Reviving an abandoned lawn and garden

July 22, 2015


Chris Hoaglund
Zenith News

A friend of mine just bought a foreclosed home.  The inside had been updated, but the yard needed some tender loving care. Aside from the overgrown shrubs and trees, there were long-forgotten flowerbeds, mostly-dead bushes, exposed tree roots, and overgrown grass. The good news is this mess can be revived; the bad news is it’s going to take a couple of summers and a lot of work to get it back in shape.

This growing season had a fair amount of rain, so the yard was nice and green, but it was so long it took several slow cuts to keep the lawnmower from plugging up.

The soil was compacted and could benefit from aerating, followed by a couple of applications of fertilizer. It’s a little late in the year to kill dandelions and creeping Charlie with weed-and-seed. Fertilizing when it’s hot and dry can burn out your lawn, and since we weren’t sure of the variety of grass or the pH level of the soil, we opted to wait until the weather cools in the fall.

The previous owner had put in some edging about two feet from the house. Nothing fancy, just a simple straight line that followed the foundation. There were signs of spent irises and lily of the valley and a couple stray Asiatic lilies growing through a dilapidated fence. (My friend showed a little excitement that there were yellow flowers blooming. Sorry to say they were just weeds.)

The trees were large and in pretty good shape, but there were a lot of dead branches that needed pruning and some low-hanging branches that had to be trimmed so he could mow without head injury.

Due to the size of the trees, I recommended he call a professional tree service. But the smaller ones were an easy fix. The larger shrubs were healthy. They just needed dead branches removed and general shaping.

However, a couple of shrubs were mostly dead. Once they get to that point, it’s better to remove them completely than try to revive them. It’s a slow, backbreaking process to dig out an old shrub; those roots go deep.

For best results, don’t prune it to the ground. You need to leave the main stump for leverage, but trim away the branches so you can get a good grip on it. Use a straightedge spade to cut through the soil around the plant. Make plenty of overlapping cuts so you slice through the roots.  

Then use a regular shovel to dig a trench around the plant. You might need to dig a foot or so around it. Keep digging and cutting the roots as you go, using a clipper or saw if necessary. As you make progress, rock the stump back and forth until it starts to loosen. Keep working around, down, and underneath the root ball until you can push the stump over and eventually pull it out.  

The remaining perennials needed splitting and moving, and the bed needed tilling and some fresh compost. We decided to keep the edging for now, but plan on adding more depth and curve to it in the future.

The rock along the driveway was a victim of erosion. The coverage was sparse and weeds had taken over. Snow probably piles up there in winter, leaving road salt residue. Since many plants and woody shrubs can’t take the salt or the added weight of snowdrifts, we decided it just needed weeding and a load of fresh rock for now.

Most of his foundation plants were evergreens, which, frankly, don’t add a whole lot of interest or color, so we made a trip to the nursery to check out other options.

One of my favorites is the Goldflame Spirea. It has a dense, upright-mounded shape that grows about 3' to 5' tall and wide. It changes throughout the season, starting with a bronze-tinged green and maturing to a softer yellow-green, with deep pink flowers mid-summer. In fall, it changes to a lovely coppery-orange. It provides wonderful contrast in shrub borders and is tolerant to heat.

Japanese Yews make a nice contrast to deciduous flowering shrubs. They do well in our climate and have a lovely arching natural shape. When choosing border plants, pick those that have similar light and water needs so they grow evenly.

With a lot of hard work, we’ll have that yard in great shape by fall—just in time to rake the leaves.

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