New Home, Overrun Garden

bbkuoJuly 22, 2013

Hi, my husband I just purchased a new house, a short sale house that had been un-lived in for 2 years. Needless to say, the front of the house has a plot for a garden and it was completely overrun with weeds that are (very sadly literally) as tall as I am (5'3). My parents, husband, and I spent an entire day whacking the weeds and just pulling out what we could. What I could use are tips, if anyone can offer any, on what we should do with the area after this? Should we till, dose it with weedkiller, and then cover with newspaper and mulch the area? Or should we wait to do the mulch later? Any tips would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Tilling can create more problems, as many of the roots of weedy plants are able to generate new plants, so you could multiply some weeds by tilling. It can also bring seeds to the surface. I wouldn't put weed killer where I intend to grow edibles, wasn't sure if by 'garden' you meant that or just flowers.

I wrote this for someone else who asked a similar question, hope it helps you get a handle on how you think you should get started.

If you've got more time than energy, like I do, smothering and lasagna is the easiest way to start a new garden bed for free, or almost. Sooo much easier than digging up grass and/or weeds. Just spread newspaper (about 10 sheets thick) or cardboard, overlapping well, until the area you want to be a bed is covered. Then cover the paper with 4-6" of finely shredded mulch and wait for everything under to die, usually 4-6 weeks but could be longer for some grasses. I've done this many, many times.

The newspaper/cardboard decomposes and does not need to be removed later, especially if copious amounts of organic matter are added on top of it.

I've also smothered grass/weeds with stuff that was handy, but does have to be removed to use the bed, like sheets of metal, old egg crate mattress topper, the bags of mulch that will cover the spot, whatever's handy. I think it's easier to wait for the grass to die than dig it up, and I don't mind if it has to get more ugly in the process of getting more pretty.

One other benefit of smothering with a leave-in-place substance like paper or cardboard is that the weed seeds that may be in the ground are unable to germinate as they might be if you just dug up the grass and/or tilled.

The lasagna comes into play if you add amendment layers to your smothering. For example, you could put the paper/cardboard, then kitchen scraps, ready to use compost, leaves, yard trimmings, whatever organic material (OM) that is handy, then the mulch (or not, if the other stuff is a thick enough layer to hold the paper in place and block the light.) It's not necessary to have lasagna layers when smothering, but when planting later, there's a huge improvement if a lot of
OM was placed there.

I wrote this for someone complaining about clay, which you probably also have in ID so will paste it here also. Some of this is redundant...

Before I moved to AL, I started many new gardens in OH, in the sub-clay they leave after removing the top soil, when making a housing development, and always where there was grass growing, which exacerbates the problem. It's either muddy or concrete, packed hard from bulldozers and giant trucks. Clay is wonderful stuff, just not by itself. Sounds like you have soil with no organic matter (OM) in it, which is much easier and quicker to fix than you might think.

The more OM matter you can add, the better the soil will become, and more quickly. After two springs of doing nothing but adding a few inches (3-5) of finely shredded harwood, and all...

    Bookmark   July 24, 2013 at 10:27AM
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Thanks so much for your input! We were thinking of tilling mainly because we noticed, after we cleared everything away, that the dirt was rock hard and crumbly. I figured perhaps tilling initially to get the soil loose would be beneficial, since I have no idea what the previous owners did with it, just as a one time start up. We're not planning on doing anything with the plot this year, we want to give the area some time to breathe and recover before we tried to plant anything in there (mainly flowers). Someone suggested mulching to try to fertilize the dirt a little. Is it okay to just use wood mulch for now and just leave it to do its thing for the rest of the season until next year? Like I said, the dirt looked like it was in pretty bad shape. Any fertilizer I can sprinkle into the dirt?

    Bookmark   July 24, 2013 at 2:41PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Glad to try to help! The hardest part of gardening is getting started, IMHO.

Soil gets crumbly and compacted when it is lacking in organic matter. You're left with too much clay, or too much sand, neither of which is great for growing plants. Tilling can temporarily loosen it up, but it will soon go back to the exact same state without adding organic matter to it. I've done both and just prefer to not expend what's turned out to be unnecessary effort.

However, using the tiller to incorporate whatever organic matter you can get, leaves, grass clippings, mulch, newspaper, pulled weeds that don't have seeds on them, kitchen scraps, anything that will decompose - will make the effort absolutely worthwhile! And shouldn't need to be repeated unless you're a real glutton for punishment, especially for ornamental flowering/landscape plants which can't/shouldn't usually be tilled around anyway for the unnecessary disturbance to roots.

For a 'starting from scratch' area like this, I would still use a smother over the tilled area, especially since you've said you can wait until next year to use it. Tilling brings a whole new crop of seeds to the surface, and the chopped roots of some plants can keep growing, as a million plants instead of 457.

