How do I lawn? How do I garden?
May 23, 2014 7:17 AM   Subscribe

My lawn is a terrible mess of weeds, luckily in a neighborhood where almost everyone has a terrible lawn so I'm not bringing down property values. How do I fix it, preferably without pesticides? What do I need to fix? What time of year should I do things? What kinds of plants can I plant in Minnesota? How does a total newb start this stuff, especially a total newb with a busy schedule and back pain?

Due to ignorance and my partner's health problems, we let our already-bad lawn go for years, basically mowing and nothing more. Right now front and back yard are full of dandelions - really full, I've been weeding them these past two nights and pulled up several hundred and I'm maybe half done. What isn't dandelions is creeping charlie (which at least is pretty) and mullein and all kinds of other stuff. The never-very-good plant borders around the house are totally covered in large weeds plus I can't really tell the intentional plants from the large weeds.

What I would like:
1. a dandelion-free lawn with better grass - not aiming for perfect
2. some kind of plant borders around the house and by the fence, maybe with the things my family always had like dusty miller and lily of the valley, definitely with hardy perennials.

I have limited time and money and no assistance. Our soil has arsenic in it; anything we want to raise to eat needs to be in raised beds or tubs, and that is more than I want to start until I have the rest under control.

I read that when you pull up a dandelion you should put down grass seed and compost so that the grass will grow in rather than other weeds. Is this true? Can I do this in summer or only early spring? Is grass seed just something they have at the lawn store?

What can I do this year? What needs to be started early next year? How do I deal with a large area that's all weeds? Can I just till it under? How do I keep weeds from growing back? I am not absolutely opposed to some spot pesticide application, but would rather hand-weed than apply broadly.

Also, what are some good gardening books? And where do I get plants, and can I put them in in the summer or does it need to be early spring?
posted by Frowner to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Go to your local garden center with pictures of your lawn. Have an earnest discussion with the oldest person there. They will lay the wisdom on you.

You will aerate the lawn, you will weed and feed the lawn, you will learn about how to water your lawn. You will get information about what to plant and when to plant it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:27 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here in upstate NY (which is probably similar to Minnesota in many ways) it's a particularly "good" year for dandelions. Like you I am generally hesitant to use pesticides, but I am tempted to put down some broadleaf killer this year.

Beyond that my understanding that if one is able to get soil tested (the local ag extension office in our town does it for a few bucks) you can get recommendations for supplements, for example to make the lawn soil less acidic.

Removing dandelions by hand is a sisyphean task I've given up on long ago. Be aware that if you just pluck the flower or seed head and don't remove the plant's whole root (and they can go down *feet* into the lawn soil) the plant will just re-emerge. (Sorry!) There are tools for better removing the root (they look like a wide screwdriver with a notch in the end), but when faced with a lawn with hundreds or thousands of dandelions going full blast, it's pretty disheartening.

The good news is that (at least where I am) the last week of May, first week of June, is peak dandelion time, and that they tend to stop flowering so aggressively (though the plants will remain in the lawn grass and still occasionally send up a flower or seed head).
posted by aught at 7:31 AM on May 23, 2014

Your question is why the UMN has Master Gardeners. There are usually some available for question asking at any major home and garden event, or at the Landscape Arboretum, and they can be contacted online.

Your question is pretty broad, but one concrete thing that you can do right away is to collect soil samples from your yard and submit them to the UMN Soil Testing Laboratory. It will take a few weeks for you to get results, but they will tell you exactly what your lawn needs as far as fertilizer, as well a pH adjustments. When you have the soil test data, your discussion with the old person at the garden center will be even more productive, because they will be able to give you exactly what your lawn needs.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:33 AM on May 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

When thinking about what to plant in your borders, keep an eye out for perennials that spread; I say this because you mention lilies of the valley. They are beautiful, but they spread extremely quickly and are very very difficult to contain and/or remove. My mother spent most of my childhood (let's say at least 10 years) fighting with hers, and only eventually succeeded in removing them by employing a professional. You may not want to plant lilies of the valley unless you want an entire lawn of them.

(Actually, I have seen an entire lawn of lilies of the valley, and it was quite lovely.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:35 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

There are lots of options, and suggestions above for local help are great. In your shoes, though, I'd personally look into xeriscaping with native prairie plants. Sample lazy option: this fall, you could lay down cardboard covered with mulch to kill the lawn (cheap if you rent a truck and pick up yourself, or they deliver). In the spring, you'd plant some native perennials that would generally self-maintain afterwards, with the mulch keeping away weeds. Easy!

