Cheap Backyard Improvements
July 1, 2017 11:43 AM   Subscribe

We bought a house! (Yay!) The house has a big backyard! (Yay!) The backyard is just a field of dirt! (Boo!) What are some cheap (and preferably easy) ways for us to make it pretty?

Here's the backyard. Those white circle areas on the ground are tree stumps. There's more yard than you can see in this picture, but it's more of the same--other than a shed and a small patio off to one side, there's nothing but a bunch of hard-packed dirt.

What with having just bought a house, we don't have a bunch of money for landscaping. We have big plans for the yard (a wood-burning pizza oven! A garden! A xeriscape!), but all of that will have to be much further down the line. Right now, we just want to make the backyard a little more palatable to look at and inhabit.

A few caveats:
--We have two dogs. We'd especially like to do something to make the backyard a better space for them.
--We live in Phoenix. It is very hot. Whatever we put in the backyard has to be heat-friendly.

Any ideas?
posted by meese to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Take inspiration from old Mexican courtyards—huge ceramic pots with dwarf trees and big bushes indigenous to the area; shade from market tents, get several so you have more than one shaded area. Beaten earth is the most eco-friendly landscape in hot areas. Look to desert dwellers for ideas.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:55 AM on July 1, 2017 [9 favorites]

Go with native plants. You might be able to get cuttings from neighbors or friends to keep costs down, and they will keep yard costs down in terms of maintenence and water.
posted by vignettist at 12:14 PM on July 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure if this is climate-specific (I live in the Pacific Northwest which is your opposite), but what worked for us was getting a truckload of free chips from an arborist and spreading them everywhere.

I'd recommend leaving the stumps as they provide nutrients for the soil and whatever you plant will grow better for years where they're decomposing.

popup tent or tarp + rope for some temporary shade
posted by aniola at 12:20 PM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes! Definitely start growing native cuttings.
posted by aniola at 12:20 PM on July 1, 2017

You need some mesquite or other desert dwelling trees that create a canopy of shade and Salt River Project (SRP) has a free tree program. Also consider the use of sails to create more shade - I believe they're less expensive than traditional patio structures and they are becoming increasingly popular in the Phoenix area (I live here too!). Also, while I think you're block wall looks great, you could paint a mural that gives the feeling of coolness or paint the wall a lighter color.
posted by kbar1 at 12:30 PM on July 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

I am not familiar with gardening in the Phoenix area, but, generally speaking, gardening in areas that have been packed down by big building machines is a pain. So you may want to look into amending your dirt/soil before you start installing and planting. Given how costly landscaping can be, it may be worth while your while to pay for a landscape design that you can build out on your own incrementally.

But, yo, you definitely need some desert trees in there!
posted by stowaway at 12:42 PM on July 1, 2017

That is a very large yard. I would start by defining a smaller area that you can begin with so that you will have something to enjoy now. Consider the basics: seats, shelter from the sun, and some potted plants for now. There are a lot of fun kinds of cactus. Once you have the basics, you can begin thinking about a larger/master plan and add more each season or year as you can afford.

Good luck, congratulations, and enjoy!
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 1:19 PM on July 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Oh - and for the dogs, something like this would be nice to have in the shade, depending on their size.
posted by KleenexMakesaVeryGoodHat at 1:24 PM on July 1, 2017

Wow, that is such a great space! Congratulations! I came in to suggest faux bois concrete. I generally don't like concrete, but it can be stamped to look like any kind of wood that matches your space. Our relatives had this done for a good price. A quick Google search says it's $10-$15 per square foot, on average. It looks incredibly realistic - just like wood - and is easy to maintain.

Nthing the suggestions above - finding cuttings and plants native to your space. I'd go for succulents and look on Craigslist for larger plants that people are looking to sell.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:27 PM on July 1, 2017

Also - there are some great DIY ideas on Pinterest for sun shades, sails, and canopies. Not sure what your style is, but there seems to be something for everyone there.
posted by onecircleaday at 1:44 PM on July 1, 2017

If you want trees down the road, make that your first priority. Starting to establish trees and getting them growing will immediately create a sense of place, give you shade, and will create privacy and block views if needed. I would consult with a landscape designer about placement and type of trees for your area with your needs in mind.

