How should I cheaply improve this terrible front yard?
September 1, 2014 2:27 PM   Subscribe

Moving into a rental house and the lawn is bare and weedy. I don't want to sink a lot of money in it, but I do want it to look better.

These pictures are from a couple of years ago, in the spring. First. Second. The lawn still looks relatively the same - very patchy and bare with random weeds all over the place. The beds with the flowering bushes are now completely overrun with monkey grass, and I plan on digging most of it out, planting some flowers, and mulching. (The bushes are also currently bare, which doesn't help.)

However, I have no idea what to do about the lawn. Since it's a rental, I don't want to over-invest. But right now this house is the saddest one on the block and I'd like to get it looking a bit nicer.

Can I just buy grass seed and sprinkle it down? Is October too late for planting grass? Is there another type of good ground cover that would be cheap and spread quickly?

Thanks for your help.
posted by ohsnapdragon to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of tree is that, and what general gardening area do you live in?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:29 PM on September 1, 2014

What USDA plant zone do you live in? That might help other MeFites to come up with suggestions for what you could do.
posted by Old Man McKay at 2:34 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You'll be non-stop fighting to keep the grass alive under that tree. Certainly not worth the effort for a house you don't own, IMHO.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:35 PM on September 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

You can get something like Scott's Fall Turf Builder and see how that does come Spring. Grass seed is at least cheap. However, the tree is going to ruin your chances of anything flourishing.

Would the landlord allow you to use paving stones to make a nice little patio area?
posted by xingcat at 2:36 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry - should have thought of that! I'm in zone 7b. And unfortunately I don't know what kind of tree that is.

If the tree is going to make it too shady, maybe I need to concentrate on finding shade friendly groundcover? Any suggestions?
posted by ohsnapdragon at 2:37 PM on September 1, 2014

Early fall is the best time to plant grass; seed and fertilize. Depending on how long you plan to live there, you could also plant come bulbs and have flowers in the spring. Try this also.
posted by buzzieandzaza at 2:37 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are specific grass varieties that will grow on shady places. Try some of that and plot out a couple of shade gardens with broad leaf plants that thrive in shady spots.
posted by mygoditsbob at 2:41 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

It looks like that tree might be the reason it looks like that. It's just too much shade. I have a little rectangle of good sturdy grass that turns into that same scrubby thing on one edge because of dense fruit trees lining that side of the yard.

Any shade groundcover you grow is going to need years to fill in. You can plant hostas, ferns, most ivy, and/or a few kinds of clumping grasses, but because they are a shady plant you don't get fast growth. If I owned the property, I'd partially-pave the area with a little patio and paths, and put hostas and ferns in the resulting beds, but that is not cheap to do.

You could mulch it to make it look tidy. That's not super-cheap, and you probably should run it past the landlord.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:43 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can mix in white dutch clover seed with your grass seed; clover cooperates well with grass and helps smother out other, less well-behaved weeds while improving the soil (it's a nitrogen fixer). They're reasonably dappled-shade tolerant so will often grow under trees -- depends on how thoroughly that tree shades the ground. You just mow it with the grass, no special care needed. You would broadcast (i.e., throw it around) both a shade grass mix and your clover in the fall and let the winter freeze/thaw cycle work the seeds into the cracks in the soil, basically.

Might or might not take to your soil/shade, but it's a pretty inexpensive option that will pretty the yard up quickly if it works, and help it keep improving.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:47 PM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can buy grass seed for shadey areas. We have a back lawn full of lovely grass and about a third of it is constant shade. It's not hard to find and it's not expensive. Toss the grass seed about, toss some top soil over it and water it daily for about a week (two if you remember) and you'll see wee spikes of grass start to show. It's like a lawn-sized science project!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:47 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pachysandra planted in pool or round corner shaped patterns and some color gravel walkways meandering around to make it all sweet and simple. You might find you want to sit under that shade, a lot more fun than weeding and mowing.
posted by Freedomboy at 2:57 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might have good luck with a dichondra lawn. It likes a cool and shady environment. Any other kind of grass is going to be a no-go. Bonus, very little mowing, do in conjunction with a grass-paver affair.

