I live on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of Denver with a superb view of the mountains and sometimes hellish winds in the winter. My husband and I have lived here almost 15 years, and we’re about to move, so it’s time for me to meditate on restoration of a suburban yard. I tried really hard to make my huge, oddly shaped yard into something native and sustainable, and I succeeded—but only in part.
I used to have 3 gardens beds in the northwestern corner of my yard, constructed of arsenic-soaked logs. In 2003 I tore them out, took some to Resource 2000 so that they could be reused, and sent the rest to the landfill, where they can leak chemicals into the groundwater near Golden. I converted that section of the yard to buffalograss, a little blue grama (grama means “grass” in Latin), side oats grama, Penstemon strictus (a blue, tubular flower native to this area), rabbitbrush, and other plants. Some curly-cup gumweed came up every two years of its own accord, and a little bluestem (I think) seems to have done the same. (Note: Lots of native plants have “weed” as part of their names. Many of them are quite beautiful. I don’t know that I would call gumweed beautiful, but I like it.)
I dug new garden beds on the other side of the yard, and come the next spring, I realized my mistake. These new beds are all the way around the house from the only outdoor spigot, and I can’t use the sprinkler system until May. So I had to hand-water the beds if I wanted to grow vegetables before May. (Mistake #1)
But my buffalograss meadow was slowly filling in, and I had high hopes that it would soon become sustainable and require only minimal weeding. (Mistake #2) Seven years later, I still spend hours and hours weeding that area every spring. It looks beautiful in the summer, fall, and winter, but in the spring it looks like a beige patch with lots of bright green weeds.
Lesson #1: Don’t try to convert a small area into a “native meadow,” especially if all the weed seeds from Boulder County blow into it every winter. A larger area will work better, and if it is exposed, you might want to plant some native shrubs to keep out a few of the weed seeds. You can still plant lots of natives in the part of your yard reclaimed from bluegrass. If you want to plant just a few shrubs, you can cover the ground with porous landscape fabric first, which will discourage weeds. If you want to plant spreaders, you can use a mulch like pea gravel. Wood mulch may leach nitrogen from the soil as it decomposes. (After having used lots of landscape fabric and various sizes of gravel in my yard, I’ve decided I prefer to avoid the landscape fabric. When I’ve pulled it up to plant something, the soil under it always looks kind of gray and … rotten, almost. Also, that gravel has to be mined somewhere.)
Lesson #2: Soil preparation is key. Spend at least a summer, and possibly an entire year, killing perennial weeds like bindweed. Then dump manure or compost or whatever your neighbors can tolerate all over your yard, and till it in the next spring. Then plant. (Creating a yard design in advance doesn’t hurt, either.)
Most of all, I wish I had converted my front yard to native plants. (Mistake #3) It would have shown my neighbors that they can create lovely landscaping with native flowers and grasses. I could have taken the lower half of that bed near the front door and grown vegetables. Converting lawns, especially front lawns, to veggie gardens is the newest craze.
Despite the mistakes I made, the futile things I did over and over again until I couldn’t stand them anymore, and my complete lack of planning, I managed to produce a lot of beauty in my yard. I never went chemical-free, but I limited myself to Roundup to kill thistles and Weed-Be-Gone (twice, I think) to get bindweed out of the lawn. The rest of the time, beneficial insects could live safely in my yard.
If you’re interested in converting bluegrass to something more interesting and sustainable, I suggest The Undaunted Garden by local landscaping expert Lauren Springer Ogden.