Help me turn my unwieldy lawn into a paradise!
February 16, 2018 11:05 AM   Subscribe

We bought a house a couple years ago that has a really nice, fenced-in yard that used to be a really pretty flower garden. But that was some time ago. Now it's overgrown, shady or partially shady in most parts, and generally a big mess of unrealized potential. I've taken a couple stabs over the last couple years at dealing with it, but I really don't know what I'm doing. I'm looking at resources or advice suitable for beginners (like, Gardening 101 -- I don't even know how to clean a yard) that will tell me (like I'm 5, as they say) how I can take the back yard and turn it into something nice. (Details inside.)

Extra details: I want to have a smallish vegetable garden in the sunny part, but this year am doing mostly containers.

This question is about taking the un-cared-for but formerly nice plants, grass, soil, etc. and making them shine. I'm agnostic about reviving old plants vs. new ones. Looking for mostly grass ultimately as a nice "hanging out" area.

Extra points for nice things to do in our numerous shady areas. There are big pine trees back there that we're unlikely to cut down soon.

Also: We have dogs and a small child, and don't want anything poisonous. And a lilac tree. Thanks!
posted by supercoollady to Home & Garden (13 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Where do you live?
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:28 AM on February 16, 2018

Response by poster: Portland, ME. Sorry!
posted by supercoollady at 11:55 AM on February 16, 2018

My non-specific thought, since you have a small child... make sure you include/leave at least a few flowers that bloom at different times and that you won't mind your child picking (and possibly bringing to you).
posted by stormyteal at 12:10 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

The season to refresh a lawn is fall. I've never had much luck sowing grass seed in the spring. However, your lawn may be a redo rather than a repair, so there is hope.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:52 PM on February 16, 2018

This question is about taking the un-cared-for but formerly nice plants, grass, soil, etc. and making them shine.

A bit of aeration and turning over of soil will go a long way to bringing formerly nice stuff back. So will a good pruning, but maybe once things are a bit healthier. Get out the hoe!
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:09 PM on February 16, 2018

I've had a house/lawn for a long time and I kinda know what I'm doing, ie, I can identify plants by leaf, I know what's been planted, I know the history of the yard so I know where there are drainage issues, where the sun hits in the winter and where it hits in summer, and I have a very specific vision for what the yard will look like, once everything grows in and I'm done doing whatever work I'm doing.

That all being said, if I were in your shoes, with a big job like yours in front of me, for this year I would hire someone to come in and do the cleanup, and to talk with me about longer term projects like what to do about the lawn. I would also get the trees pruned (you didn't say but I'm guessing it hasn't been done in a while).

Having someone do the work will make the current plants shine as much as possible this year, will save you work that you may later seem to have been unnecessary (or ultimately detrimental to the yard) and in the end will probably save you some money too (vs you randomly buying stuff that you think you need and then you don't).

The pro can then tell you the best way to maintain the yard and what to do going forward.

Becoming a green thumb takes a lot of trial and error and patience and faith. You develop it over time. But I also know that having small kids means you likely don't have the time to throw at this project, and you want to make the most of being outdoors that you can in your climate. So again I say go with a pro.
posted by vignettist at 1:30 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Here's an in-depth Maine-specific lawn revitalisation guide. In a cold climate like yours, spring is a fine time to reseed -- probably in May, once things warm up, though you could start working the soil in April or whenever it's all thawed. You'd need to keep off the reseeded area for several weeks, though, until the grass begins establishing itself, so you'd have to think about making that okay for dogs and kid -- that could mean partitioning off half the yard at a time, doing one side in spring and the other in late summer, or it could mean doing the whole thing at once and leash-walking the dogs for a while.
posted by halation at 1:36 PM on February 16, 2018

I've found YouGrowGirl to be a really approachable resource. Their Beginner Gardening Guide might be a good place to start.
posted by DSime at 1:45 PM on February 16, 2018

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service has several links with a variety of research-based gardening topics, including vegetable gardening and native plants that do well in Maine. Have fun!
posted by strelitzia at 2:16 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Testing your soil for lead is an important thing to do in Portland, ME.
posted by furnace.heart at 4:44 PM on February 16, 2018

If it’s as wild as I think it is, seconding “hire a gardener, if only just this once”. My garden had been also mostly abandoned for several years with a couple aborted stabs taken at fixing it, and I eventually gave up and called a gardener, and what took him 2 1/2 hours would’ve taken me several days. (He had to get the chainsaw out to get rid of a buddleia that was growing entirely in the wrong spot and threatening to smother several rose plants, good grief.)

And then once it’s back to a mostly tame state, then it’s something you can maintain and alter by yourself.
posted by sailoreagle at 5:57 PM on February 16, 2018

The Cooperative Extension Service has Master Gardeners who are a good local resource. I used to garden in Portland and am now in Windham(waves at neighbor).

I recommend starting some perennial plants (probably not from seed) like lily-of-the-valley (smells heavenly in spring, check on toxicity and teach kids not to eat plants), and hosta, which tolerate shade and do well in Maine's short season. Daylilies are easy and once planted, will multiply, esp. if you get the wild kind. The hybrid daylilies at nurseries, like Stella d' Oro, bloom longer but don't spread as much. Peonies will take several years to establish and bloom, so start now; they're really worth it. They need at least 1/2 day of sun. Sage is a perennial and thrives in Maine. It's pretty, too.

I grow nasturtiums, esp. in containers, as they will spill over prettily. Everyone who sees them will inform you that they're edible, which they are, kind of peppery, but they're also pretty and easy to grow from seed. Thyme, basil, and cilantro do well for me in containers, and I love having fresh herbs. I grow cherry tomatoes in big pots, it's great to get home and gobble the warm sweet ripe ones every day, and your small child will like them. Get plants at the farmer's market. Same with peas. Radishes are fun for kids to grow.

Lettuces, spinach, kale, chard all do well in pots. Plant in early spring; they'll be done by mid-summer and you can plant a 2nd set of seeds for late summer and fall salads. Kale is really pretty and does well into cold weather. Once again, I forgot to plant spinach in late fall for an early spring crop.

If you have a sunny patch, you can grow beans and make a tipi for them to climb, making a secret hiding place for a child. Never did this for my son, but will do this for my grandsons.

Urban Farmer is a useful site. We're in zone 5

I have a friend who tends gardens professionally; let me know if you want contact info.

My grown son is here with me, and writing this prompted a fun discussion of his love for vegetables which is at least partly attributable to having them fresh from our garden. We never had cooked peas because he always ate them 1st. Have fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:15 AM on February 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

A couple of weeks ago Ask This Old House had yet another lawn care segment. They do them a lot so there are probably quite a few in addition to that still on the PBS website/app.

The reason I recommend it is just to get a basic idea of what you're in for and more importantly use as a jumping off point for learning more. Watching people do stuff and talk about why they are doing it can be very helpful to that end, at least for me.
posted by wierdo at 9:34 PM on February 18, 2018

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