Neglect eventually causes the death of most landscape plants. If the backyard no longer resembles a garden and has deteriorated to patches of bare earth interspersed with crabgrass (Digitaria spp.) and weeds, it is time to start over. The weedy vegetation needs to be dealt with first and then the groundwork can be laid for new landscape. One of the benefits to doing a complete backyard overhaul is the opportunity to re-define the space with a new design.
Crabgrass is an annual weed that produces prolific amounts of seed. The grass itself is easily killed with a broad spectrum herbicide, such as glyphosate, but the bank of seeds stored in the soil will sprout the following year if they are not treated as well. Use a pre-emergent herbicide to kill the crabgrass seeds, such as DPCA, simazine or besulide. These also provide effective control for the many other weed seeds that are likely to be present. Always read the herbicide label for specific application rates and safety precautions.
To boost the soil fertility for the new landscape, spread 2 to 3 inches of compost over the entire area and till it in to a depth of 6 or 8 inches. If the ground is hard packed, set up a sprinkler and let it water for three to four hours to soften the soil before attempting to till. If the landscape will not be planted right away, the loose soil needs to be protected to prevent erosion. It can be covered with 3 or 4 inches of mulch or planted with a "cover crop" -- any annual plant that can be seeded to temporarily protect the soil.
Areas of interest or activity -- a patio, play area, water feature, gate or door, for example -- should be linked by garden paths. Pathways give definition to the landscape and can be surfaced with materials such as mulch, decorative gravel, natural flagstone or concrete products, depending on the intensity of use and budget. The areas defined by the paths can then become thematic garden zones. One area could have a shade tree planted in the middle with a lawn around it, while another may be reserved for plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Individual species must be chosen based on climate, soil type, and sun exposure. Within the environmental constraints of the site, the options for garden design are only limited by the imagination and personal preferences of the designer. The local cooperative extension service office will provide a low-cost soil test in most areas and nearby nurseries can be a great source of information -- and inspiration -- for what grows best in the region.
Spring is generally the best time of year to plant, though most trees, shrubs and perennials can go in the ground in early fall. Paths, patios, retaining walls and other "hardscape" features can be built spring through fall, when relatively warm, dry conditions can be relied on. The "hardscape" should always be built before any plants are put in place, as they are more akin to construction projects that can compact the soil, cause damage to the vegetation and tend to be messy in general. It is also important to check with local authorities regarding any landscape features that may be regulated. Common examples include fences, water features, decks and retaining walls over 2 feet tall, plus all sheds, gazebos and other such garden structures. Finally, before finalizing the design, make sure there are no underground utility lines in the vicinity of where any digging will take place. Call 811 to have them marked and revise plans to avoid them, if needed.
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