Curb Appeal on a Budget - Ideas Wanted! :)

SkyGirl10April 10, 2011

My husband and I purchased our 1st home (Oregon, USDA Zone 8)in November of �09. We spent the Spring/Summer of 2010 remodeling the interior/exterior of our home (bunked in our 1 car garage the whole time) and would like to spend this Spring and Summer getting our hands dirty in the yard but we have very, very little money to spend on any major projects (we still don�t any furniture, unless you count the mattress on the floor in the living room!). I�ve attached pictures showing the current state of the front yard (We'll leave the backyard with it's giant hole where a collapsed swimming pool used to be for another day). The previous owner ripped out the grass and tossed around a few handfuls of wildflower seed, leaving the lawn 50% weeds, 10% wildflowers, and 40% grass. We would like to figure out a plan for making the most of what we have. Two owners back the yard was meticulously maintained in Japanese inspired style (we�ve heard stories from neighbors). This too lends to our trouble as they planted bamboo without a barrier and it has taken over a corner of our back yard and wants to take over the side yard. We also have a ton of large and small rocks/stones all over the property (even some very interesting lava rock). I�m sure at one point the placement of rocks made sense, but the previous owner moved them all around and even lined some of them up like tombstones in the front yard. We would like the yard to be nice enough to avoid embarrassment (the neighbors have been very understanding, but that will probably only last for so long) and to provide a nice view from the front porch for the coming Summer/Fall seasons. We aren�t afraid of getting our hands dirty. Any ideas for how to attack this crazy yard would be very much appreciated.

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You can create dry river that can run along the street between big rocks with bridge to hide water collection grid.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 12:38AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

First, identify the plants you have. If you don't have a gardener friend who can ID them, take a clear photo of each plant as a whole, along with a close-up which shows at least one leaf plus the arrangement of leaves on the twig. Flowers/fruit also, if there are any. Post each plant as a separate thread on the Name That Plant! forum (just a few at a time), and make sure to use different titles for the different threads.

Make a list of the plants in your yard, their names as they're identified, their location in the garden, and additional information (flower color and bloom time if they bloom; fall color; mature size -- which generally means at 10 years, though they'll keep growing after that; other info that may incline you to keep or get rid of them; etc.).

Then you can tell us what you have, and we may be able to give some advice (keep this, get rid of that, prune it, move it). You can also look them up on the web to find out more about them. Eventually, at the right time of year, with fear and trembling, you'll dare to prune the shrubs so they don't look like they've escaped from the Secret Garden (and no, you don't have to make them "meatballs").

Do you have a public library card? If not, now's the time! You may be able to find gardening books on topics that will help you (shrubs; weeds; the neglected garden; introductory gardening; lawncare; vegetable gardening; etc.). If you need something on a topic your library doesn't own, they can obtain it for you through their Interlibrary Loan service (sometimes free, sometimes a small fee). Yes, I am a librarian.

Buy a trowel and/or a basic weeder. Spend a couple of hours every weekend digging up the dandelions (get as much of the root as you can) and other obvious weeds. It's cheaper than Round-up -- and I swear my dandelions are immune to Round-up!

Buy or borrow a wheelbarrow. Dig up the hill in front of the front porch and use it to fill part of the pool-hole. You may also be able to find a free source of what's called "clean fill" (might have to pick it up yourself, though; know anyone with a pickup?). Ask people you know; ask at the nursery where you bought the weeder (a real nursery, not a big-box store).

Check Craigslist and FreeCycle for possible plants people are getting rid of.

Buy a shovel at the real nursery. Dig up a sunny area of the backyard and start a veggie garden. Things won't go smoothly, but you'll begin to gain experience, and with luck you'll have a good crop of something. Plant vegetables you actually eat. Buy tomato plants; plant seeds for most other vegetables. Don't use any spray that's not safe for food crops! Learn about insecticides; use them sparingly if at all. Stop in at the Vegetable forum and the Square Foot Gardening forum; read their FAQs.

Cut down the bamboo and use it to stake your tomatoes, runner beans, cucumbers, etc. Cut small pieces and use them to mark the rows where you planted seeds. [Yes, I do realize this won't solve your bamboo difficulties.]

Re. the furniture issue, is there a Habitat for Humanity resale shop in your area? Check in the yellow pages for thrift shops; if you try often enough, you'll get lucky.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 1:29AM
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toronado3800 Zone 6 StLouis(6)

Skygirl, do you want a more formal look to your yard or do you prefer less formal?

briergardener had a great idea with the rocks. I am about to go purchase some big rocks. Probably won't place them as tombstones lol but I do want some!

