Let me give you a quick tour of the backyard at our rental house*. It measures 75′ x 75′ (23 x 23 m), and even though it’s basically a square, when looking at the yard from the house, it feels rectangular.
We had our work cut out for us — lawn on sandy soil was dead from drought
At both sides, the yard is bordered by privet hedging; at the back there is more privet fronted by a few rhododendrons in poor shape. The garden faces south, but is shaded by three mature oaks that run along the back fence. Two of the oaks are in our yard and another is in the back neighbor’s garden. This gives us part-shade conditions in much of the garden, except right up against the house, where we get a good deal of afternoon sun.
The soil is sandy. I have gardened in heavy clay all my life and I can’t believe how easy it is to dig here. Of course, sandy soil has its own set of challenges when it comes to moisture retention.
The garden used to be much shadier, but last year the landlord cut down a huge Norway maple. Thank goodness that tree is now gone — it had become the bane of existence for the swimming pool owners next door and it overwhelmed the entire garden here, and caused the privet hedge to thin out.
Clean up around the Norway maple stump
The stump remains — if only it had been cut level! — but getting it removed is obviously too costly to bother with. Because most of the lawn under the maple was dead anyway, we decided that area should be a shrub border. I bought a half-dozen Pee Gee hydrangea cultivars from my favorite wholesaler, and we planted them last August. I also planted three low-growing ground-cover Sumac shrubs (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’), which I hope will eventually camouflage the maple stump.
Ivy is a destructive nuisance growing up a tree trunk on the west side
Another mature oak grows on the west side of the yard, and unfortunately it has ivy growing up the trunk. (The ivy looks pretty, but it’s a destructive plant that may one day kill the tree.) It also has a tendency to grow into the lawn and needs constant cutting back.
It’s a plant I would advise everyone to steer clear of, except perhaps in containers. In a past gardening life we tried ivy and as soon as we saw how much of a problem it could become, we ripped it all out while that was still possible. The ivy here has been in place so long that removing is a practical impossibility, so that is not on the agenda.
Making a come-back: the infant shrub border and the lawn in October
In August last year, we worked on our lawn renovation project. We started by renting a de-thatching machine and going over the entire area a couple times to loosen most of the dead material. Rather than raking it all up, I went over it with the collector of my mower, which picked up practically everything. I spread the dead material along the back border around and behind the rhododendrons. (I’m hoping that it will break down to provide some much-needed humus for the plants back there, along with shredded leaves from all the backyard trees.)
For the grass seed, we rented a slit-seeder machine. We put down eco-lawn (click on link to learn more), mixed with Kentucky bluegrass seed mix. Unfortunately, the seeding machine did not work well, putting down too much seed in certain areas and not enough in other areas. I will have to do some over-seeding in a couple of weeks.
But the seed did come up, but because it was dry last fall we had to water a good deal. You should have seen our water bill! In the end, we think it all worked out, and we will actually have a lawn this summer.
More info: what we are doing in the front yard, and more about the backyard makeover coming in my next post.
Inquiring minds may wonder — why are you renting? Let’s just say we’re reluctant to commit to anything too permanent at the moment. Renting gives us a measure of freedom.