Turning Nasty Nature into Dreamy Reality

Backyard landscaping
Photograph by Garden Search & Rescue

There are too many reasons why a landscape or yard can become overgrown and unsightly. Depending on the duration and the kinds of plants that make our yards their home in that time, gaining ground can be challenging and daunting. So what do you do when your goals include things like not using chemicals, creating a birding and flower oasis, and giving yourself somewhere to land in that space? Welcome to one such story that started just as gnarly as they come.

We were called first back in 2019 to help plant a pollinator garden, rain gardens, a patio, and design for colorful growth. This homeowner wanted her yard back, and her plans included all her dreams; this is where she wanted to spend the rest of her life. What we found was nothing but large aging and decaying trees, two small forests of head-height buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), creeping campanula (Campanula rapunculoides), and bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria). You literally could not see the house from the sidewalk or vice versa, let alone enter the yard anywhere front or back. The owner patiently explained and pleaded her story, and with only a moment’s hesitation, we settled on the long haul.

We called an arborist to help remove the large items and instantly started in on the aggressive invasive plants ourselves. These plants often require much care in removal or the situation can be quickly exasperated and become even thicker in root mass. We dug slowly and methodically to the roots of the herbaceous predators with digging forks, carefully forking the roots up like pasta, taking care to remove all the roots possible. These plants go very deep into the soil, often reaching lengths of four feet in just a few years. Clearly, we don’t dig that deep. But the remnants will all grow, and they will push up in the soil to give another fight at life. Then we can go after them again.

Buckthorn is a bit the opposite. We’ve found that digging is extremely labor intensive and damaging to the soil layers, and those oh-so-viable roots just win with vigor. We now implement a strategy I’ve coined “the goat method.” We start by removing the seeds that would be present in the crowns and cutting the leader at about chest high. We wait for the cane to sprout and grow 6 to 10 inches and cut it 4 to 5 inches below the first cut. We repeat this until we have reached ground layer, and by the time we hit bottom, the roots are sapped and have given up. We leave all the slashed matter on site to add carbon and nitrogen to the ground, which will help the soil repair. In this case, we also added many loads of fresh wood chips (hot from the arborist) to lock up any nitrogen present with all the fresh carbon and hopefully starve out our smaller sprouting challengers. We repeated a similar approach in the front yard but used aged mulch instead, as we also planned to plant there first.

There are often several passes required to get the soil space back, but with determination, time, and patience, it’s very possible. This project did take a bit to complete, but was done without using any harmful chemicals. The labor (cost) was spread out over that time, making it a bit easier to digest. Patience was needed in ample amounts, but the results are so stunning, the owners can hardly remember the mess it had been. The backyard is slated for rain gardens, paths, and birding shrubs 2022.

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI