasses, and other tough ones that prevent plant growth.

The clear plastic lets the sunlight pass through for optimal soil absorption. It warms up the soil for maximum mulching potential.

The plastic film, along with the sun’s focused rays, heats the soil temperature underneath a plastic coating.

This helps rid the soil organisms, unwelcome plant pathogens, insects, and disease in an all-natural, non-chemical, organic, affordable option known as soil solarization.

For more, read our article – Soil Solarization: How To Kill Soil Pests and Diseases.

Garden Black Plastic Sheeting Or Mulch

Black plastic mulch sheeting has been in use since the 1950s. It is the most popular and least expensive of the many-colored mulches available.

This mulch has carbon added to “create” the black color. The dark or black color makes it very good for preventing weeds and allows little or no light to pass.

It also warms the soil very well throughout the growing season in the vegetable garden. This is especially true if a great deal of the plastic is in direct contact with the soil.

Pros Of Using Black Plastic Mulch Sheeting

Black Plastic Warms The Soil

Black polyethylene sheeting is very good for warming up the compost pile and soil for vegetable crops (tomatoes, strawberries, pumpkins, and melons) that love the heat.

How much can the soil temperature increase?

According to the North Carolina State Extension, under black mulch, a 4° to 5° degrees Fahrenheit increase was measured at a depth of 2″ inches.

At the same depth, infrared transmitting (IRT) mulch showed an increase of 5° to 8° degrees Fahrenheit, and clear mulch an increase of 8° to 10° degrees Fahrenheit.

Accelerate Plant Growth

The gas carbon dioxide (CO2) is important in the process of photosynthesis. The black sheeting greatly reduces the ability of CO2 to pass through the plastic.

This creates higher levels of CO2 to build up under the sheeting. The CO2 escapes through the holes in the plastic mulch with a “chimney effect,” creating increased local concentrations of CO2 around actively growing leaves.

Crop times from planting to harvest are typically 2 to 21 days earlier for crops grown “under mulch.”

This extends the growing season, allowing you to “get a jump” on the season by planting earlier and growing crops longer into the season.

Reduced Evaporation and Control of Soil Moisture

The moisture that would normally evaporate from the soil is held in by the sheeting. The reduced evaporation does not mean less irrigation will be required for optimal plant growth.

Why? Plants grown with mulch often grow twice the size of crops grown on bare soil. Larger plants need more irrigation.

You’ll have better soil moisture control as excess water runs off the sheets into the rows. This reduces excess water stress and keeps plants from drowning.

Reduce the Spread of Diseases

The reduced contact of leaves with the soil and puddles produces a cleaner, healthier crop, making plants less likely to spread diseases by splashing water and root rots.

Garden Black Plastic For Plants Reduces Problems From Weeds

Black sheeting or mulch does a great job of blocking weed growth and thwarts the reproduction of many pathogens and pests.

Clear plastic allows light to pass through. Control weeds with clear plastic may require the application of an herbicide.

Better Crop Yields

Crops can better utilize fertilizer applications since the “food” is not being leached away from competing with other plants applied gets

The combination of warm soil, better soil moisture control, reducing crops battling with weeds for moisture and fertilizer, better use of water, and fertilizer not being leached all lead to better crop yields.

Reduces Soil Erosion

Covering the soil reduces erosion problems. It also reduces the soil from becoming compacted. This allows roots to enjoy improved oxygen exchange and excellent microbial activity.

The soil under the mulch remains loose and well-aerated.

Clean Looking

Overall, using garden plastic cover in the garden produces a clean look, which is always nice for the garden.

Cons Of Using Black Plastic Sheeting For Gardens

Using Garden black plastic for plants is not all “perfect.” There are some cons!

Some Crops Do NOT Grow Well Under Sheeting

It stands to reason that cold crops (e.g., lettuce, spinach, peas, and root veggies) would not do as well growing under plastic ground cover.

Black plastic mulch could potentially overwork and trap in the heat, scorching plants.

Crops that grow in the cool seasons, such as root vegetables, peas, spinach, and lettuce, do much better without the use of plastic sheet covers.

The Effectiveness Goes Down In Cooler Locations

The effectiveness of black garden plastic sheets or a black garden tarp goes down when used in the cooler, coastal regions. The warmth wouldn’t be enough to get rid of the weeds.

Late summer is a great time to prepare garden space to start a new garden or bee lawn. The process typically takes around 2 to 3 weeks during hot summer months.  

In very cold areas, black garden plastic rolls might not keep the soil hot enough to kill off weeds and pathogens.

