Help Us With Our Backyard!
June 15, 2018 7:24 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I have a backyard for the first time and we want to make it a bit prettier without spending much money. We do not know a single thing about gardening or, like, land use? Questions and pictures inside!

The backyard is terraced so the first level is a patio, the top level is grass (aspirationally), and the middle is kind of sloped and covered with landscaping fabric which I hate, mulch, and weeds. We want to make changes to the middle part. The backyard is behind the house which faces south and there are trees around so it doesn't get much sunlight. We live in Maryland right by Washington DC. The dirt is kind of clayish kind of soilish.

Overview of the yard
The middle section we want to modify
Left of the stairs
Right of the stairs

Our priorities are:
-Not spending a lot of money
-We don't mind doing some upfront work but we'd like it to be low maintenance
-Low skill level
-Prettier than this, ideally some colorful flowers or something
-Still accessible for a kid to play in and climb around on

What I'd LIKE to do is pull up the landscape fabric, pull up the weeds, replace it all with mulch, and plant a row of marigolds (they're cheap but colorful, right?) along each side of the steps. I have some questions about this:

1) If I pull up the landscaping fabric and weeds will all the dirt wash down onto the patio? This is probably worst-case scenario. If I put mulch will that hold all the dirt in place?

2) Will marigolds grow okay in these circumstances? Is there something better (cheaper, prettier, hardier) that I should use?

3) If I go with this plan any tips on how to execute it as cheaply and easily as possible? Good sources for mulch? Will I need anything besides some gloves and a trowel?

4) Any other potential problems I'm not considering?

5) Is there anything I should think about that might be better?

Thank you for your help and of course I am happy to answer any questions you have!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
For cheap and filling, ferns would be great! I think adding some flat stepping stones set into the little hill here and there would be fun for a kid and make it easier to get inside the fern zone once they are established. Maybe pick the sunniest spot and create a flat area for a pot which you can fill with annuals short and tall and don’t forget an adjacent stone for standing and tending the pot (watering, swapping plants, weeding). There are so many cool ferns that don’t mind darker conditions and sword ferns are very cheap and grow fast. A mix of planted in the ground and colorful pots along the steps would be lovely.
posted by amanda at 7:32 AM on June 15, 2018

You need some kind of garden folly at the back. Uncommon Goods has this ridiculous Ostrich planter that I think is actually on this side of intriguing and not too campy. It might be too chilly for a hammock back there but not if you have colorful pillows and quilts. The ferns would give it an added “hideaway” mystique.

If the fences get any sun, having a climbing, flowering vine would be lovely.
posted by amanda at 7:36 AM on June 15, 2018

I think you need to consider that if you're just doing mulch as opposed to mulch+landscaping fabric the weeds are going to be brutal. If you're not planting anything besides a row of annuals then I would suggest just covering the landscaping fabric with fresh mulch and calling it a day, it'll be much easier maintenance.

What I would do, but it would cost a little money, is to plant spreading perennials in those beds. Make sure to select varieties that spread by rhizome (like some ferns or groundcovers). Mulch while they establish but grown plants planted densely enough do a good job shading out weeds themselves.
posted by lydhre at 7:39 AM on June 15, 2018 [14 favorites]

Yeah, I mean, the landscaping cloth junk is already there; it's not like you did it, and if you toss it, it'll end up in a pilot whale, so might as well let it decay in place, mulch harder over it, and then gradually punch through it/remove it in small sections to plant flowers and such. You could do islands in the mulch or you could start at the borders and work inwards or both, gradually getting rid of it season by season. I might start with ivy or whatever cascading lovely to obscure the targetbrick things.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:57 AM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Gardening is local. A local garden center may be a good resource, and your Cooperative Extension office will be a great resource.

The grass at the top looks fine. Mow as needed. The middle sloped section needs the attention. You need a short-term and long-term plan.

Yes, if you pull up the fabric, erosion will happen. Marigolds are easy and grow fast, so great for your short term plan, but filling in that whole area with marigolds is unlikely to hold the soil. Nasturtiums are an annual and grow easily and quickly from seed. You could plant them along the walls, they will drape over.

You could plant some perennials. Maybe lilac, hydrangea, forsythia, rhododendron and other flowering shrubs along the sides. Hostas do fine in medium shade and will fill in over time. Daylilies are really hardy. If you can get the non-hybrid wild ones, they'll multiply to fill in an area pretty quickly. Peonies are gorgeous; you can buy roots pretty cheaply, they do okay but will take a couple year to bloom. Worth it to me. I love irises - Dutch and Siberian.

