Can this yard be saved?
May 3, 2010 8:39 AM   Subscribe

How do I transform my patchy, lumpy and weedy Texas yard into a more pleasant space that requires little maintenance and not too much water?

My yard is in bad shape. The grass is patchy and the surface is very uneven. Weeds are a real problem. Essentially, I'd like to do a complete overhaul, but I don't know how or when to start. In a perfect world, the end result would have much less grass and many more planted areas, perhaps with wood chip or gravel surrounds and paths. Please help me plot a course of action. Ideas on killing the existing grass and transitioning to drought resistant plants or other low water groundcover options are especially appreciated. I'm intrigued by the concept of sheet mulching, but there are large trees that create a lot of shade and drop large amounts of leaves so I'm not sure that flower beds or vegetable gardens are in the cards. Can sheet mulching lead to xeriscaping? When should I kick off this process? Help.
posted by theexpgen to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to approach a local plant nursery. They will probably have someone on staff who can help you define the project, identify the right plants for your location and work towards an attractive xeriscaped result.
posted by onhazier at 8:47 AM on May 3, 2010

In addition to the local nursery, check your local county extension office. Local gardening/horticultural clubs can also be really good starting points for planning.
posted by jquinby at 8:59 AM on May 3, 2010

Depending on what sort of market they cater to, your local plant nursery may or may not have a lot of expertise about xeriscaping. I'm nowhere near Texas, but I've had issues getting regular retail nurseries to talk to me intelligently about native plants and low-water landscaping. Is there a local horticultural society or agricultural extension? If you don't get the help you need at the nursery, those resources may be worth giving a shot, as may be more experienced at non-traditional gardening and a less interested in selling you their installation services or whatever plants they have in stock.

Also, just to give you an idea of what kinds of plants you might end up using, you might tkae a look at High Country Gardens. They also have a handy index to waterfall that makes it easier to figure out how hardcore your xeriscaping needs to be.
posted by joyceanmachine at 9:00 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

One of your assumptions is off. Many more planted areas equals much more maintenance. A healthy lawn of grass is often the lowest maintenance living yard you'll get. Check with the local nursery or the master gardener at your local Home Dept / Lowe's about what lawn grasses are best adapted for your area.
posted by COD at 9:01 AM on May 3, 2010

I don't know what part of Texas you're in, but most Texas native plants are pretty drought resistant/water-efficient. Texas A&M is probably the best source of information you'll find about growing things in Texas, including specific advice for different parts of the state. Their Earth-Kind page has all kinds of info on sustainable Texas landscaping. To save you some time clicking links, here is their xeriscaping page.
posted by Dojie at 9:02 AM on May 3, 2010

At least my second step probably isn't going to go over well but here are my steps to rebooting a yard. Also you don't say what part of texas-and as you know texas is big. what works in el paso isn't going to work in houston.

1. Get a pump sprayer (I have always found them either at garage sales or goodwill really cheap) to apply chemicals/fertilizer.
2. use roundup to kill your yard. This stuff can be dangerous if overused, so only use the minimum recommended on the package, do it when it isn't windy, and I prefer to do right before a rain. This stuff-it kills everything, is fairly toxic in general so DO use it responsebly. It does deactivate fairly quickly with rain and exposure and it won't run off if you use the minimum amount. The problem with it the farmers use way more than necessary to keep the weeds down due to a variety of factors none of which apply to a home lawn. It is the fastest easist way to kill your yard.
3. Get in touch with the local extension agent or water company rep that runs a xeriscape program to get a list of plants that are a good idea for where you live
4. draw up a plan for your yard showing plants and if possible due it to scale.
5. while the yard is dead, add soil amendants as needed (mulch/compost/lime whatever) and rototill till. Rent the rototiller, you only will need to do this once.
6. If you really want a carefree yard put in an irrigation system while the ground is soft from rototilling. This is kindy costly and can be challenging depending on how you want your yard. I get by with soaker hoses.
7. plant your stuff. The sheets can work wonders but i dont like them as it introduces more plastic in the enviroment and invariably show through and degrade at some point and they will lose there effectiveness overtime anyway. There is no substitute for weeding with a hoe. It sucks but there it is.
8. Nut trees (pecans usually do great in texas) are really good at keeping away an understory. The nut hulls really inhibit seed germination. Walnuts are especially good at this and grow slowly. I imagine cotton trees would be good also if you can find one. This is one way to get some use out of your landscaping.
9. (Assuming your in the dry part of texas) Drip irrigation for vegetables can really produce with minimal water use also but require a lot of installation work. A vegetable garden looks good and gives a payback for all your hardwork.
10. enjoy your new yard.
posted by bartonlong at 9:03 AM on May 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

My experience is the opposite of COD's.

