How to reclaim some backyard space from ivy, rocks, and brush?
May 31, 2020 12:23 PM   Subscribe

How should we tackle a yard renovation featuring ivy, brush, and rocky soil?

We have a home in New Jersey, USA, with a backyard that's 2/3rds lawn which is perfect for happy dogs and a vegetable garden, and 1/3 a brushy, ivy-covered, weedy, and rocky mess. The lawn is not golf course quality, retired-couple perfect. It's a mix of random grasses and clover and that's fine. It's green and pretty to us.

We moved in 5 years ago and thought, "we'll deal with this eventually!" And with our work commutes eliminated until September, we have extra weekday time to spare. Eventually is now.

Here is a satellite image of our yard, bordered in white. The red line is where the current lawn ends and the weediness begins. It's portioned off by a motley collection of rotted railroad ties and various bricks. We want to extend the lawn (random grasses and clover) to the green line and establish a new border, probably with new railroad ties or a line of new bricks.

After the green line, the ground rises about 15% to meet the fence behind us. Since the green circles are trees, we're fine with just clearing out the ivy and planting some shrubs/bushes. No grass. Maybe spots of pollinator-friendly, dog friendly wildflowers. In a perfect world, it's perpetually mulched with interesting rocks and shrubs. But I'm fine with shrubs/bushes and exposed soil.

Pics of the strip we want to redo: Pic 1 - large green ivied area beneath large tree | Pic 2 - mostly dead middle area | Pic 3 - maple sapling and other overgrown weeds.

If you've tackled a project like this before, where should we even begin? Is it just "yep, pull the weeds and ivy, turn the soil, plant your grass and shrubs and good luck?" I'd strongly prefer not to use chemicals, because of the dogs. We have shovels, rakes, etc, but we have a hardware rental place nearby -- are there valuable time-and-back-saving tools that we can rent?

Thank you!
posted by kimberussell to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you're not in any rush, you can clobber that ground cover by laying down plastic and letting the sun basically bake it away.

As far as time-saving - when it's time to start planting stuff, a rototiller is fabulous for busting up the dirt and getting it to where you can dig a little (as well as turning/aerating it a bit). But you're otherwise on target: pull up what you don't want, plan how much you feel like maintaining it, and head to the local nursery to see what they've got.
posted by jquinby at 1:18 PM on May 31 [1 favorite]

First I'd pull out anything tree/bush-like, then I'd mow everything else and cover the area heavily with cardboard, (free from BJs, tape removed). I normally put a thick layer of straw or leaves on top of the cardboard to hold it down. Once everything dies under there, I have some healthy soil, fed by the decomposition of the cardboard and organic matter. It usually only takes a season. No need to turn the soil, it's ready for planting. Since this is a large area, it could be done in stages.

The first picture looks pretty to me. Not much will grow in under a large maple, so I'd maybe think about keeping that ivy. I can't tell if there are unwelcome plants growing among it, though. If there are, that could change my course of action.

When planting, I'd think of filling three layers : a tree layer, a shrub layer, and a ground cover. Nature always fills a vacuum, so if you leave soil it will fill up with weeds. For shrubs I'm a big fan of fruit, but of course any shrubs that grow well in your area will do. Be sure to space trees for their adult size, and think about what areas will be shaded by them and what your lower layer choices will want as far as sun/shade/partial shade.
posted by ruetheday at 1:26 PM on May 31 [5 favorites]

I found the New Jersey equivalent to our RIWPS, The Native Plant Society of New Jersey. They should have the information on the best plants for wildlife with suggestions for different soil types and sun exposure.
posted by Botanizer at 3:37 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]

So, I'm in NJ and tackle the same issues of ivy and so forth. We reclaimed most of our yard through heavy use of an old push mower that I didn't mind sacrificing for the cause. It did survive, happily enough.

But, basically, I took the mower into the ivy and just mowed everything to the ground. If I hit a rock, so be it. It turned out that there was landscaping hidden under the ivy and growth, so I ended up pulling out 4x4 planting beds each time the mower smacked into one.

Then I tilled the entire area with a full sized tiller.

Note shady areas, and decide if you want any of those larger trees down.

I also built a pond and stream instead of just a typical garden area and grass, so that's an idea, as well. Check with the Arbor Day Foundation - you can get a bunch of young saplings of dogwood, crape-myrtle and others that make for good local plantings, as well.
posted by rich at 6:55 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]

Ivy around trees is almost never a good idea. It will eventually climb the tree, and can greatly weaken the tree through added weight, and will create a “sail” effect in high winds.
Rip out the ivy, it may require digging to get the roots. Then, as suggested above look into native plants that will thrive in your area, and proved food/habitat for the local fauna.
posted by dbmcd at 8:02 AM on June 1 [1 favorite]

I would say step 1 is "Make sure you can spot Poison Ivy": is reasonable resource.

"I'd strongly prefer not to use chemicals"

For the ivy I've dealt with, Roundup isn't very effective anyway. The waxy leaves prevent it from being effective so spraying it on doesn't work.

Portland No Ivy League has good info.
posted by alikins at 12:12 PM on June 1

Yeah seconding the weed block method, if you can wait a full season. I’d use black plastic if you really want everything underneath to die. Solarizing the weed cover makes great soil as long as you really kill everything under the plastic. Anything less will keep the weed battle going indefinitely.

Roundup and the like are evil products that cause longer term problems and harm the environment. And as others said, that shit doesn’t even work half the time. Chemicals are unnecessary on any small home plot. Solarizing and then a few hours with a shovel and aerator works fine.

Also if you want “retired couple” nice lawn grass without working too hard, you need to outcompete the clover and broadleaf weeds. I have one word for you: Milorganite
posted by spitbull at 3:54 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Also needless to say but before you go digging it up to more than a few inches, make sure you know where power, gas, water, and sewer or septic lines run underground.
posted by spitbull at 6:06 AM on June 3 [2 favorites]

Thanks all for the answers! I think that I took a little of everyone's suggestion.

We pulled the large weeds/saplings, mowed the rest down and went the black plastic route. We'll wait for next spring to deal with what remains. I made sure to snip the ivy that's climbing up the tree so it will slowly die. The shady area under the large tree is pretty, and nothing will grow under it but ivy, so we're going to try and keep some there. If we can't keep it contained and off of the tree, we'll deal with that next year.

The holes cut into the plastic are for some shrubs we want to keep. And I'm going to try to turn the ivy covered stump toward the right of the photo into a Mickey Mouse topiary.

May we all be here in spring 2021 to witness if this project is a success or a hot mess.
posted by kimberussell at 8:15 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]

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