Help me help my yard
May 5, 2013 2:41 PM   Subscribe

I've recently moved from renting an apartment in a complex to renting a privately-owned duplex. It has a little (8 ft by about 15 ft) yard-ish thing right now that I would like to transform into a real yard. The owners won't pay for it, but would be fine with whatever I do to it. The problem is, right now the yard is completely overrun with weeds; everything else gets choked out by them. I don't know what kind of weeds, there's a variety of them. The other problem is that I live in Phoenix and the ground is very hard and dry so pulling the weeds by hand is going to be... difficult if not impossible. I've seen previous yard questions, but I am a special desert-dwelling snowflake and a little bit of a hippy, so I'm looking for more ideas than the "poison the whole thing" that I see in some of the other questions and also Phoenix-specific advice.

So, really, my question has two parts: how do I get rid of the weeds and then how can I plant something in their place and get it to flourish. I don't want to use chemical weed-killers if I don't absolutely have to, but I'm not sure how else to make them go away. In a perfect world I'd have grass, but that seems overly difficult and quite frankly a little irresponsible in the desert so I'm looking for some sort of drought-tolerant groundcover plant that ideally I can walk on barefooted comfortably.

I love this place and plan on living here for the forseeable future, so I'm opposed to spending a little money on getting this done, but funds are limited. The way I see it, on a scale from "just pay someone a bunch of money to deal with it" to "dig out all the weeds myself by hand under the hot Phoenix sun", I'm looking for something in the middle.

Also, when would the best time to do all of this be? The weeds are all currently dead for the summer, so would it be better to deal with it all now? Or would this be a bad time to try to get my groundcover growing? And with the heat and the dryness, the soil/dirt/whatever is very hard-packed so should I till it? The internets seem to think that tilling might just dig up new weed seeds. Or just dump a bunch of good soil over everything and sufficate the weeds? But will they just poke through the new soil?

Basically, I have a overgrown weedy lot and no idea at all how to turn it into a yard. Please advise.

(Oh, and it's small enough that I'm totally willing to water it, so that's not a problem, but can you also reccommend non-grass drought resistant groundcover plants? Thanks!)
posted by Weeping_angel to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you're willing to use the water, grass is simple. Mow all the weeds. Let them dry out. Get a shovel, turn over the top 6" of soil. Throw grass seed on it and keep it moist until it fills in. Now regularly to control weeds.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:54 PM on May 5, 2013

Or you can just lay down $100 in sod and be done in a day.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 2:56 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get enough clear plastic sheeting to cover your whole yard. I think they sell it pretty cheap at Lowes/Home Depot/etc. Water the yard deeply, then spread the sheeting all over and weigh down with cinderblocks or old tires or whatev. Leave it on for a couple of weeks, re-watering as needed. The sheeting will act as a lens for sunlight to bake the soil and kill all the weed seeds. Remove sheeting, roll up and save. Break up your dirt and plant whatev.
posted by toodleydoodley at 2:58 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Weed torch 'em!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:09 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Have you asked for groundcover ideas at local garden shops? They'll be in a great position to recommend stuff that's good for your area. I've also had good luck ordering from High Country Gardens -- "Beautiful Plants for the Waterwise Garden."

And as far as getting the weeds out - I hope this doesn't sound too crass, but in my area this is a great job for the day laborers who hang out at home centers and garden shops. In many cases they are already loosely pre-organized into work groups and may supply their own tools. One practical matter: it may be easier to accomplish this if you speak Spanish. Maybe bring a friend who does?
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:16 PM on May 5, 2013

Kill the weeds, using black or clear plastic sheeting. Alternatively, you could also spray the weeds with vinegar. Since it's a small space, you could have a load of topsoil brought in and spread it on top of the dead weeds/existing soil. For best results, you'd rent a tiller or take a shovel and mix the new topsoil and your native soil together, but it's not necessary. If you can find sod in your area, that will give you the most reliable results. You will probably need to water it deeply 2-3 times a day until it gets established.

