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New Home, Overrun Garden

Posted by bbkuo IL (My Page) on
Mon, Jul 22, 13 at 14:33

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!

Follow-Up Postings:

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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 of the fallen leaves over the intervening winter, you should notice a difference in texture, drainage, color, tilth, fertility, ability to moderate both excess water and periods of no rain, by the next summer. By the second fall, you should be able to put 18" of leaves on beds and there should be enough decomposition for them to be completely gone by spring.

Now imagine how much you could improve on that by also occasionally adding other OM like compost that you can buy or make from kitchen scraps and yard waste, and/or other materials that can compost in place w/o being composted first, like (confidently seed-free) lawnmower bag trimmings, pine needles, small amounts/pieces of yard trimmings, coffee grounds, weeds you pull before they've made seeds (I lay them with the roots in the air, to make sure they die,) just never a huge amount of one particular thing on a particular spot. If it's dead plant material of a dry type that won't attract fruit flies or other pests, doesn't look too odd, I use it for mulch.

If the ground is really hard, it can be helpful to till initially, but after that, I don't believe it's beneficial because it disrupts the natural soil layers and the critters therein, which are very important for the soil to be healthy, and negatively affects the drainage. The microscopic critters on up to worms and such are all that is needed to distribute the particles of decomposing OM to where they are naturally intended to be, which is where they are most useful to plants. That's why the ground in a forest is so wonderful - spongy, moist but well drained, fertile, sweet-smelling. Nobody tills, the falling leaves and sticks are naturally decomposed and the particles distributed throughout the soil layers. I've found the improvement in being able to dig in these areas as soon as the 2nd year to be dramatic, no thoughts that "It's too hard to dig here unless I till."

Does any of that sound like stuff you could apply to your situation?

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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?

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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 things, and as mentioned, seeds will have been deposited by various means, so don't let it frustrate you, just be vigilant. The next year there should be a LOT less weeds, assuming you haven't let any new seeds develop there. Letting it go until you have 'weeding to do' is just being mean to yourself, IMVHO. A tiny sprout is so much easier to pull as well. If you're looking at pretty flowers and see something sprouting out of place, snag it. If you're not looking at the pretty flowers often, you should be!

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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 :)

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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.

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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!

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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.


RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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.

RE: New Home, Overrun Garden

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!

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