Unless/until there are desirable plants growing there, fertilizer would only benefit the existing weeds, and any that sprout before you start gardening the area. Flowers are much less demanding than food crops regarding soil fertility, and many ornamental plants, native or otherwise, can actually perform poorly in highly fertile soils. That can mean tons of excessive foliage but few blooms. Organic matter will help moderate moisture levels, soil temperate, PH, and help improve drainage. Fertilizers only stimulate currently growing plants, and synthetic ones can damage the tiny and microscopic critters necessary in soil to keep it healthy. Synthetic ferts also do nothing to improve the soil. If one has healthy, naturally fertile soil, synthetic ferts are unnecessary anyway.

Just adding some mulch would make any still-alive weeds very, very happy. I wouldn't do it without a sturdy smother layer underneath. Just mowing until you have time/materials to get an official start might be the best thing. Preventing seeds of anything undesirable is paramount to keeping weeds to a minimum. Mowing would help in that regard until you are ready to smother/lasagna. That's what a smother is intended to do, help establish control. Like a blank slate, or at least as close as possible when gardening.

It's not hard to maintain control once you've established control, if you're looking often. The wind, birds, other critters will cause weeds to find their way to any spot, so once you establish control, you need to keep an eye on things so it's just a sprout here, one there. The first year of any spot is likely to be the most weedy, since you will stir up seeds in the ground while planting...

    Bookmark   July 24, 2013 at 3:25PM
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Do you need to have a garden there, this summer? If not, find a lot of aged horse manure and till it into the beds. You'll have more can cover them with something like plastic or tarp to kill the weeds...or just pull the weeds and toss them into the compost pile (if they're not too aggressive).

Next year, you'll probably have to weed one more time (even with the tarp) but then you'll have a lovely garden with wonderful soil...and if that's clay you will be perfect for roses and other cottage garden plants, as well as veggies :)

    Bookmark   July 27, 2013 at 8:19PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Absolutely! I didn't mention poo above, but it could definitely be tilled in with any other OM. Putting a smother layer over it would eliminate the need for the tarping you described.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2013 at 8:25PM
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Haha, funny enough for some reason it never occurred to me to fertilize with poop, although obviously it makes the most sense! I think we're going to just till, apply some Preen, layer with newspapers and wood mulch. We'll see where we are next year with the condition of the dirty. Thanks all for your tips!

    Bookmark   July 27, 2013 at 8:55PM
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jim_1 Zone 5B Illinois(5b)

You have several months to get this done. As you work on it try to make decisions about what you want to do. Plant perennials? Do evergreens? Mostly annuals? Some you might be able to get in the ground in October.

Personally, I would wait to see what happens with winter weather. Where does the snow accumulate, do you need a small (or large) windbreak. Are leaves on trees giving shade now that you won't be able to count on in the spring?

Check out your neighbors and see what they have planted. And, in a nice way, ask them why they did it that way. Take along some goodies when you visit that way, it'll make it easier to make new friends and learn about what problems your neighbors might have had.


    Bookmark   August 10, 2013 at 8:58PM
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amanda_m(z7 MD)

Just wanted to chime in here...when we bought our house in 2000 it had been empty for ten (!) years and the back yard was a fearsome jungle of wild grape vines, sticker bushes, wild raspberries, poison ivy and weed trees. It came RIGHT up to the back porch like it was trying to swallow the house.

The first winter in the house, as I washed dishes, I looked out at the back yard with despair. How would we EVER get rid of that?
That first spring I got out with my little clippers and did a little bit every day. It was so overwhelming to deal with the whole picture that I would say to myself, "Today I will clear away one square food all the way to the ground." And that is how I cleared the whole thing, just a little at a time. We dealt with the vines, the stickers, the itchy stuff, the weed trees a bit at a time. We had no money and our tools were rudimentary, but we borrowed mattocks and other tools and did what we could with them. We smothered the weeds with layers of newspaper and cardboard and a thick application of shredded bark mulch.

Eventually we built beds, put in raised veggie beds, fenced in part of the yard for the dogs, more beds, a herb spiral, a brick patio. Up until last year we did it all by outselves with our own hands, with ideas we found online or in magazines.
In the first three years, things looked better, then after that they looked good, and now, in spring of 2014, the yard is a beautiful, pleasant place to be.

I just wanted to give you some encouragement. If you have lots of cash, you can get it all done in the first year or two, but even if you do it all yourself, and it takes longer, sustained effort will get you there.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 5:08PM
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Wow, that sounds like such a battle, Amanda! Thanks for the encouragement, I'm lucky to say at least our yard is only overrun by those prickly thistles (in fact, we barely have grass, only weeds and thistles)! Our garden bed will also be a long work in progress... But I'm hoping to get to where you are eventually as well! I'm so glad to hear that's it's been done, and not entirely hopeless! Thanks!