You may want to check with your local nurseries for native plants/shrubs you could plant as well.
posted by Ostara at 3:20 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Water your yard.

Wait a few hours, put on gloves, go pull the weeds.

some sort of drought-tolerant groundcover plant that ideally I can walk on barefooted comfortably

I've heard things about creeping thyme, but it does not stand up well to foot traffic, andDthe things I've heard involve it growing in a place about 20 degrees F cooler than Phoenix. Maybe if you don't want to walk barefooted on it too much?

Generally drought-tolerant plants aren't meant to be walked on like a lawn, often people landscape with gravel in between them. Use round gravel if you want to walk on it barefoot.

The owners won't pay for it, but would be fine with whatever I do to it.

In Albuquerque water charges accelerate as you use more. If your landlord pays water, you may find that things are less fine if you put in something higher water use like grass.

You'll probably want to put in a watering system on a timer (doesn't need to be built-in, get a timer that screws onto the hose bib), or plan on watering every single day while plants are getting established.
posted by yohko at 3:21 PM on May 5, 2013

Seconding torching them. I have been using a weed dragon for about 5 years. Torch everything, then cover it in a biodegradable weedblock (newspaper, or buy some) but not plastic sheeting, and add a layer of topsoil and plant. Build up instead of digging down.
posted by headnsouth at 3:22 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

For what to plant, find a locally owned nursery. Big-box stores sell whatever is in demand, even if it won't actually go there. Don't believe those labels on plants that say "full sun", that was decided by someone who never went to Phoenix.

If you want to do mail order try Plants of the Southwest. At their retail store I've found them to be knowledgeable and honest about what actually has a chance of growing, and they actually mean it when they say "full sun" on something, at least for Albuquerque.

If you have a local Master Gardner hotline, that's another resource. There may be a list of suggested low water plants for the area on city or county websites as well.
posted by yohko at 3:32 PM on May 5, 2013

Yeah, find your local xeriscaping expert and let them give you the weeds-on best practices.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:34 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

my yard is about a half acre on a hill. when I moved in it was 4 ft deep of weeds and ivy... we tried a lot of organic weed killers etc... settled on a year of black plastic covering everything and then good old fashioned sweat equity hacking out the remnants.

after the machetes were set aside, 2 layers of landscape fabric, a layer of dirt and a layer of mulch.

building up is easier than cutting down but first you have to get the bottom layer as crushed to nothing as possible.

the craziest stuff will pop up through the landscape fabric: Wild Onions, Tulips, Grass, "hemp" etc...

weed often. plant native plants that don't require a lot of water, people love color, don't fear succulents.
posted by bobdow at 4:03 PM on May 5, 2013

Good for thinking beyond grass. Native plants or a xeriscape plot can look fantastic with minimal work. Lavender is pretty hearty and looks great.

You can spray the weeds, misting them with undiluted vinegar.
posted by artdrectr at 4:10 PM on May 5, 2013

Response by poster: As awesome as the flamethrower thing looks, it seems like a bad idea since my weeds are already dried out. The plastic sheeting/biodegradable weedblock/topsoil solution seems like exactly the amount of work I'd like to put in at an affordable price. But why would I water it first before putting the plastic down? My weeds are currently dead, so I'm looking to cook the seeds in the ground so they won't sprout. Wouldn't watering them bring them back to life? And the internets seem to be split on whether it should be black plastic to keep photosynthesis from happening vs. the clear kind for the lens effect that toodleydoodley talked about. Thoughts?
posted by Weeping_angel at 5:59 PM on May 5, 2013

I live in Phoenix and mostly follow the advice of Dave Owen the Garden Guy. He advocates organic and non-synthetic gardening practices.

First, kill your live weeds with vinegar. Then soak your yard and hand pull the visible weeds. Based on your description, I suspect this small yard has been neglected for as long as the condo has been there, so you'll do your future garden a big favor by tilling the soil and including a large amount of compost or other organic matter. Rake in Dave's organic weed pre-emergent preventer and fertilizer (it's 100% corn gluten meal, who knew).

