We bought a dirt yard! Now what?
May 11, 2020 7:21 AM   Subscribe

As above, we just bought a house whose backyard is fully shaded, although the three will come down in the fall. Both the front and back yards are just sun-blasted dirt and construction dust. How do we even get started here?

I should note, 90% of my home owning excitement is in the projects aspects. I love learning stuff and have a weird love for manual labor, so I am excited to bend the earth to my will.

That said, I have no idea what I'm doing! Should I level it first? Do I need to turn over the dirt? How do I do those things?

Looking for great books/youtube channels/resources on yard establishment 101. I have a reasonable number of tools, many tilted towards wood working but I'm generally handy and love a project.
posted by GilloD to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What are you hoping to accomplish?
posted by b1tr0t at 7:39 AM on May 11

This depends so, so much on where you live and what your goals are.

Do you live in a temperate area and want a perfectly manicured grass lawn? Or do you live in the dessert and want hardy dessert-friendly plants lining a stone path to the front door? Do you care about pollinator-friendly plants? Do you want a veggie/herb garden or to put in some fruit trees? Do you want to built your own outdoor kitchen/gazebo/deck? So many options with your blank canvas!
posted by DoubleLune at 7:44 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

You're in LA, yes? The first thing I'd question is taking down a shade tree. Is it diseased? Shade in LA would be a great luxury. Maybe just a good pruning would be more in order?

As for your yard/lawn...LA is a desert. Your best/easiest to maintain/practical approach would be to research a more native landscape. This would mean no lush, green, water-hungry, lawns.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:44 AM on May 11 [18 favorites]

Have facebook? There are some amazing groups with real experts. You will see so much inspiration for just about any type/region of landscaping. There is a California Gardening page, Los Angeles Garden Page, Los Angeles plant swappings, Master Gardener Club from LA, etc. People show off what they have done, ask questions and you can ask, too.

I've learned a lot!
posted by ReluctantViking at 7:54 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Knowing what you want is the first step for sure. Get a ream of graph paper and draw your property; start sketching out ideas. There's no real way to answer your question without much much more information.

There are lots of youtubers out there with pretty regional-specific information on "How to Property." Advice from managing property in Alaska is gonna be different than advice in Florida.

Others have mentioned your regional area, which will directly impact what and how you can do things. In my municipality, you have to replace a tree that is removed (even for disease) with another). And, shade trees are valuable. They don't generally grow fast. A good arborist is worth their cost, because DIY arborist-ing can be highly detrimental to a tree.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:02 AM on May 11

Test the soil. You can get a kit at a home improvement store or send it off to the local extension service or equivalent.

That, plus the amount of sun, slope, and texture of the soil (loose? sandy? clay like?), and amount of moisture will tell you what you should consider planting.

Please, please, please read about xeriscaping. Find the landscape designers doing the most beautiful work in xeriscaping, so you don't end up thinking there's no beauty to be had with it. Please. Please don't install a water-hungry lawn in Los Angeles.
posted by amtho at 8:02 AM on May 11 [6 favorites]

Seconding Thorzdad about the value of trees, plus, you’re already describing the unshaded part as ‘sun-blasted’.

In south CA you can grow a lot in part-sun, especially if you get subirrigated planters so your tender plants aren’t competing with the tree roots.

Also if you expect to run an air conditioner cutting down house shade is deeply wasteful.
posted by clew at 8:09 AM on May 11 [3 favorites]

Calscape is a great resource for choosing native plants for California gardens. The "planting guide" section is a nice succinct how-to overview.
posted by niicholas at 8:24 AM on May 11

(I just discovered I had not updated my profile. I now live in Austin, TX)
posted by GilloD at 8:45 AM on May 11

Look up your state + "agricultural extension service" and contact them about soil testing. Get it tested and find out what nutrients you need to add for whatever it is you want to grow.