A few resources:
posted by susanvance at 7:38 AM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Removing dandelions:
I use a Fiskars Uproot Weed and Root Remover (7870). The claws go deep into the ground and get hold of that evil dandelion tap root. It's WAAAY faster than pulling by hand (you do need to shake the dirt off the root, though), and oddly satisfying to see that foot-long root you just pulled up. I pulled a crap-ton of dandelions out of my yard last weekend.

Also, I use the kids' sled to pile the weeds in for later removal to lawn refuse can.

NB: Amazon currently has a stupid-high price for the weeder. Don't pay $50 for it. You should be able to get it for $28-30. There is some variation in quality between the brands, though, and I can vouch for that specific model.
posted by telepanda at 7:39 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you don't have a HOA or equivalent forcing you to have a perfect lawn, start by relaxing and accepting that it's a piece of the planet, not a carpet.

If you have certain patches of the place that you want to completely weed, you can do a lot with a bigass sheet of plastic. They call it solarization. You'll kill all the weeds and the grass, too, but you can then start fresh and you won't be putting any shitty chemicals into your lawn. Google around to find the method that works best for your climate.
posted by pracowity at 7:45 AM on May 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: On the dandelion front: I have one of those sharp fork things and have been rooting up the dandelions as much as possible - last year I did some before giving up, and I noticed that some did not come back this year and some came back much smaller. I can't get at half the roots because (wait for it!) we discovered that the last owners, who did about a million fool things, buried part of a flagstone patio. It's sunken now, so it's under about three inches of soil, but the dandelions grow up through the gaps and I can't get out much root. The thought of digging up the whole thing makes me want to cry, although maybe if we were to do a starter xeriscape patch there I could make myself do it.

I would like to have a front lawn, since we tend to do a couple of things every year that involve sitting on the lawn. And in the long term, I'd like us to have some raised beds for herbs and greens and rhubarb. But I think partial xeriscaping would probably be a good solution - maybe xeriscape the difficult parts of the back yard?

I don't care about the lawn being perfect, but I don't want everyone to think "look at those incredibly lazy people whose yard is a perfect mass of weeds which are seeding over into my yard". Standards are low locally, but I don't want to have The Worst Yard.
posted by Frowner at 7:49 AM on May 23, 2014

The best dandelion removing tool is this one.
posted by mareli at 8:20 AM on May 23, 2014

I have done a modified xeriscaping technique, planting grass where I want a patch of lawn to be. Lay down cardboard on top of weeds, put a mix of soil and compost on top 3 inches thick, and spread grass seeds over it. Water daily until the grass is a few inches tall.

Any big box store will have grass seed. The best time to plant grass is the fall, and the next best time is the spring. But honestly, any time there isn't snow on the ground is OK. The worst that could happen is that not every seed will sprout, and you'll have to come back and plant more grass seed to fill in the gaps. But the seed is pretty cheap.

Make sure you pay attention to how sunny or shady the spots in your yard are, and how dry or moist the soil is (drainage issues). Those things affect which garden plants and type of grass you should buy, and where to locate your garden. Grow food in the sunniest spot.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2014

Things to keep in mind: next year you will have significantly fewer weeds to contend with where you have removed them this year. You will be able to expend less energy next year to get the same results. This is useful to remember when in the thick of it.

I enthusiastically second solarizing your plant borders. While everything cooks under the plastic sheet you can consider what you want to plant there.

Here in the PNW the Maritime Northwest Garden Guide explains what is best to do with your garden each month of the year. Reading it all in one go is also a fine way to get an overview of the ebb and flow of lawn/garden work with the seasons. If you have any horticulturally inclined friends -- people who work with herbs, street medics, urban farm types, WWOOFers -- ask them if there are any good pamphlets like that for your bioregion! A momentary googling did not turn up anything but my ability to find groovy stuff on the internet is pretty weak.
posted by beefetish at 8:42 AM on May 23, 2014

I don't have a garden and my only claim to gardening success is that, after killing all plants anybody gave to me for many years I have at last identified three members of the cacti family that have managed to withstand the abuse and complete lack of care I lavish them with for several years now. This spring I had been thinking about repotting my three plants for a year or so and finally got round to buying some compost. And then I had some early rising house guests who took it upon themselves to trim and repot my plants for me whilst waiting for me to get up for breakfast...result!

