lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Ugly Lawn and Garden Area Needs a Fresh Start

Hi all,

I need major help. I have what used to be a well kept up lawn and garden. However the previous owner was getting too old to take care of it and it has become overrun and quite wild. To make matters worse the only thing I really know about landscaping and gardening is mowing the lawn and using the trimmer. Last year I tried to tear out all the weeds but those buggers came back with a vengance. Also the grass has overgrown into the landscaped areas and all sorts of "things" are growing in the old garden.

I did hire a lawn care service this year to apply fertilizer and weed control to the grounds but the garden area is still a major infestation of all sorts of plant life.

So after that rather long description I need help with an action plan. What I would like to do is take the higher part of the garden (lawn is elevated) and tear out everything and start fresh. I like a natural wild look but not ugly. I had read that prairie grass and some shrubs would be good but I am open, way open to suggestions. However I do know that I don't want flowers or anything that looks too organized. The section of garden runs the length of my city lot (can't be more than 30 yards) and is probably 5-6ft deep. That is the main problem area.

What do I do to prepare the area? What kind of lawn and garden tools will I need to prepare the spot? What do I do to keep the grass in the lawn and the plants in the garden area? I've done a little work clearing out the old dead winter plants but I plan on getting started this weekend (tomorrow). What should be the first steps. Please remember that I know virtually nothing. I need to approach this project as something that will be easy to maintain and not overly complicated. I may get more elaborate as I learn but I must stay simple for now.

Help!
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

MaineDesigner
Green Thumb
Posts: 439
Joined: Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:17 pm
Location: Midcoast Maine, Zone 5b

I'm not a huge fan of lawn services. There are a few good ones but most of them seek to maximize review by selling services your don't need e.g. way too much fertilizer and pesticide use. I would take a close look at what you are paying for.

My first step would be to hire someone to walk the old garden and tell you what you have. There may be plants worth saving in the jumble. You probably also ought to have some soil samples tested. Design wise without knowing anything about the light, soils, topography/drainage, orientation to the house, the architecture of the house, the amount of time you want to put into maintaining the area, your tastes, whether you have kids or pets, ... any suggestions would be just wild guesses. I would say that 5' - 6' deep is awfully shallow even if the bed wasn't 30 yards long. I suspect that if you were my client and we wanted to keep the basic existing layout I would be strenuously arguing to increase the bed depth to at least 8' to 10'.

lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Thanks for the reply MaineDesigner. Well you are for more an expert than I will ever be. The old bed is pretty much gone. Not much left but a mix of weeds and flowers. At this point not much is worth salvaging.

But since my last post one of the things I plan on doing is putting a barrier between the bed and the lawn.

Here is an overview of the yard:

The lot receives much sunlight as there is no large trees, or any trees in the yard. The house is a one story and it is far from the garden, well over 25 yards. The garage backs up to part of the garden area. The garage and house are east of the garden area. There are no kids, no dogs. I am looking to create a natural setting that is relatively easy to maintain. I don't have a lot of free time and can't spend much of it working on the garden. Having said that I'm not shy from doing any work to make sure this project is done correctly.

During my research I came across these general steps.
1. Prepare the soil in the garden area. Some people suggest rototilling some do not. Others say only one pass. Then it is suggested to cover the area with newspapers and a layer of garden mulch to prevent sunlight from feeding whatever grows beneath. Of course the other option is to apply a herbicide which I would rather not do.

2. Create an edge between the lawn and the garden area. I already have some cross migration of plants between the two.

3. Figure out what to plant and follow the steps.

I know I'm simplifying the steps somewhat but that is what I've learned so far. I appreciate the suggestion of increasing the bed depth and I will consider the idea.

Again to emphasize I would like to have a natural refuge area. I do not want an organized, structured plantings. I think low shrubs and prairie grass or something would be very nice in the area.

Thanks again for starting me thinking the right way!
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

MaineDesigner
Green Thumb
Posts: 439
Joined: Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:17 pm
Location: Midcoast Maine, Zone 5b

There are some wonderful native grasses but it would help to know more about your soils. Are they sandy and quick draining or do they have a higher clay content and are slower draining? Do you have any idea of the pH?

NEWisc and TheLorax are both close enough and expert enough in native to have some well informed suggestions. I've worked in Wisconsin but on the opposite side of the state along the St. Croix and the Mississippi.

