Instead of Round-Up, I Used Elbow Grease

The photo above is the front yard before our landscape renovations. The photo on the right is after our landscape renovations (with much more to come!)

by Samantha Prust

My first house was in need of some TLC inside, but I conveniently hadn’t thought of the area outside around the house. Sure, I had looked at it. It had a nice big backyard. A crab apple tree, some aspen. I didn’t worry at the time. After chopping down overgrown foliage, it was time to tackle the trees and the turf–or the lack of it. The trees were easy: we just cut them down or hired a tree trimmer for the larger trees. We had a nice dirt yard in the front with some aspen suckers poking through the dried up soil. It was my first big “Uh-oh” moment. I had no idea how to fix it. My first inclination was to get the grass in better shape. Everyone said to use Round-Up to kill the weeds and aspen suckers. I didn’t want to use it. I was adamant about not using Round-Up or any other chemical weed killer because I don’t believe that is right for the environment and only ends up making it more difficult to get rid of weeds in the long run. I wanted a natural solution that wouldn’t compromise the health of our soil. When I met my husband, he was completely on board with my decision to avoid toxic chemicals in our yard. Also, we have pets and it’s not safe for them. We stuck by our rule: No Round-Up. The only other option was hand weeding. I decided it was a great option that would provide exercise, sunshine and some good ol’ dirt under the fingernails. We focused on hand weeding the front yard because that’s what everyone sees. I planted grass seed and fertilized it and it did grow. I used a nontoxic pre-emergent/fertilizer mix that contains corn gluten to kill the weeds before they come up.

The yard was looking pretty good for a couple of years. But the grass soon succumbed to the weeds and the sun baked the grass into an ugly, crispy brown carpet across the lawn. When the grass went dormant, that gave the weeds a chance to grow. I had had it with trying to cultivate a perfect green grass lawn. I decided that I didn’t want the hassle, maintenance, and expense (it takes a lot of watering to get a green lawn in Colorado) of such a lawn, so I began reading about xeriscaping. I had heard of it years before I bought my house, but I hadn’t thought of it as a viable option because I figured it took special gardening skills. I was always very attracted to high desert and native plants, and wanted to incorporate those into the landscape. It was decided: we would have a xeriscaped front yard. I was so excited! It would be a while before we could add any plants. I had to read more and plan out where we would put certain plants. In the meantime, I continued hand weeding. This went on year after year and this year is the first year we are caught up with weeds and have them under control (as much as this is possible). It was a great workout regimen, let me tell ya! We also had to pull up aspen sucker roots throughout the entire front yard.

So, after pulling out those big roots and hand weeding enough that the weeds were under control, we covered the soil with clear plastic. Now, I know they say not to do this, but we were on a mission to kill weeds and this seemed like a sure bet (it worked out great). After we secured the plastic in place with garden staples, we covered the plastic with wood mulch, all of which we got free from asking nearby tree trimmers if we could have their shredded mulch when they were done. They were more than happy to skip a trip to dump the mulch, so they just dumped it in our driveway and we shoveled wheelbarrows full and dumped it where we wanted it in the front yard. We left a space for grass where it was growing the best without any extra irrigation. This method worked great because once the weeds were suppressed by the plastic and mulch, we had more time to focus on getting the grass patch whipped into shape. I concentrated on weeds growing the grassy area and tried to reseed grass there as much as possible.

Finally, as you can see in the after pic, it is much improved. The after pic also shows that we repainted the house. We are still in the process of adding landscaping plantings, but we did plant a tree and a large ornamental pampas grass and a maiden grass, which the photo on the right doesn’t show. I will post another pic this spring when those plants are in full bloom. Slowly the front yard is beginning to take shape as our xeriscape garden. It is one of the most satisfying feelings to plant something and watch it grow and bring beauty to your landscape. I am really enjoying home improvement, especially outdoors!

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