Before/after photos with detail below.
This yard started as the condo-heavy neighborhood’s favorite doggy pee-pad, and we turned it into a nice pollinator garden that smells more like lemon and honey than ammonia. We all love dogs, but in this case they were corroding the fence and perpetuating a sour waft in the area.
We filled both sides of the fence with bushy perennial pollinator plants and lined the sidewalk with gravel. We made a line of small and mid-sized moss rocks to contain the shrubby things and tall grasses in front of the fence. We planted silver falls/dichondra between all rocks so they’d eventually ooze over rocks and gravel towards the sidewalk.
We built a flagstone walkway down the center to keep a path open to access utilities and meters as needed. It doesn’t lead to anything but an incredibly narrow walkway behind the building. Because of the low traffic, the stones’ only purpose is to keep growth at bay and provide an *occasional* walkway. So unlike our other hardscapes we set the stones right in the dirt, on a bit of sand to help with leveling, with decomposed granite as fill. As all the plants along the fence fill out, this area will be shaded enough to suppress weeds between the stones.
We did not use weed fabric under the flagstones. Weed fabric is a waste of time and money, but that is a topic for another post (edit: see below). I was hoping that when weeds did emerge, they’d be nice creeping plants with tiny leaves. Instead we got a lot of yellow nut sedge and it did NOT look good. We spent the following three months pulling them (and it prompted a passion in weed science because I refuse to use chemicals so we pull manually, and I HATE pulling weeds). They may be exhausted by now because it’s been a couple of weeks without new sprouts (*knocks wood*).
We trimmed and tamed the established shrubs along the wall (I like to try to keep anything that’s established even if it’s something I’d never plant. It’s a good way to save money and reduce waste).
We planted one clumping bamboo to eventually provide privacy, shade, and a nice swooshing sound to one corner of the balcony.
In making the walkway, I came across two sandstone flags that made an arrow when combined. We set these on both sides of the mailbox and proceeded to pat ourselves on the back.
My favorite thing about this yard – before the invasion of the nutgrass – is how it was built (with plants, compost and heavy mulch, etc.) to repair the soil enough so it could be turned over for growing food at any time.
Further notes for those interested in a rant about weeds:
Almost everything in this yard was done by hand/sans equipment. Every workable area was so narrow and there were utilities and posts to preserve. The one piece of equipment we used was a tiller. The existing dirt was dry, cracked, and compacted yet packed with weeds. Tilling broke up the top layer, which broke loose most of the weeds so we could scrape it up and take it away.
Since nutgrass took over this yard I’ve been curious to know why these weeds are thriving in the first place – are they a canary in a coal mine, trying to tell us what’s up with our environment in Houston? Too much carbon in the air, probably. Do they serve a purpose in keeping the ground alive and rich with nutrients and microbes? I’ve been surprised to find out how many weeds are C4 plants (i.e.: super efficient at cleaning the air).
In this case, tilling successfully ripped up the thick mat of established weeds (and since we’ve had to pull just two spurge and about three purslane which stayed, because they’re pretty and delicious), but I think it also broke up the nodes and rhizomes of nutgrass’s unique network of roots into a ton of seeds for new sprouts.
I still consider this a successful technique in restoring a long-neglected patch of inner city earth. The alternative is digging down about 3-4 inches and removing the top layer of dirt altogether and replacing with fresh dirt (which doesn’t always guarantee to be free of weed seeds) – an incredible amount of work that just about doubles the cost of the work listed above. Another is putting down a thick layer of impenetrable material and leaving it there for months to snuff it out. I’m all for the farm-building look, but most people aren’t. A controlled burn would do the trick for weeds but not the house. And last but not least – weed fabric.
I hate weed fabric. It takes extra work and money and weeds *still* grow through it. It slows weed growth down for the first two months (except nutgrass), just long enough for landscapers to say “ta-daaaa! Your yard is so CLEAN and tidy!” and when weeds show up later you just blame the weeds. It’s a wonderful tool for landscapers in this way and a lot of people are really sold on it, but I would rather save money now, save the earth the resources in that fabric’s construction, and space in the landfill for the weed-laced fabric later on. I’ve seen so many yards over the last four years and weed fabric has had zero long-term benefit in all except a very few circumstances.
I am currently researching and testing the most sustainable approach. I have tried planting a lot of wildflowers, salvias, and tall grasses to blend with the wild weeds and it looked like an abandoned yard. I’ve tried dense planting to crowd out the weeds but most weeds are just more efficient than the plants we like. My current hypothesis is that the most sustainable approach isn’t a clean and controlled one, but one that has a mix of weeds and multi-purpose plants.