Slice the landscape fabric to put in plant; this will help keep the soil in place., Buy Nothing groups, and fundraiser plant sales are great places to buy plants. I got a truckload of daylilies at the end of the day at a plant sale at half price because they didn't want to have to take them back. You can get bulbs from catalogs; just read carefully, some catalogs don't discuss the details adequately.

Food is fun to grow, especially with kids. You could plant asparagus, which grows into a wispy fern after harvesting in spring. Strawberries along the tops of the walls. Sage is a perennial, and in DC, rosemary might do well, though it likes sun. I grow parsley and cilantro every year; it's fun to just ship some while grilling. Mint of most types is perennial, grows and spreads, same with chives.

If I had that garden, I would put in an apple tree. Don't let Baby Pterodactyl climb it until it's a lot bigger. They're pretty, flowering in the spring, then you get apples, then it's pretty and sculptural in winter. Fruit trees should be pruned assertively - they will be healthier and look better. Or, I would plant a Japanese maple because I love them. They don't get very big. You could do a Japanese garden quite well, if that appeals to you.

I'd put a climbing structure or play set up at the top if/ when Little Pterodactyl is interested. All of my recommendations require money and effort, but perennials really pay off.
posted by theora55 at 8:18 AM on June 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Yes, the landscape fabric's main purpose it to keep the weeds away. Leave it in place. Just add to the top of it.

Yes, you can do marigolds or any colorful annual along the steps. Those won't survive the winter, so you'll need to plant them again next year. The nice thing is that they provide color all summer (just keep dead-heading them). You can plant geraniums too, if you like those. Geraniums can be taken inside in the winter and replanted in the spring if you want.

For plants, I'd recommend going to a local garden store (not a big-box store), and asking for suggestions. Go at a time when it's not so busy, and you'll have an employee who would love to help you find plants. I'm on the other side of the country, but if that were my yard, I'd plant some larger plants like: hydrangea, rosemary, heavenly bamboo, spirea, azaleas, and maybe some day lilies. Ferns are also great, and when they're happy, they'll spread themselves. (Ours keep multiplying in our yard!)

Cut an X in the landscape cloth and plant those through the cloth. Then mulch, or add some top soil over the cloth. If you start adding top soil on top of the cloth, you might eventually have a layer of soil. If you end up with soil, you can easily add in some low-growing spreading plants for a layer of green.
posted by hydra77 at 8:22 AM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

You will need a good wheelbarrow. Moving rocks, dirt, potted plants, and bags of mulch will be hard on you without one. You will need a stout shovel. This may be an opportunity to create or take advantage of good relations with the neighbors. Perhaps they have tools they are willing to lend. They may also have good advice about what grows well in the area. Clean and return tools promptly to maintain good feelings.

Walk around the neighborhood to see what people are growing successfully. Start with small plants, and be patient. Although not as rewarding as planting larger ones, it is cheaper. See if there is an Arbor Day type tree giveaway that occurs in your area.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:28 AM on June 15, 2018

I think you need to rethink what you want. You want an accessible play space for children but you also want flowers. These two things seem incompatible. Even if you went with some sort of ground cover (ivy, myrtle, pachysandra, ferns, etc.) that won't be very attractive as a play area, and the plants will still get trampled (although some will hold up better than others).

I like the idea of having either a perennial garden or a vegetable garden. Although for this year, just to get some good, fast colour, annuals (including marigolds) are probably a good place to start.
posted by sardonyx at 8:29 AM on June 15, 2018

If you know NOTHING st all about gardening, you should know that annuals only live for one year and need to be replanted. Perennials come back on their own every spring. Marigolds are annuals. If you like gardening, they’re great, but in your shoes, I’d plant perennials so I didn’t have to replant every year.
posted by Weeping_angel at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

This looks like a multi-year project to me, so maybe this summer is one where you plant annuals, do soil testing, and plan for next year.

If you really want to take out the landscape cloth, consider turning everything under and adding soil to amend your clay. My stepdad used to start the garden every spring by turning the whole thing (we called him the human roto-tiller). If you are not opposed to mechanical help (he was, Helen and Scott Nearing had a strong effect on him) you can rent a tiller. We composted in order to compensate for our horrible clay and also bought manure every year.

There are things you can plant in fall/winter to enrich your soil, too - I know fava beans add nitrogen, and are often used as winter cover crops in temperate climates.

Take me with a grain of salt, though, I am more of an aspirational than an actual gardener.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

So we just re-landscaped our front flower beds, and it looks like about the same amount of space as yours. We put in native, deer-resistant perennials that will spread (some grassy/fern type plants, some that flower, etc.), and spent about $200. But that's going to last forever, basically, once everything fills in. We are very gardening averse and wanted things that would grow despite our inevitable neglect. I can't state emphatically enough how much I loathe gardening.