It may make sense to have a truckload of aged manure delivered. Rent/borrow a rototiller to loosed up the hard-baked soil first, then spread the aged manure, then run over it again with the rototiller.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:57 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

(Sufficiently aged manure does not smell bad.)
posted by Jacqueline at 9:13 AM on May 11

I would suggest starting with making a vision and your priorities. Write down everything you can imagine doing outside in your yard, like:

-playing croquet on the grass
-reading in a lounge chair with a cold drink
-cooling off in the kiddie pool
-watching the bees and birds visit your flowers
-roasting marshmallows over the outdoor fire pit
-walking outside to pick some fresh vegetables/fruit/herbs for your next meal
-grilling up a feast with a bunch of friends
-cooking in the outdoor pizza oven
-watching the neighborhood from your treehouse
-lifting weights in your outdoor gym

Basically start to think about what you want and where it could happen, because having a blank slate is the best time to imagine and design an amazing long-term plan.
posted by medusa at 9:34 AM on May 11 [5 favorites]

I have no idea what I'm doing!

First step, then, is collecting good ideas.
posted by flabdablet at 9:35 AM on May 11

(I just discovered I had not updated my profile. I now live in Austin, TX)
My recommendations stand.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:52 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

Xeriscaping is still worth investigating.

I'm so excited for you! You're going to have a wonderful experience.
posted by amtho at 10:38 AM on May 11

Take medusa's advice and make a list of the things you'd like to do outside.

Along with xeriscaping I think you'll enjoy reading up and finding out more about permaculture. Its approach is holistic and can be applied to pretty much any size lot (which could be handy to know in any discussion), and there's loads of stuff about it online. I took a class back when it was kind of commercialized but I think it's much more freeform now the "copyright" dust has settled.
posted by anadem at 10:58 AM on May 11 [2 favorites]

You should live there for a year before doing anything irreversible to the yard, but if you lay down 6” or even 12” of un-weedy organic matter and just leave it be you’ll have magically better soil to work with when you do. 6” of rotted manure under 6” of wood chips or clean straw or pine straw - ask your local extension service what’s good where you are. Microfauna will work it in better than a tiller can. Soil structure is worth a lot for water holding, which helps in both deluge and drought.
posted by clew at 11:32 AM on May 11 [4 favorites]

Yes, gardening and landscaping are extremely regional. The University almost certainly has a Cooperative Extension office; they will have lots of information available; there may be Master Gardeners who can advise. I recommend replacing some shade; it helps with AC bills and fossil fuel use and is pleasant. A patio, deck or terrace is a great way to extend your living space; I am cranky that Maine is unseasonably chilly because hanging out on the deck is so nice. It might be fun and nice to grow some food, maybe plan a couple of (raised) beds. For now, take pictures of what plants are there, see if you can get them ID'ed, tidy up any messes, rake, sweep, etc. Even if you can't draw well, sketch out a plan of the space, and note where North & South are, and where there is shade from other properties. In a new landscape, annuals provide quick, satisfying, color while you plan more permanent landscaping. A couple of outdoor chairs and any sort of table will be a nice place to drink coffee in the morning/ beer in the evening, etc.
posted by theora55 at 11:42 AM on May 11

You should go visit local garden centers and look for a knowledgeable sales person to advise you, and it looks like there are some good ones to choose among:

> https://austin.curbed.com/maps/austin-best-gardening-plant-stores

You can also consult the local extension service:

> https://travis-tx.tamu.edu/
posted by amtho at 12:46 PM on May 11

I'm pro-xeriscaping. You might want to look at a book called Building Soil or other books on permaculture to help you turn your blasted soil into something that plants and helpful micro-critter will love.
posted by matildaben at 1:55 PM on May 11

I signed up for ChipDrop a month ago to get arborist-sourced wood chips delivered to my house for free. Haven't gotten them yet, because of the stay at home order (most likely), but it's a good route for getting free mulch (6" of chips should suppress basically all weeds, as clew suggests) and also adding organic matter that will break down over time. I learned about it on a gardening Facebook group, which I see was mentioned earlier. I really hate Facebook groups as a format, but in this case it was informative. You could also take a look at r/landscaping and r/gardening for inspiration. Gardening Reddit has been extremely active during quarantine.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:25 PM on May 11 [1 favorite]

6” of rotted manure under 6” of wood chips or clean straw or pine straw

will certainly yield massive improvement in topsoil quality if left in place for a year. But 12" of the kind of fresh woodchips that ChipDrop is offering, laid straight on top of the soil you already have, will be very nearly as good - especially if you get a good rain or two in the first month or so after the mulch has been laid.

A 12" layer of woodchip mulch will be maybe three to four inches thick after 12 months, and the topsoil right under the mulch will be black and crumbly and home to millions of earthworms and generally delightful to work with.

