Teach us how to garden!
April 9, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Please help two novice gardeners keep our backyard as gorgeous as it seems like it's going to be.

My husband and I inherited a beautifully landscaped backyard when we bought our house, and we've been delighted to watch it start to bloom with the early spring. However, we have no idea what most of the plants are, nor how to care for them - please help!

Any resources you have for the beginner gardener would be much appreciated - we have grown basil in windowsill pots before and that is pretty much the extent of our experience. We are in plant hardiness zone 4b. Particular questions are below.

Can you identify the plants in any of these images? (I can take more pictures/close-ups - I thought these were okay, but I realize they're not a whole lot to go on. Seriously, we know nothing, so even wild guesses will give us something to start with.) At least one of the tiny plants is supposed to be a bleeding heart. Do you know which one?

We have a pretty serious bunny problem in the neighborhood. I thought for sure that some of the plants would be goners after seeing what they did to the bits poking above the snow, but so far it seems like everything is greening up and will eventually bloom or whatever. Any advice on keeping the bunnies from killing whatever they might kill - or at least keeping the bit of lawn free from bunny poop? (No pets, no plans to get pets, even for bunny prevention purposes)

What are these plants? Should we pull up the bleached straw-like bits to let the green come through?

Likewise with this thing - there are several throughout the backyard; this one has by far the most little green cabbage heads. Should we pull out the dead brown things and compost them? One of the other plants has a bunch of dead leaves caught in the dead brown stalks; I think that might be why it has fewer cabbage head thingies - but it also doesn't get quite as much sun so it could be that. Should we, like, rake out the dead leaves? I'm afraid that will kill the green things.

Should we be putting down new mulchy stuff everywhere it currently exists? It seems pretty well covered and even, but we saw a run on mulchy stuff at Home Depot and wondered if everyone else knows something we don't know.

How much time should we expect to put in to keep the backyard looking lovely all year round?

Since we don't want to tear up the landscaping to add a vegetable garden at least until we know what it all looks like in bloom (and in order to keep them elevated and away from bunnies), any advice for growing edibles in pots? We'd like to do strawberries, basil, mint, tomatoes, cucumbers, whatever else is easy and grows well in pots. Halp.

Not pictured, because we do know what they are, but any advice you have for them would be much appreciated: giant purple lilac bush, prolific rhubarb plant, tiger eye.

Thanks for reading this far, and for any help you can give!
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
We had this same issue with a previous house, and one call to a local nursery led to an appointment with an eager master gardener/horticulture person, who came over and spent an hour going through the yard, identifying all the plants for us and telling us what needed special attention. I'm not saying every local plant nursery will be able to point you to such a person, but ours did, and it was well worth it.
posted by ambrosia at 7:51 PM on April 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can't see the pic in the second link. The third link is some type of ornamental grass and you need to just clean out the old stuff. The last one is a succulent, just had a brain freeze and can't recall the name but someone will tell you soon. Also just clear out the old stuff on that one and it will be fine. I wouldn't do anything for the first year, you need to "map" the plants you have and learn how to care for them.
posted by raisingsand at 7:58 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Your first plant link "these images" is set to private. The next looks like an invasive grass weed, but I guess it could be ornamental grass. You will know for sure when more comes up. Kind of looks like its at the edge of the path rather than designed, though. For sure you can remove most of the dead stuff for all of these. I don't see any bleeding heart yet. It likes a shady spot, so I imagine it's near the house or under a shrub. Think about which direction the sun comes from in your yard.

4b - that's cold! If you go to the garden centre once they open, you will start to recognize what you have coming up in the garden. Also a local garden catalogue or library book will give you ideas.
posted by Listener at 8:01 PM on April 9, 2012

The succulent is probably Sedum Autumn Joy
posted by Isadorady at 8:12 PM on April 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You do want to remove the dead ornamental grass in the spring before it gets too intertwined with the new growth. Go at it with some clippers and give it a haircut. If you can cut the old growth back to 6 or 8 inches above the ground the new growth will flourish and cover up the dead stuff quickly.