If you really, really don't want to do that this year (and it is actually kind of getting late in the season to make much of an impact this year), and all you want to do is go with your stated plan, do yourself a favor and get Preen for the mulch. You will thank me later when you're not spending two hours every morning weeding. If you don't get the Preen, you WILL be weeding. Every day. All summer and fall long. It really sucks.

I heartily suggest investigating native perennials for next summer. Prairie Nursery is a great research source. They're pricier than, say, Home Depot/Lowe's, but a great resource for figuring out what you want/need.
posted by cooker girl at 8:38 AM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

As somebody who really misses gardening in a similar USDA zone with similar soil and now has a little kiddo and wishes she could garden with them, HERE HAVE MY THOUGHTS:

You'll have to replace marigolds each year, because they're annuals. So in that sense, they're not terribly low maintenance.

There are a lot of different perennial groundcovers you could use -- ferns are a possibility, but if it's actually a sunny yard, as would be suggested by the fact that you have decent grass all the way in the back, the ones that will do OK and require little maintenance or watering may not a huge amount of fun for a little kid to play in, especially after a few years, when they really spread and take over. I remember being scared of the fern stands when I was little because they were so big and so dark and scratchy. For other suggestions, see below.

Wood mulch lasts, but is godawful for the soil long-term. In addition, if you buy it at in bags at a big box store, it's sometimes heavily treated with genuinely nasty chemicals, and when I say genuinely nasty, I mean it, as somebody whose father was a chemist for Big Ag. A lot of the mulch is shredded-up box pallets, and the goal there is to keep them from rotting and/or getting too bug infested during the months they're in a shipping container in transit. In additional, a lot of mulch is treated for color, because people love the deep brown color of new mulch. Plus, that shit'll slide around, as seen on the photo.

Consequently, if you have the money for once nice thing, I'd strongly suggest using leaf mulch instead -- call around to some landscaping, ask them how much it would take to cover an area that is X by X feet two to three inches deep, and then get a pile of it delivered next spring (see below). My parents got enough delivered to keep two 10 x 10 garden beds looking good for two years for $100.

A properly constructed retaining wall will keep the soil off the patio. However, based on squinting at the bricks and whatever, I have doubts about that retaining wall being properly constructed -- like, how closely are the bricks together? Are they held together by mortar?

The cheapest and lowest work option is to let it wait until next spring, rip off the landscape fabric and mulch, add any leaf mulch you decide to buy, and then sow with a wildflower mix. Not all wildflower seed mixes are created equal -- the wildflower seed mix you get at big box stores tends to be older and contain a much lower proportion of Pure Live Seed that will actually germinate. I'd strongly suggest getting seed from a reputable online seller, like this and this, which are actual mid-Atlantic native wildflower seed mixes that will grow as opposed to be generically ""native"", as if the entirety of North America was a single biome.

However, wildflower mixes won't last from year to year, tend to kinda fade at weed control once the summer gets going, and you may have to do a partial re-sow every year. Consequently, I'd suggest at least some tough perennials, which cost a little more up front, but will give you years of enjoyment. A big box store will give you a lot of options, but if you have a car and want cheaper/higher quality plants/more native plants, your cheapest option probably ordering a tray of plugs from a place like this and arrange to pick it up.

As to actual things to order -- Allegheny spurge will be super-low maintenance ground cover, fill in spaces, be native, and not the terrible invasive thing you may remember if you had a 90's suburban childhood. If you get strong sun, milkweed is tough as nails and hosts monarch butterflies. Echinacea will give you weeks of blooming (and possibly some cosmetic issues with thrips, but if you let them set seed, the birds love it), and their cousins coneflowers are similar. Bonus is that all of the plants I linked will thrive on neglect in your soil.

And finally, on the kiddo front -- if you get good sun, you can grow sunflowers which are usually a big hit, because kids can play among the stems and pretend it's a house or a cave or you're exploring in a forest. At the other end of sunflowers, these are super-tiny and sturdy and will make kids feel like like part of the garden is sized for them. You can also help the kid plant these and watch them grow and have it be "their" part of the yard. As suggested elsewhere in the thread, putting in little stepping stones so they can play among the plants is an A+++ idea.
posted by joyceanmachine at 8:42 AM on June 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Agree that this is a multi-year project. I'm four years into a new house, an aspirational gardener with some kind of genetic black thumb of death. I'm trying hard and learning as I go. Also I'm in NJ so our soil/climate are similar.

Shorm term:
- I would leave the landscaping fabric and re-up the mulch. In some spots in my yard I use rubber mulch which is more permanent (more expensive as well) . All mulch with kids involved will require some weekly sweeping because it gets a bit scattered. Ideal depth is 2-4". More than that and water won't reach the plants properly. Call the township about the mulch - some do a program where they create mulch from downed limbs and give it to residents for free.

- Read the tag of any plant you buy. It will tell you how far down the roots need to go, how far apart from other plants, etc. You may find it helpful to sketch out a rough garden plan with measurements. Plenty of times I bought not enough or too many plants and the spacing was all jacked.

- Start with just a few plants, see how they do, and then expand or change plans next season. I would start with a few hardy perennials. Hostas, which have beautiful green leaves all year, love the shade, some varieties flower for part of the season, also multiply like crazy, and when they get big enough you can cut some of the root off and replant elsewhere. Creeping phlox is a ground cover that flowers in the early spring and spread fast in my yard.

- If it looks too bare, try containers of whatever is seasonal. I have big colorful pots with seasonal flowers that I can move around the yard or swap out if something dies. Check your local yardsale sites, you can get a bunch of beautiful pots cheap. If the pot is huge you can stuff large broken bits styrofoam on the bottom before you fill up the soil so the pot is lighter, but does not impede plant growth.

- For next year, spring bulbs are cheap and the kids will love the colors popping up early: crocus, daffodil, tulip, hyacinth. They are also perennial, so they'll come up each year. Bonus: after they bloom and the flowers die, you can cut them down, dig them up and move them.

Long term:
- I think of my spaces as needing three levels of plant height: ground cover, mid height, and tall. Then think about when in the season they will bloom. Visit your garden center often and just browse, you'll start to become familiar with things and get a better idea of what you want to try. I am told Lowe's has a one year plant guarantee on perennials, if that helps at all.

- You will discover weird stuff about your yard, like one part that gets flooded when it rains, or gets too much sun or not enough. You may also fight critters - I found out that slugs will eat my hostas, and squirrels will dig up and move my spring bulbs. (Hello weird solo tulip in the middle of the yard).

- You will discover weird stuff about your kid in your yard. The other day my daughter(age 4) ate a bunch of tomato leaves off the plant, because she saw me pick a mint leaf and put it in my mouth.

So let your garden grow with you so it becomes a joy and not a chore. Good luck!
posted by jennypower at 9:08 AM on June 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

What we really found useful was getting a proper landscaping company (shoutout to Love & Carrots!) to come in and give us a professional assessment of our yard along with a couple of proposals on what was possible with our desires, budget, skills, and time. This also meant we now had professionals we could call on if we had questions, and since they also work on several of our neighbors' gardens, they're happy to stop by for quick consults if they're in the area.
posted by evoque at 9:39 AM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

For this year, I would garden on one side of the steps with an assortment of some perennials that you will add to/ that will expand over the years and some more affordable annuals. And make the other side a child play area with whatever s/he is most likely to enjoy (a slide, small playhouse, sand and water table, etc.). You can dig into it to level equipment as needed. This will allow you to enjoy the patio and not clutter it with kid stuff, while keeping a toddler close.

Next year you’ll have more time to figure out what works and what doesn’t prior to the growing season.
posted by metasarah at 9:42 AM on June 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

I vote herbs. I am also in Maryland (Frederick) and have similar soil. We have lavender on either side of our front steps - most varieties are perennial here, and ours comes back every year - it's in flower right now (so much so, I need to trim it back). Weeds dare not come up through it. I also have rosemary (Arp and Hill Hardy varieties) in the back yard, thyme that comes up every year (gets a little clover in the mix that I have to weed out) - all of these spread and branch out and require very little maintenance. They're pretty and I use them in cooking, too!
posted by ersatzkat at 9:58 AM on June 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

+1 for herbs. They're generally very easy to propagate (= snip off a piece and grow that piece into another plant) so you could save money by minimizing how much you buy and just multiply them at home. If flowers are your goal, you could focus on the ones that have pretty blooms.

Mint is lowest-maintenance plant I've had, IME even easier to take care of than succulents or airplants (even here in dry Southern California). I also have fond childhood memories of nature hikes where we nibbled on some herbs growing in the woods, which is when I learned what mint is before it gets processed into a flavor...It does need adequate water, which I assume is not a huge problem in MD? Caveat: Mint spreads like crazy and can get invasive; the usual recommendation is to keep them in containers.

+1 for wheelbarrow. I want one to make potting easier.