You don't necessarily need to put down plastic or black landscape fabric, but once you've planted, be sure to mulch around your border plants. Use gravel or bark chips. I use gravel because I don't want to give scorpions anywhere to hide, but YMMV.

If you plan to walk on your ground cover, your plant options are limited. I'm not sure what options aside from grass you'd have so ask a real nursery or garden store, not your big box store.

If you opt for grass, be aware that Phoenix residents who are *really* into their lawns have both a summer and a winter lawn. Bermuda grass loves the heat but it goes dormant starting Oct/Nov and turns brown; it can be laid as sod now. You get a winter lawn by overseeding the Bermuda in fall with rye grass seed, which is an annual grass that dies when the weather warms up in May. That's when Bermuda comes back to life.

I've got a few neighbors who are intensely competitive about their lawns and therefore devote a lot of time, labor and expense to them. I'm just not into that, so I maintain a nice gravel, river rock and drought-tolerant planted landscape. It's better for the environment, uses less water, and I can leave town for a month or two without worrying about maintenance.
posted by MyTwoCentsToo at 7:32 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and since you're there for the foreseeable future, you might consider planting a citrus tree or two to add a bit more green to your yard. I purchased a Meyer lemon tree and a lime tree from Whitfill Nursery for $50 each. They planted them for me free. Margaritas!!
posted by MyTwoCentsToo at 8:04 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might check into a "lawn" of dichondra - that's what my father planted in Tucson many years ago. It's a ground cover made up of little clover-like leaves, and we not only walked on it but played and roughhoused on it for years. He watered it every evening, but not a lot at a time since it's pretty shallow-rooted. Our patch was the length of the house and ranged from maybe 8 to 10' wide/deep - on the east side of the house, which is important in that hot desert climate. Answers to all your questions are available at your local university agriculture department and they're free.
posted by aryma at 10:59 PM on May 5, 2013

You're a hippie - why not reject "yard" and "lawn" in favor of a permaculture landscape?
posted by Miko at 11:09 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

On an 8x15 area it's entirely possible to do grass with minimal watering provided it's set up correctly. Son-in-law in Albuquerque has a concrete block fenced back yard with almost that size area in grass. On three sides, there's a five foot width between the grass in the middle and the wall in which trees are planted with gravel and river rock laid down. Herbs and climbing vines, including a fantastic grapevine with a small arbor, are spaced out under the trees and along the wall.

He put in temporary round gravel over plastic where the grass is now, and kept it raked in a design to look good, while he waited two years until the trees were tall enough to provide the shade needed to keep watering to a minimum. That also served to kill the weeds. Prior to planting, he used tons of soil amendments worked in to create a good layer of rich fertile topsoil that would hold water and not cake up.

Even though the area is very small, everything is automatic on a timer system to drip irrigate or spray at the coolest time of the day. The grass seed he used is highly drought resistant and all the vegetation is tough stuff. He has total xeriscaping in the front where there is no shade. Being here very much reminds me of the hidden walled gardens in Turkey--cool, green, and delightful. He says now that the yard has matured, it has cut his AC bill nearly in half, and the water useage has hardly increased over what it was prior to the plantings. The concrete block walls to cut the drying wind and the shade from the trees are key.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:24 PM on May 5, 2013

But why would I water it first before putting the plastic down?

You don't do both. Pick one.

Pulling up the weeds will let you plant right away instead of waiting on the plastic. It's much easier to pull them if you get the ground wet and let the water soak in. It's not watering the weeds but the hard caliche soil, the same method is very useful for digging as well. If you aren't going to pull up the weeds the same day or the following morning at the latest, there is no reason to water.
posted by yohko at 3:56 AM on May 6, 2013

Watering 1st would germinate many seeds, which would then die under the plastic.
For Phoenix-specific yard advice, contact the Cooperative Extension Service. They can give you lots of information and put you in touch with a master gardener. Here's some sites with some ideas. I'd also hit up your library; they're likely to have some good localized books on landscaping.
posted by theora55 at 8:48 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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