The last one is a sedum, probably Autumn Joy sedum. You should be able to gently pull away the dead stuff. It's really pretty in the fall -- it has deep pink flowers.

I can't see the first plant ID link -- it's set to private.

You can pick rhubarb until July 4th, after then let the plant regenerate. Pull off any seed heads that it sends up, though. You want the plant to put its energy into delicious rhubarb stems, not ugly seed heads.

Lilacs are very prone to borers and mildew, and they only bloom once a year. You may consider replacing the lilac with something like a viburnum or serviceberry. If you're happy with it, though, it'll do okay on it's own unless it gets a severe borer infestation.

Here's a couple of tips, too. You can kill weeds in the beds by hand pulling them or by spraying them with vinegar. If you must use weed killer, please don't do it on a windy or hot day. On a windy day it will blow onto your other plants (and swingsets, and lawn furniture, etc). On a hot day weed killer evaporates into even tinier particles and can drift even farther. I can't tell you how many times I've had to hose off my kids' swingset or nurse a sick tree back to health because my neighbors got too enthusiastic with the weed killer.

Yes, re-mulch! Put a new layer of mulch down that is about 2-3 inches deep. Don't use landscape fabric -- it's pretty much worthless after a few years.

Blood meal is an organic way to keep the bunnies away. Sprinkle it around the plants and reapply after rain. It's a little less labor intensive just to exclude them from the yard, or put little cages around the plants that they target.

You can grow tomatoes in those big rubbermaid tubs --poke some drainage holes in the bottom for the simplest solution, or go all out and make yourself an Earthtainer from 2 tubs. Keep mint in a container -- it is super invasive. Strawberries do fine in containers as well. Get bush-type cucumbers. There are some compact varieties that would do okay in a container.

If you go out and wander the yard for 15 minutes a night and pull weeds and check on plants, you should have things under control. Just let them do their thing. Perennials are generally pretty easy.
posted by Ostara at 8:18 PM on April 9, 2012

Well, first off I'd say relax - it generally looks like you've inherited a landscape of hardy perennials and they will generally thrive with minimal intervention from you. I can't see that album linked to "these images", incidentally, it says "peanutmcgillicuty's images are not publicly available" when I click on the link.

My neighborhood in NE Minneapolis has been overrun with rabbits as long as I can remember and I don't do anything about it except I guess let my cats stare at them in estatic trances through closed windows but I'm pretty sure that's not doing anything. I don't think it's worth trying to control them.

There are varieties of bleeding heart, here is an article on some main categories that may help identify the foliage.

I'm not sure about the grassy clusters ("these plants") from that picture, maybe some kind of sedge, but yes, pull out the dead stuff. Be gentle, try not to tear up the green plants. Likewise with the "this thing" - which I believe is a sedum - we have the same thing, it grows clusters of purple flowers on stalks) - I gently pull up all the dead growth when things start to warm up and the new growth starts to pop out.

Get after weeds early and often and it won't take much time. Put mulch down where it starts to get bare, break down, or if weeds start to come through. Water it if things are getting really dry. Really this is generally stuff that will take care of itself, what I can see anyway. My perennial beds take next to no time, just the clear-up in the spring and the odd bit of weeding. I don't even bother with mulch once the foliage is in full growth it chokes out almost all the weeds, but my stuff is packed in a bit more than yours.

Lilac bush: it will take care of itself but it will get very unruly and flower less and less well unless you prune it correctly. I have never had any pest issues with the lilac myself.