Trees then become the anchor that everything else in your yard can start to form around later on, and they make a big return for the initial investment, they are definitely worth splashing out for early on.
posted by nanook at 2:11 PM on July 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

Despite being an arid area, I'd avoid planting any cactus. They're fine to look at but not fun to accidentally brush against. We planted cacti but took them out a couple of years later after one too many jabs.
posted by anadem at 4:22 PM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

In the interest of keeping the yard enjoyable for all, I recommend that you fence off a little area and train the dogs to poop only in that part of the yard. Doing it from the start should be much easier than letting them go wherever and then trying to train them out of that later.

After that, I think shade of some sort should be your first priority.
posted by ktkt at 5:19 PM on July 1, 2017 [5 favorites]

Many dogs will dig and ruin anything you plant. Consider a fenced area for the dogs. Think about a very general theme for the area. A pergola can look sort of Japanese. Garden sails can be very freeform and colorful. You and the dogs need shade. I'd choose a color scheme and do very abstract color block painting on the walls, light colors to reduce heat absorption. Shade and some chairs are 1st priority.

It's worthwhile to go to lots of garden centers and home tours to get some inspiration. If you come up with a very general plan now, it will help. Sometimes people just buy lots of little things for a space and it doesn't look great.
posted by theora55 at 6:10 PM on July 1, 2017

Plan out your fantasy yard. In detail. Then take a small area, maybe closest to the house, and build that section. It may be just a seating area with shade and one tree. That way it will be your starter yard, and you can slowly expand out whenever you are ready.
posted by Vaike at 6:27 PM on July 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Walk around and look at all the yards and parks and wild-ish areas near you, and figure out what you like and what takes enormous maintenance and trucked-in soil and constant watering. Be very careful about looking at magazines and Pinterest that isn't by and for hot-arid gardeners; there's a lot of stuff showing off gardens that might as well have been airlifted in from someplace wetter.

I know someone in Santa Fe developing a waffle garden; instead of raised beds (suitable for cool damp climates) they have sunken beds. They hack out a few square holes every wet season and fill them with, I think, cardboard, and tuck all the kitchen scraps and anything they can compost underneath. Eventually there's soil soft enough to plant veggies or flowers into, and the waffle hole holds the drip-water and the hot dry wind mostly goes across the surface, leaving the waffle hole alone. The ridges between waffles are where you walk (they add any pretty rocks they find). Also they have a lot of low adobe walls and garden on the shady sides.
posted by clew at 7:17 PM on July 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another vote for trees first. Plan where to put them and get them established now. I'd also get started on dealing with the stumps by grinding them out or using products that accelerate decay.
posted by quince at 12:03 AM on July 2, 2017

You've got a blank slate! Does your neighborhood get flood irrigation (obviously the previous owners didn't!)? If you can get on irrigation it will be great for plants. If you don't get flood irrigation, you might look into a drip irrigation system.

Citrus grows well in the valley. If you want a large shade tree, pecans grow well too. Other small to medium sized trees that will grow well are pomegranate and fig. Date or fan palms. Most vegetables do well, although some, like tomatoes will stop producing in the summer and some will need shade. You have a nice long season for melons and such, and can overwinter some vegetables and herbs that Northerners consider annuals. Rosemary is often used as a ground cover.

The dogs might like some grass in their fenced area.

Resources that might help: Sunset Western Garden Book, Weedless Gardening by Lee Reich, and the Maricopa County Master Gardeners.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:43 AM on July 2, 2017

Apparently you don't use chips in desert areas.
posted by aniola at 5:11 PM on July 2, 2017

Really fast, before the trees grow, and maybe before you decide where you want what trees: put in big sub-irrigated (sometimes called self-watering) planters and vines to make shade walls. I have a lot of fun with scarlet runner beans going 25' high on telescoping portable flagpoles, the hummingbirds duel up and down them.
posted by clew at 11:30 AM on July 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

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