I bought a house! Now please help me take care of the landscaping...
May 24, 2019 7:44 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are closing next month on our first house! We're super excited and totally love the place. One thing we really like about it is the exterior and how beautifully landscaped it is. The couple selling it to us were big landscape hobbyists and did all the work themselves. Now how do I not kill it all?

The house is in the Northeast if that is of importance. It's got a pretty sizeable front yard with a smaller back yard (they use a push mower for everything previously). The grass seems to be in okay but not fantastic shape, I think there's definite room for improvement there. More importantly though, there is a giant cherry tree and a wide assortment of shrubs, perennials, etc. around the perimeter of the house that I have no idea how to take care of. I'm told the owners are going to provide some instruction on care for everything but I don't want to count on it.

I would ideally like to do it myself, though I've never taken care of all the landscaping before and I'm not sure how realistic it really is for me to do on my own. I was sort of thinking to hire a landscaper to use intermittently so that I could watch and learn a few things from them, but also don't want to blow the money and would rather put it towards some used equipment if I'm better off just doing that.

I presume the basics are water, fertilizer, pest control, and weed control? I don't even know where to get started, nor do I have any equipment more than a snow shovel. Is there any equipment I should for sure buy right off the bat to get started? Any good resources for dummies? Any important lessons that you've learned that I can learn from so that I don't need to learn them myself? My main concern is doing serious harm / killing everything, I'm okay with it not looking pristine so long as things don't take a serious turn for the worse. Thanks!
posted by masters2010 to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In the northeast, for landscaping done by people who know what’s up: most woody shrubs and herbaceous perennials should require almost no supplementary water and almost no supplementary fertilizer, like maybe water during a drought or fertilize every other year or so. Depends a bit on the species. Better to move too slow than too fast. Watch and learn and take notes and do very little the first year. Don’t cut any perennials until they are fully brown.

A hand pruner, a long handled lopper and a weeding fork will go a long way.

Probably the most important thing to do is try to ID as many things you can, and learn the signs of the common invasive/weedy plants for your area.

TLDR Look up your local extension service, read their web resources and then call them or email them or drop by. There are literal professionals who are paid to help you with this at no direct cost to you, who are usually severely under-utilized and more than happy to help.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:56 PM on May 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I’m in the same boat, with a half acre lot full of shrubs and flowers I know nothing about. We’re coming up on a year in the house, so this was our first spring here - and I will tell you, I’m shocked at how easy it is not to kill things. Plants love to be outside, I guess, and people who are into landscaping know which things to plant that will do well in their area. We’ve done nothing except trim things back (and in some cases even rip things out, because the previous owner was truly nuts about flowers) the yard is absolutely gorgeous. It’s been much easier than I thought it would be. Don’t stress! You won’t kill anything.
posted by something something at 8:06 PM on May 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

Your idea to have a landscaper to learn from is solid. I wish I’d done that when we bought our house five years ago... I’ve been doing it all myself, learning as I go, with mixed results, and your yard sounds more complicated than mine.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:09 PM on May 24, 2019

Tell these people you are buying from, you are.very interested in their instructions. Ask them for a map of sorts that shows where the perennials come up, how often to water, what special care do things need to stay beautiful. Especially find out about your perennial flowers, when they bloom, where they are. Ask to see pictures so you know what you get. If they are hobbyists they will be happy to share.
posted by Oyéah at 8:15 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, also, on the topic of equipment, I have several trees to prune and a giant laurel hedge, so I bought a pro-level Stihl combimotor with a attachments for hedge trimmer, pole chainsaw, blower, weed eater. It was expensive, but it’s so much better than the assortment of dinky tools it replaced.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:16 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yeah, hiring someone, with the understanding that you want to learn to manage this yourself, can be really helpful. They’ll have tools and techniques and knowledge you simply can’t have at this point. Also, you’ll save money in the long term because you’ll learn how to manage it yourself before it gets too far gone.

Also, I strongly suggest taking photos of how it all looks now and maybe after each time a professional comes. It’ll help remind you next year (or whenever you take it on yourself), when it’s starting to grow in/grow over, of how you want it to look.

I’ve longed lived in houses with yards and/or gardens. While traveling for several months, we hired a regular lawn service. I kept it up after my return, and what they are doing looks a lot better than what I could do, and it’s not super expensive.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:17 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

The people you're buying from have invested a lot of time and energy in making the landscaping beautiful, and might be amenable to the idea of spending a couple of hours with you to take you through the specifics of your particular yard. Have your realtor discuss with their realtor. You might sweeten the deal by offering to pay them a consultation fee for their time. Take extensive notes, take lots of photos, and then you'll be in a good position to find a good gardener/landscaper to help you maintain it.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 8:28 PM on May 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm a landscape architect in NZ.Some of my work is what I could only call 'garden coaching', I know a few other people here who do it - I would imagine it's reasonably common in PNW, a plant knowledgeable landscape architect or landscape gardener for a couple of hours a month is what you need to ask for - some won't do it without holding their noses but some will welcome the chance to show you how to understand and physically care for your land.
posted by unearthed at 12:14 AM on May 25, 2019

Don’t make any major changes in the first year. Watch your backyard go through all four seasons. Google your state or city’s name and “gardening classes.” There are often adult education classes (often through your local extension office), things that meet once a month or just a weekend. Talking to a knowledgeable person is going to be more helpful than books at this point. It might be helpful though to look for a book along the lines of “gardening through the year in New England.” Something like that will help give you some ideas about what garden tasks you should be doing when, and will help you avoid that, “Oh crap, we were supposed to find a tree trimmer for the apple tree 3 months ago, so I guess we have to wait until next year” moments.

A large part of growing things well is just paying attention to them. Carve out 10-15 minutes of your day to walk around your backyard and look at your plants. That way, you will start noticing which ones are growing well and which ones are struggling and need some help. It will also help you get a sense of the light in your backyard, what the soil is like, and how long the soil stays wet after a rain. Those things will help you decide what to do if/when you decide to replace certain plants with other ones.

Finally, I think it helps to think about gardening as one big ongoing experiment, rather than something you have one chance at succeeding or failing at. If you garden for long enough, some of your plants are going to die (either through unavoidable circumstances or because you kill them by accident). But spring comes every year.
posted by colfax at 1:36 AM on May 25, 2019 [3 favorites]

Google around for your local master gardener group. They will generally have a table at a farmers market or something, where you can ask questions and bring a plant to ask the classic “weed or flower” question. They will also run classes, sometimes through the local community college or university extension.

Other resources- you can generally take gardening classes though most options for adult education(community college, school district, other options). These classes are also ways to meet other gardeners.
posted by rockindata at 4:39 AM on May 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nthing the Master Gardener and county extension office. I took the Master Gardener course many years ago, and the woody plant specialist was extremely knowledgable. At the time, the course was free, but it was held on a weekday, for 10 weeks in a row, so that might not be feasible for you if you work full time. However, they are there to help, so make sure to contact them as a resource for learning about your yard.

I had trimmed my lilac tree at the wrong time of year, and unknowingly cut the buds off for next year's blooms. When I discovered my mistake, that's when I contacted them and ended up signing up for the class, because my job at the time was freelance, so I had the flexibility.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:07 AM on May 25, 2019

For the first year, probably all you really need to do is weed (by hand). If anything doesn't look the way you want it to, figure out what the plant is and then research what to do about it. You don't need to try to do everything at once!

The only equipment you need to start with is a lawnmower (I recommend electric; quieter, cleaner, less maintenance; Ryobi are easy to find) and some pruning shears (Fiskars are cheap and will do the job unless you decide you want an upgrade down the road). You might want a weedwacker (but I've never had one so you can live without it).
posted by metasarah at 5:07 AM on May 25, 2019

I've been through this -- overgrowth is a bigger problem than killing things. Try to develop a habit of going around looking at the beds and pulling weeds/noticing problems every few days - that's the #1 thing, it's free and enviro-friendly, just requires low-level persistent attention. It will take some experience to distinguish weeds from your perennials.

Definitely do a walkaround with the sellers, bring your camera and a notepad and at a bare minimum write down all the plant names, draw yourself a simple diagram of what's where, so you can look stuff up by name later.

I'd suggest hiring that landscaper, establish a relationship with them and then if things start to get out of hand, you can call them in to come re-set your baseline.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2019

We bought a jungle. We haven't killed all of it in 6 years, but we have found that the amount of time the prior owners invested to take care of it all is far more than we have with our kids. Growing up, both my wife and I weeded a ton. We really haven't been able to do so here to the degree that being surrounded by flower beds, shrubs, and very unique trees would actually require. That doesn't mean that we are killing things, or that stuff is overgrown totally...

We just pick our battles. Slowly, as the financials allow it, we are redoing parts of the yard to be something that we can manage. That means:
1. In the first year we pulled the flower beds down off the wall of the house in order to replace the basement windows. (land should not be heaped up and over your windows). We pulled out all the plants along the side - deep enough to remove bulbs and everything possible, laid landscape fabric, planted 3 shrubs and filled the rest in with white stone to improve drainage.
2. In the first year we also pulled out the rusty iron fence used to surround two 8x4 gardens. We did a combination of plant removal and selective transplanting to consolidate it into something manageable.
3. In the Second year we put a play structure up for our kids and started to figure out where to plant some herbs.
4. In the third year we expanded the amount of landscaping done on the immediate side of the house, pulled out a half rotten purple hyacinth which had squirrels living in its root system and then chased them repeatedly out of the lavender we planted in its place.
5. In the fourth year, we converted the site of the original garden into raised beds for our herb garden.
6. We also pulled out a huge chunk of one of the flower beds, reshaped the ground cover by the pool. (Don't think the pool is an amazing pool... it is from 1972 and we can't replace the liner - when it goes - it has to go)
5. This last year we've replanted about a third of the lawn in the early spring. At late fall, we'll replace the rest of the back yard - which will include refactoring the landscape back there, killing a host of things in the flower beds and terracing portions of it.
6. Next year we'll start on our white whale - the front yard. I have a massively overgrown flowerbed in the front. It was planted perfectly... First come up the lilies in april then the tulips and a few others in May, and then we'll see the poppies show themselves in June/July. The garden is staged - which makes killing it a sad thing to do, but it is absolutely unmanageable with the weeding.

When we bought the house, some friends of ours let us know that they started with a yard filled with plants. With kids, they killed everything except really big trees within 2 years of owning it. By that standard, we're doing pretty well.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2019

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