    Bookmark   March 18, 2014 at 10:52PM
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I don't mean to jump in and steal anything here but I'm currently in a similar boat. We bought the house a little over a year ago and I couldn't even look at the garden last year-- it was just too overwhelming. The previous 6-year-owners admitted to zero gardening and the owners before that were the original ones who apparently sold the house when they moved into a nursing home so my guess is they didn't do much in the yard for a while either. What *was* here was stuff I hated and we either dug it out (huge row of rectagular yews across the front), or had people who wanted it come and dig it up after posting a craigslist ad (about 30+ azaleas, and boy were the new azalea-owners happy, was a win/win)-- much of what's left is just weeds.

My kids are very young and the house needs a lot inside as well as out-- I feel like we are busy all the time and often weeks will go by without me seeing a noticeable difference anywhere, beyond normal running of a household/cleaning/upkeep. I have so much I want to do and so little time to do it and honestly I've been getting kinda down recently, feeling a touch overwhelmed by it all.

GardenWeb has been my new favorite place to be, once everyone's in bed and my other duties are finished, but it's a bit of a catch-22 because I'm learning a lot and getting great advice but also need even more time to act on said advice. Plus I've been staying up way too late reading and posting and researching since I can't find time to do it during the day and I'm a nightowl anyway... so I've been a little lax on my own sleep-self-care situation, which of course doesn't help my daytime productivity or my stress-level!

Anyway, I just stumbled on this thread and wanted to thank both the original poster and the repliers (that's a word, I'm sure of it).. (no it's probably not)... I have found a lot of encouragement in here. Not only in seeing that maybe mine isn't all that daunting of a situation, comparatively anyway (house completely empty for 10 years ?!) but also love the actual physical evidence of someone's positive experience with the "One Step at a Time" attitude. I strive for that but I keep getting lost in the overwhelmed-ness (yes) anyway. Doesn't seem to matter how many well-meaning/wise/kind bits of advice I receive stating such (It takes time, take it easy, it'll all get done eventually, try to enjoy it, it's a marathon not a sprint)-- I *know* these things to be true... at my core I firmly believe them... but I've struggled to maintain that attitude regardless.

Amanda, thank you so much for chiming in here-- you've no idea how much better I felt reading your entry. Like a weight was being lifted off me; I even might have teared up a little (although I'm admittedly a tad fragile this week, ha) but I might should not cop to all THAT on this forum, sheesh.

Lastly, great advice for the layering. I had my soil tested after the yews were finally out. Turns out I need some lime to correct a low pH and a lot of compost for some nutrients. I've done the newspaper and pine bark mulch thing at our last house with great results for weed control--so I knew I wanted to go that route again here-- but my soil was already in good condition at the last house so this time I'll need a bit more. I've been saving coffee grinds and eggshells for the past few weeks but don't have a proper compost bin or anything so not sure how much difference that little bit will make. Will scrape up some pine needles soon too and maybe a few bags of compost from the farm supply store (or will aged manure be better than bagged compost-- from a reputable store? or should I get bagged compost AND aged manure?) and til that into my soil some along with my lime, as soon as I get the rest of the bigger rocks and yew roots out. Then level it, then lay down the newspaper and mulch. Then just an occasional watering I guess, til fall? When I hope to plant a few dwarf conifers and maybe a small JM or two. I am fine with the whole front garden looking sparse for a few years if it means I will have a decent collection of things I actually love one day.

Sigh. This gardenweb is the best, isn't it? I'm so grateful to all of you. I look forward to posting some pictures of actual progress, one day. And seeing all of yours hopefully.

Thanks all

    Bookmark   June 11, 2014 at 11:15PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Oh, feelin' everyone's woes here. I also moved in April and have a treeline that hasn't been maintained for years. There are vines, horseweed, saplings that are an inch in diameter, 14 feet tall. So much work for everyone to do, but to complain doesn't help get 'er done. It IS good to vent though, vent, vent, vent...

Nikki, I really wouldn't bother with digging out rocks and tilling. If you're planting and encounter a rock, excavate it then, otherwise, it might never come up in your way. The plants don't care. I would put that organic matter right on the cardboard, under the mulch. Any organic matter is great, kitchen scraps, plant trimmings, leaves, straw, pine needles, grass from mower bag (as long as you mowed before grass made seeds,) pulled weeds that haven't made seeds yet, if it will decompose it is organic matter. About the only things we discard are thorny prunings, bones, sticks bigger than a finger we burn. Let the soil microbes get to work on fixing the soil for you, some of that hard work isn't necessary.