Rhubarb: try and kill it. Seriously, just try. If you want to cook with it harvest slender, flexible stalks with deep red bases. When they get big and woody you have to peel it and it will still be string. It freezes well. Pull out the big gnarly flowering heads before they scatter seeds everywhere. I cut it back and compost it throughout the year. Despite what some say it is great for compost. When it withers in the fall pull up all the foliage and compost it.
posted by nanojath at 8:24 PM on April 9, 2012

Buy the Sunset Garden Book.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:43 PM on April 9, 2012

Honestly I wouldn't worry too much about it. It sounds like your are on the early side of the growing season. I would wait it out and see how the yard grows in this spring. If you like what you see, you can go from there. If things are not working (which is unlikely if the yard was really well kept before you got there) you can redo whatever parts you don't like. But really it's too early to tell exactly what your strategy should be. The best kept yards are the ones with constant upkeep, so there really are no best answers at any one instant of time.
posted by grog at 9:05 PM on April 9, 2012

Response by poster: Hrm, sorry about the private link. Everything was supposed to be public. Try again?

Thanks for all the advice so far - I suspected that there was some planning involved in the plants that were chosen, given that pretty much everything seems to be starting up again despite the cold (tho it wasn't so cold this year) and the bunnies. Nice to know we're not going to be totally outsmarted by a garden.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:06 PM on April 9, 2012

The bleeding heart is in front of the guy I can see standing there. Looks like another little one coming up several pics later, too. I have no way to name each pic here though. You don't need to do anything the first year except clean up the mess of dead (yellow/brown) stuff every once in a while and water if you have a heat wave. Weeds will make themselves known by vigour, and you can pull them out when you feel like it.
posted by Listener at 9:10 PM on April 9, 2012

The variegated cylindrical leaves are hostas. They like shade. You can chop that clump up to make three more plants if you wish.

The chartreuse looking thing after the hosta looks like a spirea. It looks fine now. Sometimes they winterkill and then you just cut back the dead twigs and they regenerate.

All of the plants in your landscape appear to be low-maintenance perennials, honestly. You can go get some annuals, like pansies or marigolds, to put around them if you want. Trim back your grass and maybe pull the dead stuff away from the sedum, lay down some mulch, water 2-3 times a week and you're good to go.

Don't be alarmed if the bleeding heart dies back when it gets hot. They do that. It's ok.
posted by Ostara at 11:12 PM on April 9, 2012

Image 1 - what a nice garden
Image 2 - I think those are hostas
Image 3 - more hostas, this time variegated
Image 4 - spirea
Image 5 - rose
Image 6 - I think dicentra (aka bleeding heart)
Image 7 - on the right is a kind of geranium
Image 8 - sedum, and yes, do cut back the dead stems
Image 9 - not sure
Image 10 - can't tell yet, might be weeds, could be a bunch of things
Image 11 - dicentra - might be a different color than the first one
Image 12 - can't tell yet, looks like a mint-family plant, but hard to see
Image 13 - ornamental grasses - cut back the dead bits like you're giving them a bowl cut, leave the green bits. Next year, you can do this either in very early spring or in the winter.
Image 14
posted by sciencegeek at 2:24 AM on April 10, 2012

Yep, this is the bleeding heart.

Disagreeing with nanojath a bit on the rhubarb: harvest the stalks when they're young, but not when they're slender. The quality drops when they're old, not when they're big. Slender stalks are an indicator that the plant has exhausted most of its reserves (energy stored in the roots) and you should stop harvesting so the plant can recover and grow larger. The typical pattern is that you'll get a bunch of fat stalks early in the season, which you can harvest. New stalks that come up to replace them will be thinner, and should be left alone. Then at the end of the season, just before frost hits and shuts everything down for the winter, you can harvest all the remaining stalks and use them for something where stringiness and somewhat reduced flavor doesn't matter so much. (I've never peeled the stuff, and I've been eating it for better than 30 years).

Do cut off the flower heads when they appear. Harvest rhubarb stalks by grabbing each with both hands and pulling firmly straight away from the plant. The stalk will break free cleanly. Compost the leaves.
posted by jon1270 at 2:37 AM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

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