We ripped out the grass two years ago and replaced it with patios and planted areas. All the planted areas are flowering plants, shrubs and trees. It's practically zero maintenance and it always looks good.
posted by 26.2 at 9:07 AM on May 3, 2010

One of your assumptions is off. Many more planted areas equals much more maintenance. A healthy lawn of grass is often the lowest maintenance living yard you'll get. Check with the local nursery or the master gardener at your local Home Dept / Lowe's about what lawn grasses are best adapted for your area.

I can't disagree with this enough. Growing a healthy lawn in Texas is a lot of work - especially with the large shade trees the OP has. Well-mulched drought-resistant native plants don't need watering or mowing. You may need to trim some back once a year and you may need to re-mulch if the weeds start getting through, but that's about it.

Unless you can afford to throw a whole lot of money at it and put in a crazy amount of work all at once (or hire someone to do it for you), I recommend starting with one small (but visible) corner of your yard. Once you get that spot just the way you want it, expand it slowly until you get to the whole yard. It's tempting to kill it all and start from scratch, but any grassless areas you create will fill with weeds in no time flat if you don't get them planted (and mulched) right away, putting you back at square one.
posted by Dojie at 9:25 AM on May 3, 2010

Sheet mulching+ perennial plants is not a good idea. Cardboard and newspaper are incredibly high in carbon, and as they decay they take nitrogen out of the soil. This is less of of problem in annual beds where constant turnover means more nitrogen being added, or at the very least, plants not living long enough for nitrogen deficiency to manifest.

Plan to re-do your yard in the fall, just before it rains. That way you won't have to water baby plants all summer.

One of your assumptions is off. Many more planted areas equals much more maintenance. A healthy lawn of grass is often the lowest maintenance living yard you'll get.

Arguable. It depends on the care in choosing and placing plants, and the preparation before hand. I'm definitely not anti lawn, but lawns that are inappropriate for their climate require a lot of maintenance and resources.

Anyway, I think local sources are always best. Talk to your local extension agent for some ideas on how to proceed, and then consider hiring a garden coach if you want to do most of this on your own. My number one piece of advice is to get a professional soil test done to assist you in finding plants that will be happy with what you have with as few inputs as possible from you.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:30 AM on May 3, 2010

Oh, and if you're using the term "sheet mulching" to refer to putting down landscaping fabric, I would avoid this too. It's really a poor substitute for proper preparation of paths and beds. Eventually weed seeds get in on top and grow through it and you have to pull it all out and put it in a landfill.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:37 AM on May 3, 2010

Now that it's starting to get hot, you have a perfect chance to kill any excess turf. Lay down a black tarp (or even a lot of garbage bags) and let the sun take care of it for you. It will take about a week, but you'll burn everything off quite efficiently (unless you have Bermuda, in which case you're in for a lot of hurt).
After that, yes, rototill, but make sure to call the city to mark off any gas, water, or power lines. These guys will get you started.
posted by Gilbert at 9:38 AM on May 3, 2010

Buffalo grass. It's native, drought resistant, and looks pretty when the wind blows.
posted by Pants! at 9:49 AM on May 3, 2010

I took the white trash route, myself; let the clover take over. We never water our yard, and it's green all through the summer; it doesn't get as high as typical grass, and we have quite a variety of types of clover and other plants that have moved in, along with a few wildflowers; I just discovered some lovely cedar sage (a red-flowering mint) growing in my flowerbeds that I certainly didn't plant.

We get some dandelions and invasions of the monkey grass that has run rampant in our older subdivision, but in general, we have a a green if somewhat "textured" yard that is very low maintenence. We get lots of butterflies while the clover blossoms.

With beds, herbs are also your friend; rosemary bushes will grow huge and fragrant and of course you can use them for cooking. Mints will run wild. And then you can get lots of native wildflowers to plant, as others have pointed out, that need no maintenence. I might get some of those next year. Even milkweed, which is not at all pretty, is vital to travelling monarch butterflies and is something I try not to pull up.

Or yes, you can nuke your yard and start from zero. It's quite likely that you have some little ecosystems of beneficial bugs and birds that won't do too well with that, though.
posted by emjaybee at 11:39 AM on May 3, 2010

Pants! beat me to it - buffalo grass is a really nice ground cover. I lived in San Antonio for two years and lots of places used it.

Also, the site Pants! linked to (the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center) is a good resource. If you can, take a trip there - it's gorgeous.
posted by deborah at 12:21 AM on May 4, 2010

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