There is a dearth of good small shrubs, native or otherwise, for landscaping. Although they aren't native some of the really dwarf Mugo Pine cultivars like 'Slowmound' might work in that narrow space but may be too small if you opt for some of the larger grasses in any proximity. Picea abies 'Nidiformis' is readily available but again non native. In fifteen or so years it will be at least six feet wide. I don't have enough experience with Pinus strobus 'Soft Touch' (and none in the midwest) but I suspect the growth rate maybe comparable to the Bird's Nest Spruce ('Nidiformis'). Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl' is another nice, fairly slow growing shrub. The nursery trade often wants to suggest that these plants will reach some predetermined size and stop growing - not so - although they grow comparatively slowly they will keep growing as long as they are alive. It takes a skilled pruner to constrain growth without it looking like a hack job and even then you are talking about further slowing rather than stopping growth.

lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Thanks again MaineDesigner. Yesterday went well for clearing the area but today the weather is giving us a pretty hard steady rain. I can spend some time researching your suggestions.

I don't know what the soil type is in my area, sorry. Not sure how to figure that out. I wouldn't describe it as dry or clay like but I'm only guessing.
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

MaineDesigner
Green Thumb
Posts: 439
Joined: Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:17 pm
Location: Midcoast Maine, Zone 5b

Usually you can get free or inexpensive soil tests through the state. Ask your local county extension agent. These don't always include soil descriptions but they sometimes do. I don't have good link to information on visual soil tests but maybe someone else can come up with one. This is too coarse to be really useful to you but for percolation tests you need to dig a hole about a foot deep (you need to know the exact depth) and no wider than it is deep, fill it with water, once that water has completely drained away fill it again and time the interval it takes to empty this second time. If you want to be really precise you can time every inch of water level drop in the hole. It helps to do this early or late in the day to limit evaporative losses. You can also moisten clumps of soil and form balls or ribbons in your hand but the explanation of what you are looking/feeling for would be more lengthy than I have time for.

If your lawn is relatively flat I strongly prefer metal edging to the plastic stuff but it is a bit trickier to cut and install and it doesn't handle vertical undulations well. On the plus side it is much more permanent and less ugly/visually intrusive. Go for the 6" deep edging as opposed to the 4" if you can find it. I have only used steel edging. I don't have any experience with aluminum.

lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Wow that is interesting info. What will I learn from digging this hole and timing the water drainage? How do I apply this information?

Thanks for the tip on the edging. There are remains of old metal edging in parts of the garden. It is rusted and out of line.
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

MaineDesigner
Green Thumb
Posts: 439
Joined: Thu Nov 09, 2006 4:17 pm
Location: Midcoast Maine, Zone 5b

I just got home and I'm too tired right now to give you a proper answer but here is a not-so-great link: [url]https://organicgardening.about.com/od/soil/a/easysoiltests.htm[/url]
I find this over simplified but it will get you in the ball park.

lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Thank you MaineDesigner. You've done more than enough and I sincerely appreciate your responses. Thanks for pointing me in some good directions!
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

cynthia_h
Super Green Thumb
Posts: 7501
Joined: Tue May 06, 2008 11:02 pm
Location: El Cerrito, CA

Dear--ah--lawnkiller,

You have a BIG project ahead of you, and none of us on hand to help.

Would it be possible to go to a local nursery/gardening-supplies store (independent; big box won't do for this) and TALK in person to them to get a recommendation for a local gardening professional?

This gardening professional I have in mind would do a walk-through with you to:

1) identify your plants as to genus/species as well as annual/biennial, perennial, shrub, tree, etc.,

2) help you talk through your hopes/dreams/apprehensions about your yard,

3) help you draw up a prioritized (either by time, complexity, expense, or other criterion/criteria) list so that you feel you have somewhere to start that is manageable.

Perhaps this walk-through could be performed in an hour to an hour and a half. This might be an excellent use of resources: pay the gardening professional for his/her expertise and recommendations. Follow through on your own as you are able.

Repeat in a year or so if necessary.

There may also be regional gardening guides with good photos which could be inspirational as to new plants, landscape colors you'd like, etc.

Good luck!

Cynthia H.
El Cerrito, CA
USDA Zone 9, Sunset Zone 17

lawnkiller
Newly Registered
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 09, 2008 5:29 pm
Location: Milwaukee, WI

Thanks Cynthia. That is good advice. I will look into that.
lawnkiller

a yard in desperate need of help

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