But I have lived in houses with gardens and watched people garden and I paid attention and based on that I 2nd Ruthless Bunny. Some of my older relatives would be very gratified to talk you through your lawn problems, recommend the most appropriate tools for the job, seeds, plant feed or whatever it may be. And then they'd talk you through your border problems. And your 'hidden patio' problems...

Please bear in mind that gardening really is a never ending series of projects that are partially driven by the seasons and plant growth/age but also by how much time, effort and money you want to put into it. Retired people (like the ones you'll talk to) often end up gardening a few hrs at a time a few times a working folks have a lot less time to dedicate. So all these things you want to achieve are going to take time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:10 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing calling the Master Gardeners.

One thing to look into next year is pre-emergent weed killers based on corn gluten. They sell a type of it at Home Depot and other places. It has to be put down in early Spring, so remember: yellow forsythia, corn is yellow, put it down now!

Do not put a pre-emergent down at the same time as you put down grass seed -- it acts by keeping seeds from germinating (crabgrass, dandelion, etc.). So if you sow grass seed now (or in the Fall) and it has sprouted and you've been able to mow at least once, you're good to go with the pre-emergent next Spring. It also acts as a fertilizer.

If it's still cool enough, 50's or 60's and rainy off and on, you can do some raking and throw down some grass seed (the Master Gardeners and/or the garden center folks should be able to tell you what's good) in the bad areas. I found an organic lawn fertilizer at a garden center once and did half the lawn as an experiment and the difference was startling. I think it was $8 for a giant bag and I just broadcast it by hand (small lawn). But again, check with the MG first. I took the course a while back and they are all very enthusiastic and helpful folks.

While you're solarizing your beds, grab a couple of cheap plastic pots from a big box store and a few flats of marigolds (if sunny) or impatiens (if shady) to put on either side of your front door. That will instantly perk it up and it's only two containers to water. Everything you plant has to be maintained so don't jump in too far ahead, take your time.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 9:16 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I second all the recommendations for seeing the Master Gardeners and using other plants to reduce the amount of the yard area that's grass.

Another thing is to use hardscape such paver stones to create a seating area/workspace. Hardscape is a bit of work/cost to install, but it's zero/low maintenance. It gives you and attractive area that requires no effort.

Grass is a huge PITA of non-stop maintenance. Think about how to landscape to give you the maximum usable space with the absolute minimum of grass that you'll accept.
posted by 26.2 at 9:53 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're going to do a good bit of landscaping, it's a good time to look at where the downspouts of your gutters are draining; you want them to drain as far away from the house as possible. You also want the grade to slope away from the foundation, so that water doesn't pool near the foundation wall.

Also look at the shape of your grass patch: if you can, make it so it has as few nooks and crannies as possible, so that it's less work to mow.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:59 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lawns are a lot of water and effort for almost no value. You might consider Food Not Lawns instead.

As far as non-edible border plants go, some natural mosquito repellents are probably a good idea, given what I've heard about the mosquito being Minnesota's unofficial state "bird."
posted by Jacqueline at 10:31 AM on May 23, 2014

I honestly don't see any point in trying. A decent lawn is going to take either time and hard work or money. You really are not going to be able to do one without any of those. Pesticides are awful. I would just let it go. I mean, you can have the whole thing plowed under and re-sodded, but it's just going to go back to being weeds anyway. Weeds are better at this than grass is, which is why they never stop coming back.
posted by Slinga at 11:07 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

A good reference is an easy-to-read book by Univ of MN professor Jeff Gillman: The Truth about Garden Remedies. Co-authored with a Minnesota Master Gardener, it actually details all the basic things to do (or not do) to take care of your lawn and garden.
posted by apennington at 11:26 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Find out what was native to the area prior to European settlement. Plant that. It will involve a lot less weeding than a xeriscape, and you still won't have to water it. You can make some "beds" for it, and then maintain a smaller grass lawn. Plus you will get lots of bees, birds, and butterflies with native plants! We have a big natural prairie area and basically we chop it down with a machete one warm weekend in February (we leave it up much of the winter to provide cover for wintering animals) and otherwise leave it to itself. It took a couple years of weeding to get established but now we don't have to do anything at all. (Well, pull morning glory from time to time, I guess.) Ours is very natural-looking, but adding a brick border and organizing the plantings by height would make it look much more formal.