Long Rooted Plants Cannot Get Enough Water

Plants with long roots won’t be able to draw as much water as they need with plastic sheets on top. Overhead sprinklers and natural water from rain won’t effectively reach the plant’s bed.

The contained water could also work to your disadvantage, as it will not evaporate as quickly in the open air and could make the soil soggy and create potential disease issues such as fungal growth.

Increased Costs And Maintenance

  • The additional cost of landscaping, plastic sheeting, and drip irrigation does add more expense before starting the task of planting.
  • The irrigation will need closer daily monitoring.
  • Since plastic does not break down, plastic mulch and drip tube irrigation should be removed after each season and not ever ‘tilled” into the soil.

More Time Planting

When planting crops, the time involved will take longer as each individual plant needs to be planted into its own hole.

It’s Hot To Work On And Slippery

As mentioned above, garden plastic sheeting will hold heat, making working on the sheeting hot.

The reflected heat can also make it uncomfortable to work on and around. Consider performing any work early in the morning or late in the day.

NOTE: Years ago, in the nursery, when lying down, heavy duty black plastic sheeting for gardens in the afternoon became too hot to touch! Laying the sheeting early in the day was not an option!

Once water gets on gardening plastic, it can get slippery, making it difficult to work on. Watch your step!

Before The Plants Are Established, It’s A Bit Of Work To Keep The Plastic Down.

When laying sheeting and waiting for plants to become established, make sure the plastic stays securely in place.

Place bricks, large rocks, or concrete blocks on the edge to keep the wind from getting under the plastic.

Maintain the highest standard of patient care with state-of-the-art plastic surgery and medical aesthetics products and procedures.

NOTE: Don’t try to “install” plastic sheeting on a windy day!

What Type or Kind Of Black Plastic Mulch Should You Use?

The choice of plastic mulch depends upon both the visual effect you want to create and the type of crop you plan to grow.

Use organic mulch on clear plastic. Otherwise, the sun shining through the black garden plastic can cause a greenhouse effect and lead to more weed growth.

You may also find it in other irrigation hoses like drip lines, and it is used to make semi-flexible plastic pots for growing plants.   

There really hasn’t been a lot of research done on the results of using different colors of mulch, including black plastic for garden beds, so it’s a learn-as-you-go process.

What’s The Best Thickness Of Black Plastic Sheeting For Gardening?

There are several different thicknesses of black poly sheeting available.

The thickness of the plastic garden liner is rated using the term “mil,” which is a measurement equaling 1/1000th of an inch (0.001).

To give you an idea of the size of this measurement, a dime is 53 mils thick. A credit card is 30 mils. A piece of typing paper is 1 mil, but a paper grocery bag may be between 2 and 3 mils thick.

The thickness most commonly used for black plastic sheeting is 6 mil; however, this product is also available in thicknesses ranging from 3 mils to 60 mils.

Naturally, the thicker the plastic for flower beds is, the more durable it will be and the longer it will last.

Very thin sheeting must usually be replaced every season. Thicker sheeting may last for several years with good care.

For a very thorough treatment of the qualities of plastic for gardening, visit Global Plastic Sheeting here.

Is Landscape Fabric Better Than Plastic Mulch?

Both landscape fabric and plastic mulch can help reduce soil erosion and prevent weeds while keeping the soil in place and preventing weeds from sprouting.

I prefer to use the porous landscape fabric in landscape beds and in longer-term and multi-seasonal areas.

I like to use plastic sheet for garden bed, which are removed after each season.

What Is Embossed Film, Red Plastic, Green Plastic, Biotelo, or Sheeting?

These days, there are many attractive options available in colored plastic mulch.

Clear, white, and black plastic mulch has been used in commercial vegetable production for over 50 years.

Today, homeowners can choose from a rainbow of colors to enhance both the production and the curb appeal of their home food production endeavors.

The Colors Of Plastic Mulch Is Best?

You can choose from many different colors, including:

  • Black
  • White
  • Brown
  • Silver
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Red
  • Biotelo

Black Plastic Mulch

In use since the 1950s, this is the most popular of all the mulches available.

Penn State University has conducted research that shows that the soil directly beneath a layer of black plastic mulch may be as much as 5° degrees Fahrenheit warmer at a depth of 2″ inches and 3° degrees Fahrenheit warmer at a depth of 4″ inches when compared with adjacent, unprotected soil.

These extra degrees of heat allow you to set your plants out considerably earlier, leading to earlier plant maturity and more fruit in the growing season.

Trials conducted by Auburn University in conjunction with the USDA indicate that okra crops grown using black plastic mulch mature much earlier and produce greater yields.

