Jul 10, 2014

Yard - A Clean Slate

My yard is small, yet needy.  That's a bad combo.  It eats a bunch of time on shrub haircuts, weeding and removing decaying leaves that turn to mud in the rocks.

River rock is boring, so I wonder why the previous owner thought it a good idea to scatter 10,000 pounds of this junk around the foundation.  

After living here 15 years, it's finally time to reclaim my yard and make it look how I want.  

It all started a few week ago with a downed branch from the back soft maple.  Carpenter ants are building suburbs in that tree, it floods my garage gutters with helicopters, so it's time to take her down.  Since the tree people will be here removing the limbs and mess, figured I might as well pull my shrubs and add to the pile.  Since the shrubs are gone, remove the rock.

Goals for the yard:

1)  Easy to maintain.
2)  Increase my grass size to more than 12 square feet.
3)  Do things I haven't seen before, like coal as landscaping rocks.  Grow bamboo, Irish moss, 8-foot reed grass and more.

Here's what things looked like before the destruction:

I got after it last week, 3 to 10 hours a day for 25 hours to excavate all that rock.  Sunday was tough, 95 real-feel, worked till 10 pm as mosquitoes turned my bare back to itchy pimples.

After digging rock, had 6,000 pounds of soil dropped.  Two hours later, I finished spreading it around the yard, then rented a tiller to loosen the hard pack.  Raked and graded a slope away from the house, then received one ton of coal.  Landscaping cloth, blew coal out front, this is today:

The front pin oak tree is probably going away.  The dirt around that front tree will become grass.  


Next up is crafting steel landscaping edging.  I want a rusty patina, like this:

The above is called Corten steel, expensive stuff and would need to ship from Australia.  Friend/co-worker, Chris (Boundary Waters), suggested using mild steel, weld on stakes, coat the back and stakes with KBS to prevent rust, and keep the face naked to allow oxidation.  That route is only 80 bucks vs. $450 for Corten.  We pick up the mild steel tomorrow and he'll weld on 1/2" rod for stakes.

I need your help with  options for what to plant up front by the picture window and the medium plat out back.  Front is shady, so moss and low ground cover should thrive there.  Back is sunny, thinking maybe bamboo, tall ornamental grasses and I'm not sure what else.

Please let me know of something cool to plant, I need ideas for both shade and sunny spots.  Iowa is zone 5, -20 F in the winter, so must be perennials. 

Off to work on the yard now, good day!



  1. I'm now wondering about that amount of river rock...what soil type do you have? It didn't have anything to with drainage, hopefully?

    1. It's raining today, so we'll find out!

      I've been spending a lot of time re-grading the soil with a rake so it slopes away from the foundation on all sides. Never had water issues in the basement, other than a few years ago when it rained 9" in 5 days and sewer water/poop was floating up from the drain.

      I'll keep coal on a 4' perimeter around the foundation to slow down insects and water.

  2. Make sure you know all about bamboo before you go that route, It can be invasive. My friend has it in her back yard here in MD. If they don't mow the shoots down, then they turn to stalks that are too tough for the mower to handle.

    1. Agree, must use specific species of bamboo that is cold tolerant to -20 F, clumping type, and plant it in a buried bucket to fully contain the spread.

  3. Bamboo can be incredibly invasive so be careful! Trees are so good at keeping heat down in the summer - will your house be much hotter without that front tree? I don't like the heat so the thought of giving up lovely shade is foreign to me. As for anything else, I have no clue. I am more a clipped hedge + flowers gardener myself so don't think I could really add any great suggestions. Can't wait to see how it all turns out though! Your ideas sound really interesting.

    1. Is it sad I've spent time lately in a gardening forum? What I've learned is bamboo types are either runner or clumping. Runner types are nasty, weed-like in that that spread rapidly and choke everything else. Clump type is what you want to use. To fully contain it, some people plant the bamboo shoots in a buried 5-gallon bucket to prevent the spread.

      I had about 15 shrubs around the house that needed trimmed twice a year. They looked okay, but collected leaves and were high maintenance. Hoping I can find some good foliage that looks nice and is near zero maintenance.

  4. Anonymous7/11/2014

    Love that rusty patina border – it will look great!

    For the front you probably want some things that will stay green year round so it still looks good in the winter (ground cover, small evergreens in different heights etc. ). Then you can mix in some perennials to bring in some color in spring/summer (hostas, coral bells, etc. are shade tolerant and easy care). Ground covers are a great idea as many hold their color during winter - creeping thyme is walk-able so if you did any paving stones etc. it would look nice around/between them. Sweet woodruff is pretty and ajugas come in different colors so it breaks up the all green landscape (both are slow spreading in my garden). I would stick with ground covers that are slow spreading - stay clear of ivy, Creeping Jenny or things like that as they grow so quickly they can become really invasive.

    For the back of the house, I think having different grasses and things would be good – so many colors/textures/heights out there and so easy to maintain. You could always add a bench or a fountain to give it more visual interest and add some annuals in the summer for some color. As others have commented, bamboo is really pretty but it can choke out all other plants and become invasive but perhaps there is a variety out there that would work for what you want.

    My advice, take measurements/pictures of the areas and determine how much morning/afternoon - sun/shade the areas get and visit a really good greenhouse/landscape place in your area. They will have a knowledgeable staff (not just teenagers working there for the summer that don’t know anything about plants) that can direct you to the plants that work best in your climate/soil and help you come up with a landscape plan. Good luck!

    1. Heading out today to pick up a load of 20-ft sections of raw steel. It will age nicely, I like the idea of things that look different, and the low price and simple materials are icing.

      Haven't thought about creeping thyme, did some photo searches and it looks awesome! Hardy to zone 4, so it will hold up well. I picture jagged flagstones with thyme or Irish moss growing between the stones. No maintenance, likes shade and only 3" high.

      I'll continue collecting ideas and will visit a greenhouse down the street to see what other types of plants they suggest.

      Good ideas you offered, thank you!

    2. Anonymous7/14/2014

      Ajugas...Ahhh...run away! I moved to zone 5 west central Ohio 9 years and two months ago and saw/fell in love with the junk. Transplanted free from some family b/c it is pretty. It has great depth and the purple/black leaves are stunning. One person warned me that they are invasive and spread easily. I didn't know the person I got the starts from spends hours a day gardening and cleaning the lines. After two summers of nighmares chasing down the Ajugas growing everywhere, I pulled them all up. Ironically, I STILL have little clumps that appear each June that I dig up.

  5. I agree with you on the no maintenance stuff. That's what I want to fill my yard with besides our garden!

  6. Anonymous7/14/2014

    Hi Beard,
    Boxwood shrubs stay green year 'round and tolerate foul winters and drought, sun and shade (thank you Michigan). I seek out plants native to my area to increase my success growing them. And since you asked, my mantra for planting is: Dig a $5 hole for a $1 plant and it will thrive. The best (and truest) tip I ever heard about how perennials grow is this: the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap! (Oh - and stay away from anything with a square stem = mint family . . . it will take over) Enjoy! ~ Joanie


Thanks for the note, check back for my response!