We spread white clover in among our lawn area. Grass is basically a monoculture, which means everything in the niche of "not grass" will opportunistically grow there alongside the grass and try to take advantage of all the niches grass isn't using. Clover shares nicely with grass, doesn't look weedy and doesn't grow too tall, fixes nitrogen in the soil (so you don't have to fertilize the grass!), shades the grass in the high heat of summer so it doesn't wilt and brown as much, has little flowers that bees like but don't look "bad" on a lawn, and is easily mowed along with your grass. It'll help keep the dandelions down at least a little when clover is using more of the "broadleaf" niche. Basically since we introduced clover we don't have to water our lawn, like, ever, and it stays greener than the people watering it all summer.

Turning over large areas for planting is pretty miserable ... I'd personally hire strapping young teenagers in need of summer cash, since it's not hard, it just takes forever and is sweaty.

I'll send you a link to some stuff about my garden. Definitely contact the county extension and its master gardeners. They will probably have classes you can attend at low cost (or free) about local gardening and lawn maintenance.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:38 AM on May 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers - these are some of the most helpful I've received on ask metafilter!

What I'm thinking is that I'd like to get the yard in okay shape for this year - so it's not a mass of dandelions reseeding themselves - and decide what to do about the whole thing, then maybe start by solarizing one or two of the small beds by the house, with the idea of putting in something fairly easy to maintain next year, whether that is xeriscaping or prairie plants. Then next year we can tackle something more, etc etc.

Should I plant climbing flowers on our fence? Next door has them and they are very pretty.
posted by Frowner at 11:43 AM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you like them, then YES. Ask your neighbor what they plant! Most climbers are pretty easy and a lot of them happily reseed themselves. (Some of them are, in fact, kind-of invasive, but they're usually pretty shallow-rooted so it's not a big weeding job.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:49 AM on May 23, 2014

The best tool I ever used on dandelions was a red hot poker, heated to red hot and poked down through the middle of the rosette. I may have cackled like a bond villain a couple of times. Very fun, and it saves attempting to pull out the entire tap root. If you leave a little bit behind, it'll just regrow, and you'll have done all of that work for nothing. Or, you could get fancy and cover the rosettes with pots to exclude the light, then sell the blanched growths (they'll be white with yellow midribs) as fancy gourmet salading. Or just eat them yourself, they taste a little like endive.

I read that when you pull up a dandelion you should put down grass seed and compost so that the grass will grow in rather than other weeds. Is this true? Can I do this in summer or only early spring? Is grass seed just something they have at the lawn store?

It certainly won't hurt to give the grass a head start, but you have to take more time and attention with grass seed than you do with turf. Bit more info. Put some compost down, sprinkle the seed on top then cover it to keep off the birds who will hone in on the stuff like it glows in the dark. And keep it well watered. Damp times of the year are best - Spring and Autumn. High temps and dryness will kill the new shoots right quick. When buying grass seed, look for "hardwearing" or "play lawn" varieties - there are lots of species of "grass" and you want the ones that are the toughest to compete with the weeds.

What can I do this year? What needs to be started early next year?

Right now, I'd get to your local library and get some books about lawn care. Or even have a poke about online. You need to find out what weeds you actually have, because different weeds have different treatment requirements. Dandelions are different to Horsetail, which needs a good trampling before you spray it, which is different to moss, which needs drier, sunnier conditions to get rid of. Get some pictures and go and look at the lawn, then you can decide what steps to take.

How do I deal with a large area that's all weeds?

Thick black plastic sheets, laid down and held in place. Looks unsightly, but after the season is over, only the very hardiest of weeds may have survived. Don't use garbage bags, they're not thick enough. Don't use the mulch material type stuff either, because it's permeable to water and you want to keep underneath the sheet as dry and as dark as possible.

Can I just till it under?

This is one of those things that's either a really good idea or a really bad idea. If it's just annual weeds, then tilling the soil before they have the chance to set seed, as long as you don't go too deep, then this can work quite well to reduce the amount of weeds. If they can't set seed, they can't regrow next year. Turning the soil might disturb some dormant seeds, so you'll likely get a smaller crop, but it will be more easily deal with.

On the other hand, if you have perennial weeds that grow back from their root stock year after year, and you chop that root stock up and distribute it around the area, well, that's going to make you scream come next year. Where you might only have had one ground elder plant, you now have fifty. Overall, I don't advise doing this unless you know for sure that it's not going to backfire. It looks like it's solved the problem quickly, but often, it really hasn't.

How do I keep weeds from growing back?