That tree needs a trim, limbs can be a problem in severe weather.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

We just trimmed back two trees in our front yard to give grass a chance to grow. It was just too much of a shade canopy.
posted by heathrowga at 2:59 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the tree being the problem. It'll be hard to get anything significant established unless you're a long-tern renter willing to invest. Make sure you have renters insurance in case that tree drops a big limb and wrecks your stuff.
posted by quince at 3:26 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I might try a cheap soil test- the tree's leaves could be making the soil acidic. A quick spread of lime, seed, fertilizer may give you some good results.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:57 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your neighbor to the left seems to have a portion of their lawn under the tree and the lawn seems to be growing well, ask them what they do.
posted by vapidave at 4:21 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

The tree is not the problem. Look at the property lines at the left and right in the photos - I'm sure the tree's shade doesn't run in a perfectly straight line, and there's nothing patchy about the neighbors' grass. (BTW, from the shape of the tree, it looks like an elm - whether American or Siberian, I can't tell).
posted by caryatid at 4:38 PM on September 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

> Make sure you have renters insurance in case that tree drops a big limb and wrecks your stuff.

Off-topic note: an oak dropped a limb that totaled our car, and insurance refused to cover it on the basis of it being an act of nature, so if you take quince's advice check the small print before signing.

Cutting back the tree could reduce limb-dropping danger and make it easier to grow whatever.
posted by anadem at 4:54 PM on September 1, 2014

No need to be pessimistic here! There are a ton of plants that desire both shade and acidic soil. However, the tree is also likely consuming a lot of the moisture in the soil, and in fact you may not have much soil to work with because of a lot of tree roots.

I have a book called "Right Plant, Right Place" that can help you -- it has chapters like "plants tolerant of dry shade" and "plants suitable for heavy clay soils". I recommend looking for it in a library, but I think it's nice to own too.

Here's what I'd do (but I really enjoy gardening, and feel that some investment is worth it if it makes the environment nicer for other people):

1 - Mulch will look great and hold moisture. You can incorporate it into the soil if you choose to plant some shrubs. Go buy enough shredded hardwood mulch to cover the entire area and do it. It will take an afternoon or a morning (morning's better) and you'll have fun and get absolutely filthy. This is a good first step because the yard will look instantly better and you'll feel motivated to try other things.

2 - Pick one or two areas without much root interference (test with a shovel). These can be for small ornamental plantings. Turn the soil over fairly deeply - enough so that the plants you install will have some . This has a bonus workout effect. Again, do it in the morning so you'll have fun and be able to shower afterward.

3 - I'd make one of the planting areas between the mailbox and the driveway, since you can see it from that nice screened-in porch. It will make your life very nice. You'll also get practice for your next house.

4 - Maybe plant a large specimen plant, like a hydrangea or a peony (if you can get enough root space), on the other side of the front area. This will balance the yard and look wonderful.

5 - If you really want a grassy/green area, you should be able to do it, but I'd recommend avoiding this for several reasons:

- you'll have to mow it, and you'll probably have to water it. Do you already have a lawn mower? No need to purchase this if there's no grass;

- look into the environmental impact of lawns. It's really not the best solution;

- you'll probably have to amend the soil and/or aerate it to even establish grass. It will be a huge pain and won't be nearly as lovely as your one specimen plant and all that lovely mulch.

The mulch will yield in time, but you can also experiment with establishing things like a small area with rocks and ferns, or mosses, or a lot of other acid-loving shade-loving plants.

You have a great opportunity to make a very pleasant space here, without spending a ton of money; one where you can picnic in summer without boiling in the sun, one where you can admire beauty that other yards miss.
posted by amtho at 4:58 PM on September 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

A rental? Abandon your lawn dreams in favor of a walking meditation labyrinth.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:05 PM on September 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've heard that mint will grow just about anywhere, and it smells very nice! I will say we are fighting it tooth and nail in our yard. Possibly try some of that if you don't want to invest in grass seed.
posted by fyrebelley at 9:54 PM on September 1, 2014

If you have access to a pick up, a couple of cubic yards of mulch ( two yards mulch ~ 1400 lbs ) might do wonders, and a yard or two of dirt ( ~2,000 lbs ) might help too.

Dirt and mulch by the yard is inexpensive, dirt about $16 and mulch starts around $18.

Fwiw; I put about $200 worth of mulch and dirt onto my (previously semi-barren and sandy) yard; and it looks like a crew rolled in and I spent thousands. Just by dumping a bunch of dirt, and mulch.

Mulch does consume a lot of nitrogen fwiw.
posted by buzzman at 10:50 PM on September 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This post is your friend: "Organic Lawn Care For the Cheap and Lazy"
posted by hamandcheese at 2:30 PM on September 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

OMG, do NOT grow mint unless you put in barriers to keep it from spreading off the property. Your landlord's neighbors will come after you with pitchforks. Your landlord might not be too happy about it either.

Easy way to get free organic mulch: find a tree-trimming or removal crew and ask if you can have the chipped wood when they're done. Have them dump it on your front yard. You'll save them a trip to the dump, where likely as not they'd have to pay to get rid of it.
posted by caryatid at 2:38 PM on September 2, 2014

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