I tend not to like seeing dirt. Makes me think of mud. I throw mulch over it, let the clover take over, anything to keep from seeing dirt. Am I right in assuming that area between your front door and the tree probably gets too much shade for grass to grow? Just begs for mulch or rocks or something.

Besides that, what doya want?

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 1:34AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

What a fun challenge; and what a lovely site. There are tons of possibilities. Besides the questions above, I think there is at least one other that you should make up front regarding the two big trees - do they stay or go? If they are going to go, may as well be now. If they are going to stay for at least another 10 years, it is worth working around them.

I'm going to disagree with MTO above and say that starting a vegetable garden now is taking on too much. Unless it's really important to you. But I think you should tackle that bamboo right away and you will need to stay on that for a few years, probably.

The shrubs in the yard are an interesting size, not really too big to move yet, but a biggish digging job. So you should make a stay-or-go decision about each of those too, if you can - is one really in the way blocking access or view, or does another just nicely provide privacy screening?

Just by way of sketching where I'd go with this: I'd put a patio of some sort right in front of the porch that is integrated with your sidewalk (haven't quite found your front door yet), and sort of mentally work your way out from the house in terms of the plan. Think about where you want to be in the yard and how you want to move about in it as much as about how you want it to look and what you want to see. Don't think too much about what individual plants you want just yet; think in general terms about what type/shape of plants you want - say, low-growing perennials here, tall plant here, ground cover shrub there.

A little feedback from you will help to steer further input from people.


    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 1:54AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Karin, in picture 4, I think the front door is hiding behind the tree.

I figured the trees were the least of the OP's immediate problems, since the trees don't detract much from curb appeal. But you're right (and I've missed the obvious yet again): blocking the view of the front door is an unforgivable sin, so let's cut it down! [Okay, I may be a bit giddy at the moment from contemplating daylily purchases, but I am serious about blocking the view of the front door being an unforgivable sin for a tree.]

-- mto the tree-killer (at the moment, working on getting rid of another silver maple)

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 3:36AM
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One persons fun challenge is another's nightmare. For me it is a nightmare. Call a landscaper and get a price for ripping everything out, stock pile the 'tombstones' and any plants you are in love with, work the ground and then sod the whole thing. You could do this yourself. I agree with karin about the trees. By doing this you will achieve two things: you will gain favour with the neighbours and avoid the task of trying to make a silk purse from a pigs ear. You could put some plants back if they fit your plan. You will also gain time enough to fill in the swimming pool before the baby come along.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 12:27PM
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Thank you all for the great advice! I apologize for not being more specific about our needs and wants and for those funny characters in my original post. To answer toronado3800's question, we are informal people so we definitely want an informal yard/garden. The yard feels vast and leads your eye right to the street. We'd like it to feel cozy and keep the interest at home. :)

The tree issue is one we debate regularly, karinl and missingtheobvious. I know the tree in front of the door is terribly placed, but it is such a nice tree we'd hate to cut it down. The pine actually scares me a little (we are due for the big earthquake here in the NW...) but again, it is a perfectly good tree. We were thinking about possibly adding a third tree to the left of the pine (maybe a Dogwood - I know they don't mind acidic soil) to add visual symmetry. Planting a tree seems like a good, long term investment of the little money we do have.

Karinl, extending the porch is something we have been thinking about. At this time, we can't afford to make it a true extension with concrete; what kind of material would you suggest using? We'd love to have a 2nd path from the street or from the driveway to the front door too.

We love the rocks (I know some folks spend a fortune in rocks, and not just the diamond kind, either), but we don't know how to make them look like "God placed them" -any ideas? The dry river bed idea is really interesting. I'm trying to picture what it might look like. Does the "stream" just run the length of the gully or does it have a beginning point in the yard somewhere? We did look into having the gully filled in so we could have extra parking for friends and family, but it doesn't fit our budget at the moment. This seems like an interesting alternative.

I work in a library, missingtheobvious, so it is funny you should mention that as a resource (one of the best!). I've looked at so many glossy photos and read so many ideas about what makes good landscaping that I'm a little overwhelmed by it all, which is why, Karinl, your idea not to think too much about individual plants but about size and shape and need first is great! I have been writing down names of specific plants like mad, but can't actually visualize them in the space when I go back to my list later.