Interestingly, the use of plastic mulch in both red and blue produced similar results.

White Plastic Mulch

White plastic mulch may not be a good idea in cool climates with short growing seasons.

It can definitely help cool the soil in areas of extreme heat, smother weeds, retain soil moisture, and have cooler soil temperatures.

These effects make it possible to grow cooler weather crops such as cauliflower, cabbage, peas, and broccoli in warmer climates.

Trials show that white plastic mulch is more effective than biodegradable options such as straws.

Although it is more costly initially than these options, the fact that it lasts forever makes it a more economical mulch choice.

Brown IRT Mulch

One exciting new innovation in plastic mulch is a Brown Infrared Transmitting (IRT) option.

This plastic mulch is superior to black plastic mulch for warming garden soil early in the season. It heats the soil as well as clear plastic yet controls weeds as well as black plastic.

To get all of the qualities that brown IRT mulch offers, follow the advice of the University of Vermont Extension in their factsheet.

Make sure you look for IRT labeling when purchasing brown plastic mulch. If it is not labeled IRT, it will not provide all these benefits.

Green IRT Mulch

Like brown IRT mulch, green IRT mulch does a great job extending the growing season and helping crops produce earlier and greater yields.

Trials conducted at the University of New Hampshire and Penn State showed that green IRT mulch is especially conducive to bigger, better cantaloupe crops.

Red Plastic Mulch

According to research conducted by Clemson University in conjunction with the USDA, some crops do much better when surrounded by red plastic mulch.

red plastic mulchPin
Red Plastic Mulch reduces nematodes on tomato crops – Image: Richard Nowitz/USDA

Tomato plants produce a greater yield, basil produces larger leaves, and strawberries grow in greater abundance with fruit that both smells and tastes sweeter.

The USDA shares that “tomato plants grown with red plastic mulch ward off root-munching nematodes better than plants grown on black plastic mulch.”

In general, home gardeners report greater yields and larger fruit sizes in a wide variety of crops, including peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes.

Blue Plastic Mulch

Penn State researchers found that blue plastic mulch is very good to use when growing cucumbers, summer squash, and cantaloupe.

Reflective Silver Plastic Mulch

If whiteflies and aphids are a problem, this innovative product can be very helpful.

Furthermore, studies conducted at Virginia Tech indicate that the use of silver plastic mulch discourages cucumber beetles on both squash and cucumber plants.

According to studies conducted at Penn State, bell pepper plants produce significantly more fruit when planted using silver plastic mulch than when black plastic is used.

BioTelo Plastic Mulch Is Completely Biodegradable

Biodegradable plastic mulch (BioTelo), made of corn starch and other biodegradable substances, is currently available in black and clear.

Research conducted by Cornell University indicates that this mulch works just as well as “traditional” plastic products and can simply be left in place to break down and enrich the soil when it begins to wear out. [source]

Biotelo mulch claims:

  • Leaves no residue in the soil, significantly minimizing its environmental impact.
  • Biodegrades completely without polluting the soil or accumulating over time.
  • Has the same strength, elasticity, and effectiveness as traditional plastic mulch film.
  • Does not need to be removed from the soil or disposed of at the end of the growing season. It can be laid with conventional mulch-laying machines.
  • It can be used for any crop traditionally grown with plastic mulch film.
  • Provides the same effectiveness of weed suppression as plastic mulch film. Testing has shown that the quality and productivity of the crops grown using BioTelo Agri are identical to those grown with plastic mulch film. [source]

NOTE: In 2015, Canada banned biodegradable plastic mulch films for use in “Certified Organic Farms.”

How Do You Water Your Garden If It’s Covered In Black Plastic Mulch?

When growing plants with plastic mulch, irrigation needs to be provided. Homeowners can install soaker hoses under the gardening plastic sheet to provide the additional water right where it is needed.

At the plant roots!

Learn more in our article: Soaker Hoses – What Are They And How To Use Them In The Garden

How To Dispose Of Plastic Sheeting And Plastic Mulch Responsibly?

It may seem that using black plastic for garden bed is counterproductive when it comes to providing good stewardship for the earth.

When the time comes to dispose of these products, seek out a recycling program to prevent them from languishing in the landfills or endangering wildlife in the ocean.

Naturally, plastic tears and wears out with the passage of time and exposure to the elements.

When you purchase any plastic product, look for recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic.


Used and disposed of responsibly, garden plastic sheeting and mulch can be wise choices for the thrifty, earth-friendly gardener.

These products help you make better use of precious resources and keep pests and pathogens under control. 

Prevent soil erosion and allow you to enjoy healthier and more abundant crops.

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