Serious garden advice…

Serious garden advice needed -- killing a lawn.

We have a front yard. The house we bought is a foreclosure, and sat empty for a few years before we bought it. The yard was 'maintained' by the Village, which basically meant that they mowed it regularly. It is essentially a massive weed bed at this point. It has one pretty crabapple tree, a few shrubs (about 6) at the borders, and that's it. Lots of weeds. So we need a plan to reclaim it.

My lot is 50 x 176. My front yard is maybe 50 x 35? I'm guessing a bit there. I'd ideally prefer not to have lawn in the front yard. Don't want to mow, don't want to water a lot (I live in Oak Park, Chicagoland weather, tending towards dry and prairie-like). Like the variety of lots of flowers.

So, okay, I need to kill all those weeds. I admit to trying some Round-up (motivated by a severe invasive tree-of-heaven infestation), but although it got rid of most of the tree-of-heaven, it wasn't very effective on the other weeds -- I don't know whether Round-up doesn't work well on crabgrass, etc. or if I didn't use enough (I was mostly targeting the tree-of-heaven and soaking that), or what. But I'm feeling somewhat reluctant to put more poison into the soil.

I gather that my main options at this point are:

A) rototill (and then lay fresh topsoil over?)
B) lay black plastic over the yard and leave it for several months (I'm sure the neighbors, who have already endured much construction, would LOVE that)
C) lay newspapers over the yard, cover with fresh topsoil, let it sit and decay.
D) more poison

Which leaves me with questions. Approach A would be immediately effective, and I could rent a rototiller, but I don't know whether I need to lay fresh topsoil on top of that? B is ugly. C is appealing because it enriches the soil, but I'm a little worried about the cost of all that topsoil. D we've already discussed.

1) If I rototill now, say, am I supposed to put topsoil over that?

2) If I put topsoil (either on newspapers or on rototilled previous sod/weeds), will it just blow away in the wind and/or accumulate a ton of weeds if I don't plant immediately?

3) Would covering the whole yard with mulch after topsoil (or instead of topsoil) be helpful / necessary, given that we have almost no garden budget this fall?

4) If I have five hundred early-flowering spring bulbs that I ordered some months back (the only thing I'm likely to plant this fall, given the terrifying state of our budget after some months of construction), what exactly do I do with them? Lay them on the rototilled ground before adding topsoil? Actually put down the new soil and then dig holes? (Sounds like a lot of work!)


12 thoughts on “Serious garden advice…”

  1. It might be different in chicago, but in seattle nothing would really work except digging up the soil (rototilling is probably easiest) and then picking through the dug up soil to remove weeds and their roots. Dirt, plastic or newspaper on top will cover things up for a bit, but you’ll get the same problem back quicker than you think. So I am thinking tilling, then pay all children you can find to remove as much as possible then working it over yourselves. Pitchforks are good for the getting rid of roots stage. I do not know what to do until you start planning. Maybe wait until closer to fall so there isn’t much time for new growth before winter? Frankly, I would interview a couple landscape places to see what their processs would be. But landscapers also just dump stuff over weeds and it really doesn’t work

  2. I remember (from helping my mom, who is an avid gardener, when I was growing up) rototillers are much harder to use than you think they’re gonna be. I’d probably go the black plastic route, then cut holes where I wanted to plant my bulbs/ plants, plant those, then cover the rest of the black plastic with mulch (which is probably cheaper than topsoil? I’m guessing). Maybe it works with newspaper/ mulch, too? Some weeds are tenacious, and will come back through the plastic, I guess, but if you keep on top of them and pull them as you see them, maybe it won’t be so bad this time around.

  3. Just have someone come in, bushwhack things down a bit, then rototill the whole thing up. If you have good soil, there’s no need to add topsoil. If your soil needs amending, now’s the time to do it. For instance, you can add a bunch of compost and have that tilled in now. You do need some sort of surface treatment…otherwise you’ve just made a lovely bed for more weeds to grow in. So rototill, then dump a thick layer of mulch on top. You can plant your bulbs in that, and it’ll be ready to go come spring. YOu will get some weeds, but they shouldn’t be too many and should be fairly easy to pull out because of the mulch.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I think I’m leaning towards Megan’s plan. Umm…dumb question here. How do I tell if I have good soil?

    Also, is rototilling really physically difficult? I.e., more so than mowing a lawn (which I can totally do)?

  5. We have a yard a fraction of the size of yours, and have gotten rid of the grass in stages over the years. No matter what method you initially use to remove the grass, maintaining it that way takes a serious summertime commitment to weeding and general yard maintainance. For our small yard, I could easily spend 3-4 hours/week weeding. Maybe we’re doing something wrong. One part we have planted with dense ground cover. The weeds still come up through it. Another part is a bed of wild flowers. That looks like crap right now–full of weeds. The back is mostly mulch, because of the dogs. I like it that way, but the weeds will come up, even through several inches of mulch. Although philosophically I agree with the no-grass movement, in reality I pine for the days when yard maintainance was as simple as pushing a noisy machine over it once every week or so. YMMV.

    I would go with the black plastic or the round up. Chopping weeds into tiny pieces only encourages them.

  6. By the way, you don’t have to water a mature lawn in the summer, nor fertilize it very often. If you use the right amount of fertilizer and are willing to let it get kind of brown in the summer, it is just as eco friendlyl as any other type of planting.

  7. Heya:

    First, a link that discusses some of the issues/alternatives:

    We removed an existing (and Bermuda grass infested) lawn a few years ago, and replaced it with drought-resistant plants.

    We rented a sod-cutter to strip off the old lawn. . . we’d heard that rototilling alone would be prone to rapid lawn re-infestation. After that we hand-dug the soil, but for a sizeable lawn like yours you might want to rototill. We then planted, laid down drip irrigation lines (with a timer), and used redwood bark chunks to cover the ground and the drip system hoses

  8. I had someone rototill the back hills behind my house last year. Biggest mistake I ever made…. You’ll want to take the ‘grass’ off, first, otherwise it grows back and looks awful, even when you try and do plantings…

    Could you strip, till, plant your bulbs, then do some kind of a cover crop? There are things organic farmers plant to restore nitrogen, etc to the soil…. and then they get dug back in at springtime…

  9. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I’ve started setting up appointments with landscape people around here, because one thing has become clear; we don’t want to do the rototilling ourselves, if we do it. So hopefully some of them will be able to lay out good options for us.

    I do think sod cutting (and turning it over) might be the ideal option, but I was hesitant because it sounded really hard. I’ll ask them, though. If the price isn’t exorbitant, maybe that’s the way to go. Then amend soil if necessary, plant bulbs, mulch thoroughly. The bulbs should poke up through the mulch, I think.

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