Missingtheobvious, thank you for the idea to try and figure out what plants we have first. There are several I am completely in the dark about. I will definitely try posting on the Name That Plant! forum.

One thing that really bugs me is the chain link fence -it isn't very pretty and unfortunately there is a lot of it. I'd like to camouflage it in some way. Any ideas?

Again, my thanks for all of your great advice! It is really helpful to "talk it out" this way.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 12:47PM
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If it's curb appeal you're looking for, then it's the front yard where you want to put your best foot forward before tackling vegetable gardening, etc. I've had my years of over enthusiastic scatter shot gardening/landscaping that often left everything I started unfinished.

I agree on getting a few good implements to start - you'd be surprised how often loppers, pruners, shovels, etc. show up at yard sales. I also agree at submitting photos to the Name that Plant forum since those folks are reliably good. Looks to me like you've got rhododendron, boxwood and barberry. And the three mounds in picture #4 could be lupins.

The rock placement is probably the worst I've seen on this forum - or any other so I'd simply pry those up, wheelbarrow them away to a stockpile for a future better use.

This is a front yard where virtually any spruce up, dig up, prune up chore will be a vast improvement.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 12:50PM
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P.S. I swear I don't secretly work for Chrysler.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 1:08PM
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If you're in East Multnomah, look into free workshops at They can help you with how to start thinking about your yard and what you want to achieve there. Also, they're free.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 1:12PM
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I'm not in East Mulnomah, but looking for free workshops is a really good idea, tanowicki! I'm going to see if I can locate any in my area.

Here are a few more photos of the yard to help complete the picture:

This little strip of land is to the right of the driveway, and more than a little dismal. It crying out for a pick-me-up.

The far left side of the yard,side yard and glimpse of the mess that is our back yard. Our bedroom window is on this side and it looks right at the neighbors front door.

And just to prove I do actually have a front door ... :)

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 2:05PM
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At first I thought that was barberry but I cant tell could it be cotoneaster?
I agree that the perennial is lupine. Probably all that is left from the wildflower mix. IMO lupine is very pretty in a field but is not the best choice for a front garden since after it blooms it looks like crap and it doesnt stay put but self sows wherever it wants to go.

I have to say you do have a lot of work ahead of you. But with a little commitment and some time you should be able to clean that up. My approach would be to get rid of most of the shrubs, possibly the tree (although it really is a pretty tree) apply weed control to the lawn and just mow it for a couple of years. Its amazing how much just regularly mowing a lawn can get rid of a lot of weeds. Then you start with a clean slate and as the purse strings loosen up you can invest in a well thought out plan. Neat and simple would be the best choice on a budget.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 2:19PM
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that is barberry by the chain link fence - but by the mailbox in the first pic you posted - i think thats cotoneaster.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 2:22PM
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When we bought our house, front yard looked a little bit like SkyGirl's. Couple trees, couple bushes, weedy grass and a number of big rocks.
We removed all grass, planted bushes along street, bought more rocks and created dry river and rock garden along driveway, planted some perennials (still work in progress). My DH built a small bridge. The key point to placing rocks, was to dig a hole and put rock there so it would be partially in soil, then it looks like it was put there by nature. Our neighbours like the view.

This is part of rock garden along driveway

Part of our dry river.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 3:21PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

SkyGirl, you are fortunate to have a good sense of humor, it will serve you well in this process. Even on a tight budget your front garden has plenty of potential.

When I think of all the wonderful plants that can grow in Oregon I am stumped by the "random acts of unkindness" the previous owner heaped upon the garden. Thanks to your own description of the rocks as "tombstones" I chuckle every time I look at your photos.

I would start with editing -- removing things that don't feel good. As advised by duluthinbloom, gather the rocks and set them aside for other applications. Then I would start closest to the house and gradually work my way outward, removing the "cousin it" blobs. The shapes and textures are all so similar, even if one of the plants is a good choice, it can't be appreciated in this arrangement. Things are definitely out of balance here. In my recent experience, removing even a few items that visually offend can provide you with a large reward in the form of a sense of relief. Once you clear away some of the distractions, your organizational choices will become easier.

The dense thing in front of the door -- maybe it can be "laced"? Lacing is a method of thinning out a canopy to let through sunlight. You maintain the shape, the bones fo the shrub, but remove smaller interior crossing branchlets. All you need are pruners and a small hand saw.

Lastly, although I completely understand the impulse, resist the urge to focus on the chain link fence. By making the garden itself a pleasure to view, the fence will fade drastically in prominence.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2011 at 3:34PM
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