Plants will grow where there is a space. If you have a neatly planted border with bushes, and a square inch of soil that's uncovered, weeds are going to grow there. You need to make sure that every single micrometre of soil is covered. It's difficult to do that with plants, but it's much easier with mulch. Lay some mulching fibre down then cover it with a 4"+ layer of decorative bark. This is MUCH easier if the border is empty and you make holes in the fibre where you want plants. You can theoretically do this around existing plants, but I find that weeds will just laugh at your attempts to do it and carry on growing through anyway. And then you have the dual problem of scooping out mulch and fibre before you can start tackling the weeds.

I am not absolutely opposed to some spot pesticide application, but would rather hand-weed than apply broadly.

Um, pesticides will kill animals. Herbicides are what kills plants.

Also, what are some good gardening books?

I don't know about the US, but there's a chap in the UK who is a big proponent of organic gardening, called Bob Flowerdew (totally not kidding!). His books would likely give you a good foundation.

And where do I get plants, and can I put them in in the summer or does it need to be early spring?

Are there any neighbours who have well kept gardens? If you find one, chat them up a little. Chances are, you'll get offers of plants, and they'll likely be ones that grow well in your area. Also look for signs on gates, though that might be a UK thing again.

OK, some more thoughts now:

Does your lawn have to be grass? Could it be a chamomile lawn, instead? Or a clover lawn? Would you be OK with some astroturf?

Taking that a step further, how about something like a Zen garden? Just gravel with the odd tree dotted about and maybe a water feature. Extremely low maintenance, and you could still have your pretty borders.

If you really really want lawn, it might just be easier to nuke everything that is there now, and start fresh with some new turf next year. Same goes for the borders - it's much easier to start with a blank canvas than it is to try to garden around what's there, especially when the bindweed or ground elder is a pernicious so-and-so that does intend to colonise your entire garden.

Another thing to pay attention to is where the weeds are coming from. If your neighbour's lawns are full of dandelions, they'll just seed right back into your lawn if you're not very careful.
posted by Solomon at 11:59 AM on May 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Regarding climbing flowers, yes totally. Clematis montana is prolific, both in flowers and growth, and you can cut it back to a foot off the ground if it gets to be too much. It'll just grow away again. It's fully hardy too. Bit more info. There are three "kinds" of clematis, so be sure you're getting the right one. Bigger flowers generally means more hassle. I have a montana planted in the garden and it's just draped itself over nearby bushes. I literally haven't touched it for about 8 years, not even to water it, and it's thriving.
posted by Solomon at 12:05 PM on May 23, 2014


I am also messing with passionflower because it is a useful thing to have around, but it's a bit more fiddly.

Also, seriously, ask around in your social group if there are gardening heads. I have tight friends in what seems to be a similar demographic to yours and there are a lot of people in that world for whom the care and upkeep of plants in an ethical and reasonable way is, like, their thing.
posted by beefetish at 12:36 PM on May 23, 2014

Something I learned recently that might be helpful when you're planning your easy-to-maintain native plant area is that native birds and wildlife prefer continuity. So it's better to do one continuous area rather than separate smaller patches, if you can.

Continuity goes vertically, as well: there are five layers of plant. Ground cover, smaller plants, shrubs, small/medium trees, big trees. The more of these layers you have in an area, the better it looks. Now that I'm aware of this, when I look at yards, I can definitely see that yards who follow this algorithm are usually more pleasing to look at.
posted by aniola at 12:50 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Should I plant climbing flowers on our fence? Next door has them and they are very pretty.

Find out what they are and get the exact same flowers. The effect is doubled when you and next door are growing the same things on your fences.
posted by pracowity at 1:32 PM on May 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My lawn is horrible, so I won't bother trying to answer most of the questions here.

However, you did ask about where to get plants and this question from yesterday identified the leading garden centers in our area: Bachman's, Wagner's, Pahl's, Gerten's, etc. Bachman's is particularly good about having gardeners available to give you advice and is something of a local institution. Wagner's is a smaller family-owned place that has been in the city for ages, Pahl's has an enormous selection.

The Southside Farm Store in the Powerdorn neighborhood may also be worth a visit. It isn't very big, but I've heard from my mom that the plants there are in good shape.
posted by Area Man at 1:47 PM on May 23, 2014

I'm generally in favor of climbing flowers, but I'd avoid morning glories. They reseed like crazy, and then you'll be pulling out morning glories along with your dandelions. Which is sad, because morning glories are so pretty, but it's taken me YEARS to get them out of my fence border, where they were killing every other bush/tree/flower I planted near them.
posted by instamatic at 3:01 AM on May 24, 2014

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