As compost ingredients go, woodchip mulch is classed as a high-carbon ingredient. Ideal compost is made from a balanced mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon ingredients; as the compost matures and the high-nitrogen ingredients break down, the nitrogen-rich breakdown products get taken up by the high-carbon ingredients and sequestered until those ingredients themselves eventually break down into humus, which can take years. Dumping a huge load of high-carbon organic material straight on top of otherwise untreated topsoil will generally cause some pretty severe nitrogen depletion in that topsoil, and for that reason a lot of people are unwilling to do it.

But if what you're starting with is topsoil that's been bare for long enough to get blasted and dusty, there won't be much good nitrogen left in it anyway and the beneficial effects of woodchip mulch - mainly the massive water retention capacity and extensive microhabitat creation - will be, on balance, extremely positive. And if the woodchip you're spreading is fresh-made by chipping branches from living trees, its nitrogen content will be quite a lot higher than shop-bought woodchip to begin with. Most of that will be in the sap, and a good rain onto a thick layer of fresh mulch will tend to make it migrate to the interface between the mulch and the topsoil where it can do such good as it's going to.

When you want to plant something into a thick mulch layer, expose the topsoil at the planting site and give it a generous dose of high-nitrogen fertilizer about a week before you plant. A few bladderfulls of urine in a few buckets of water work well for this. Cover the site again, give it a final bucket of fertigation and a week to soak in and settle down, then expose again and plant. This will be advantageous even if the mulch has only been in place for a week.

Controlling weeds becomes much easier in a garden managed this way, because the only places they will ever be able to make a living are in the small exposed areas around whatever you planted deliberately.

If your home's drainage plumbing allows you to divert the outflow from your bath and shower through a hose into your garden, and you have a mulch-covered region at a height that will let you gravity-feed that diverted grey water straight onto it without pooling up in the hose, do that! A thick mulch layer will easily soak up more drainage water than you could possibly produce, and bathwater - unlike laundry or dishwasher effluent, which will be loaded up with unknowable amounts of salts from detergent powders - will have nothing in it that could hurt your garden; as a general rule, if you're happy to bathe in it then it's safe for your topsoil. The residual warmth from your bathwater will also help promote the breakdown of mulch into humus.

Even if your landscaping plans aren't compatible with covering your entire lot with woodchip mulch, a decent sized patch - say 20 square metres, minimum - dedicated to soaking up your bathwater will become a centre of life for the entire garden. Multiple mulch patches around multiple trees, and a bathwater hose that can be shifted from patch to patch every couple of weeks, work well too.

Basically what you want to be doing is thinking about the health of your topsoil first. Because in ways that will really only become apparent to you when you've been doing this stuff for a few decades, the health of the topsoil really is the foundation for the health of everything else that lives on top of it, you and your family included.
posted by flabdablet at 9:01 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]

I love learning stuff and have a weird love for manual labor, so I am excited to bend the earth to my will

If you want to go A-grade best practice for covering soil with mulch and digging is your thing, you can dig a whole bunch of shallow trenches (say three to six inches deep, six to twelve inches wide) along contour lines in any patch you plan to mulch. This will help quite a lot with water retention. Make the uphill wall sloped rather than square so you won't turn an ankle by stepping on a mulch-buried trench, and pile the spill along the downhill side as you go.

Easiest way to find the contour lines is to make an A frame level: literally an A made from three lengths of light timber, maybe two metres tall, with a plumb line hung from the apex. When the plumb line crosses the horizontal bar of the A in its exact centre, you know that the two feet are at the same level. Walking out a contour line with one of these is pretty quick.
posted by flabdablet at 9:22 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]

If you have an extensive spread of woodchip mulch and you want to get plants going amongst it before it's had that year to improve the soil underneath, best way is to scrape a bucket-sized hole in the mulch, fill that with a bag of nice potting soil from the garden centre, and plant into that. You don't need to dig into the underlying soil: if your mulch is decently thick there will be plenty of depth in the potting soil pocket for your plant's first year of growth, and by the time the roots get down to the bottom of that, the surrounding mulch and the earthworms it supports will have conditioned the planting site's underlayer very nicely.
posted by flabdablet at 1:13 PM on May 12

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