Watching this brief lecture about soil helped me understand a lot more about what I'd been doing for years, and helped me to 'get better' at it.

I would also encourage you to investigate sheet composting if, like me, the thought of moving compost around and maintaining a bin/pile is not so appealing. I did that for about 20 years and have moved away from the bin/pile though we 'compost' almost everything in some other way, nothing wasted.

Amanda, I also loved your post! Read it originally, and again just now. We can all use inspiration like that!

    Bookmark   June 12, 2014 at 11:35AM
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Thanks for the advice on the rocks, Purple-- I think I'll take it! I have a small problem sometimes with getting stuck on something possibly unimportant (like getting as many of the bigger rocks as I can) just because I already did it to one area so I want to keep going... I love "the plants don't care" though, that will stick with me. Certainly makes sense.
Want to ask why the compost material goes *on top of* the cardboard -- instead of under it, mixed into the soil a tad-- but I will check out this video now and maybe I will understand : )

    Bookmark   June 14, 2014 at 1:14AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Couple reasons I do it that way, no right/wrong about it really. I figure the weeds might use some of the nutrients during their last dying struggle under the cardboard, and the more green stuff you can put on top of the cardboard, the most moist it will stay, decomposing more quickly. The cardboard doesn't need to be covered immediately, just enough that it doesn't blow or move around, so you can take a few weeks to gather stuff after laying it, if the sight of it isn't bothering anyone.

If it's easier or more handy to put organic matter under the cardboard, then that would probably trump the other stuff. I'm all about easy and handy if it will still work. In any order, a layer of stuff that's heavy enough and light-blocking enough to smother weeds will work. New seeds will blow in and be dropped by birds, so always be on the patrol for sprouts that can be pulled easily, before they get big and require a shovel.

Yes, the vid explains about how it can be more harmful to disturb the soil often, though if done once to get started, probably not much different than starting by smothering a hard-packed spot in the lawn. Every garden I've started except one was not tilled. I didn't prefer it.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2014 at 2:41PM
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Thanks again, Purple. I forgot to check the box about emailing me replies so I didn't see your reply until just now, but I will keep that in mind. I don't have much composty-stuff of my own still so bought a few bags of compost/manure (it says both on the bag and I got it from a local farm supply, not a big box, so I'm hoping it's good stuff) and will add that to my mix. On top of my newspaper layers, mixed in w my eggshells and coffee grinds, and before my mulch.

The video was very interesting and I learned a lot but it also made me feel kinda crappy about how much turning over I've already DONE out there! Hope I didn't mess things up too much. I'm still seeing weeds a-plenty so hopefully that means it's good enough soil still, ha.

Took a break for a while because life got crazy with other things but now it's settling again some and I hope to tackle that area this week, despite the rain we are supposed to get!

    Bookmark   June 29, 2014 at 11:09PM
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I love that people are still commenting on this thread ^_^ It's great hearing other people talk about garden issues as I'm getting ideas about mine as I read the responses. We must keep trekking! I'm hoping we all get to where we're aiming to be by the end of fall with all of our work!

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 12:55AM
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And I'm grateful that you started it, bbkuo! It's a great thread, been one of my favorites w all the wonderful encouragement. Good, good stuff.
I'll be happy if I get to a good place by the end of fall... in a few years hehehehe! I know I'm on the right path though and that's all that matters. Suppose I'll get there when I'm meant to : )

    Bookmark   June 30, 2014 at 9:47AM
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Weeds can be quite a nuisance in the garden, so here are some techniques for ridding your garden of these problematic plants.

Mulch is a covering that blocks daylight and inhibits growth under it. Cover the soil between your plants and along rows. Keep the mulch a few inches from the base of your plants to also discourage insect invasions. For mulch, you can use materials such as wheat straw, shredded leaves, or other organic matter. Layer it on the ground about 2 inches thick.

For persistent or numerous weeds, try covering the area with dampened newspaper (black ink only) and then cover with 2 inches of mulch. Around the bases of trees and shrubs, consider covering the ground with landscape fabric and then mulch.

Cover Crop:
In some situations, you can use a cover crop to block weeds. See our list of cover crops suitable for growing in various regions of the U.S. and Canada.

For better or worse, you need to manually pull out most weeds. Wear waterproof gloves and consider a comfortable sitting pad for extensive weeding. The trick to pulling weeds is to get the root out as well. Weeds will slide out of the soil easier when the soil is wet��"and when the weeds are young. Pull the weed from its base (close to the soil line); if you miss the root, try using a fork to gently pry the plant out of the ground, roots and all.

Here is a link that might be useful: Weed Control Techniques

    Bookmark   July 3, 2014 at 12:13AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL

Welcome to GW, gardenlandscaping, belatedly!

    Bookmark   July 20, 2014 at 11:52AM
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