Soil and fertilizer costs can add up. I use a Worm Inn to make vermicompost at home. (You don't need that exact product for a vermicompost system; the basic idea is you have a container, throw the right species of worms in, and feed it kitchen scraps and garden waste.) It makes crazy-effective "natural" fertilizer/ soil material AND reduces kitchen waste. Yay!
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 2:13 PM on June 15, 2018

Who do you know that has some plants and would be willing to give you some of them? The cheapest way to go is to find them wild and to get them as gifts from people who grow them. There are a number of plants that after a few years have to be divided or they will die, but otherwise just keep on growing. An example of this is hostas. So talk plants and gardens - begin by just asking questions - to everyone you know in your area. And if they have a garden and have plants they might be able to give you some mint, or some rhubarb or whatever. Getting plants this way has a big advantage over buying them, because large chain stores often sell plants that won't survive, either because the climate is wrong, or because they are annuals.

Kids trample plants. If you want the area to be a play area for kids, and an area for plants you need to either put in playground turf grass seed and keep the kid off it until it has grown, or make it very clear what areas can be stepped on and which can't. I wouldn't advise the grass. It will need to be mown and may very well not be able to live in whatever is under that mulch.

So look for free materials that you can use to create plant areas and non plant areas. Is there a beach nearby where you can get fifty pounds of nice looking small rocks and use them to edge a narrow flower bed beside the fence? A few bricks? Can you get some plastic garden edging from the dollar store? Can you use parts of an old pallet that you find and salvage? You will likely want to put the plants nearer to the fence in order to allow the kid galloping and spinning and leaping room, but you can also have a few large planting spots nearer to the middle if they are obvious hard to miss and have a border that will protect the plant of a leaping kid gets too close and still leave the young person with room to move.

Replenish the mulch in the areas where you are not going to plant. First roll back the weed cloth beside the fence and check the soil out beneath. It might be completely contaminated with oil from when someone parked a car on it, and not capable of supporting plants. If the soil is good fold the weed cloth back and put in your narrow flower beds. You can also Cut the weed cloth and make rings of stone, or frames of scrap salvaged lumber and put plants in small plots like this.

If you can get a bunch of containers and fill them with earth you can have a nice row of plants in pots, that are relatively likely to survive the sneakers of kids. If you have a winter these plants that won't survive can be moved indoors. If you get herbs then you have a productive garden, not just a pretty one. People often use whimsical containers, such as old rubber boots. I have used rectangular plastic buckets that cat sand came in, which, when I checked, were a food grade food safe plastic. They weren't very pretty but they were very practical.You could put say six of these together filled with earth and then surround them in a wooden frame from old scrap wood planks that hides the plastic buckets.

Don't get your tools at the dollar store until you know how to tell if a tool will break or not. Most dollar store tools will snap at some point after a few minutes light use. Some will last very well.

Many indoor plants can be put outdoors and will even thrive. English ivy, for example might go very nicely against a section of the fence. Someone might be willing to donate you part of their houseplant to keep from needing to repot it into a larger pot.

Go browse your local decent garden centre - not a chain, but a locally owned and operated one. They will have plants that work for your climate. Figure out what you like there. You don't have to buy. You can just get ideas. "We could put the purple clematis against the fence so it will grow and then put a row of white and purple pansies in front of it..."

Consider though, if you have anything that will use the fence for support you will not be able to repair or paint the fence without tearing the plant off and possibly killing it. Repairs and upgrades might need to be done first.

Do this in very slow increments. The slower you do it the more likely you will be to stay within the bounds of success and within your budget. You don't want to shell out a bunch of money for plants and discover that your yard doesn't get enough sun. So consider doing a one plant or one thing a week project over the entire summer.

If there is any sun in your house plan on starting plants inside for the yard late in the winter or early in the spring. That is the cheapest way to obtain marigolds.

The cheapest fun kid area is generally a tent made of an old sheet, a couple of lengths of wood and some sturdy cord, attached to the fence. Alternatively to an old sheet you can try a dollarstore tarp or second had sturdy shower curtain. This will be water proof. Be careful what wood you use in the garden for any and all structures - it must be safe to be around the kid. That means no green wood that has been treated with arsenic, and no splinters or nails.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:17 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Even if you don't go full-on herbal splendor (as most herbs enjoy a lot of sun and non-clay soil), a few lavender shrubs are nice, perennial, container-friendly, and dry nicely for sachets and wreaths. They'll also perfume a playing Kid Pterodactyl something wonderful.

Lavender plants aren't always purple, if that color is a drawback; there are also white, pink, and blue varieties.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:10 PM on June 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

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