low maintenance front yard in rental property

timbo59August 2, 2012

We own a property with a relatively small front yard, but we are having major issues trying to get our tenants to even mow the are, to the extent where we've even had complaints from the HOA. We're just sick and tired of dealing with it, and short of simply getting a cement truck to come along and dump a load of concrete in the area, we'd like to eliminate the lawn if possible and lay down something in place that will make it a bit easier to do the upkeep. The area is about 30' x 35', bordered to the front and one side by a sidewalk and driveway, and on the other and at back by shrubs. We've thought about Xeriscaping the area with gravel, even looked at the notion of maybe creating a little Japanese stone garden, but the problem is that there's a slope at the front, and I think gravel needs a level base to work effectively. Maybe I build it up by a couple of feet at the front with a small retaining wall to level everything out?

Anyone have any suggestions or thoughts on what we could do - other than get new tenants!


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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

How about considering a lawn service ?
If your tenants aren't willing to run a lawn mower across the yard twice a month they certainly are not going to bend down and weed once a week.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 8:18PM
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What d-d says... (waves hi, welcome home)

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 8:40PM
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We have given that strong consideration, but under the terms of the present lease we can't add it in. That's why I'm looking at another solution that nips the whole thing in the bud long term. At the moment I've taken over the care to save any further grief with the city and local HOA, but it's a nuisance as we don't live that close by.

And as for twice a month - if only! Here in central Florida during the monsoonal time of the year it needs to be done once a week - once the cooler months roll around you can wind it back to twice a month.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 10:06PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

A large dump of pea gravel might work (have seen it do so at the neighbours') or an installation of paving stones. Or a thick cover of mulch with carpet junipers or microbiota planted, and mulch and weed until they grow in. Then it's just trimming them off the driveway and sidewalk.

Are tenants hard to come by? I guess I don't understand people who will rent a house with a lawn in an HOA area, and then think they can simply not mow... with no consequences. If they don't want to mow, they should maybe get an apartment?

Perhaps you could cost out your preferred alternative and ask them if they prefer to mow regularly or have the lawn changed to junipers or paving stones with a corresponding increase in rent.

I'm not saying I would leave it in lawn, by the way. But to do a nice yard I would want a variety of plants, which would require some skilled pruning and weeding as opposed to any-idiot-can mowing, so you wouldn't be any further ahead.

Karin L

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 10:54PM
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The section of my garden that I loathe the most is the gravel path on the east side of my house.
One of these days -- when I get the significant cash needed for driveway / back patio renovation, I'm planning to throw in the towel and pave the gravel areas as well.

We didn't put this in, but we have cursed whoever did. There used to be a bed that they had also mulched with gravel, right outside the front door. It's also evident that over the years someone would throw more gravel at the problem. That bed we dug out ourselves, returning it to a soil-based planting bed, now mulched with cedar wood chips.

The point is this: very quickly, and in Florida perhaps very, very quicly, organic material wanders, blows, drifts, and floats into the gravel. Darling cute little weed seeds amazingly always find these pockets of organic material, push down surprisingly deep and tenacious roots and then dare you to pull them out between what turns out to be very hard rocks. Oh, and did I mention that pulling weeds out of gravel when it's hot is surprisingly unappealing and time consuming?

A 20 minute mow job is nothing.

And, no, I haven't done much to alter my gravel path. Hate to throw money at something I long to get rid of. I also hate gravel as a walking surface. Too unstable for one such as me.

Karen did mention pea gravel. Done right that may work better. I have no first-hand experience with such. What I have is gravel that is irregular and about the size of a jeweler's ring box.

    Bookmark   August 2, 2012 at 11:33PM
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I had to laugh at Karin's response about apartment living. After the most recent fiasco involving non-mowing, my wife actually wrote to the tenants in exasperation, having just received an earful from the HOA maven, and suggested they may be better off living in an apartment, which got a very frosty response about her 'insinuation'. I wrote back and said I was sorry they'd misunderstood, and that it wasn't an insinuation, implication, or suggestion, but a bell-ringingly clear statement based on the obvious evidence of the front yard.

As for tenants being hard to come by, no, we just made a mistake and misjudged these people - we just have to learn to stop trying to be nice and treat this thing as a business. We sunk retirement money into buying this house, spent over 20k fixing it up to make it a really nice place to live in, and put it on the rental market with our fingers crossed hoping we'd find anyone to rent it. Anyone? We actually ended up getting inundated with so many inquiries that we took the ad down within 2 days, and realized very quickly that we'd under-priced the rental figure considerably - even a number of the applicants remarked how little we were asking given the square footage of the house. But we stuck with the figure we'd posted, as we thought it would be unethical to bump it up. We sorted through the applications, had a number of good prospects, and decided to take a gamble on a group of clean-cut guys who'd grown up together and impressed us as being above the norm, not a bunch who'd turn the place into a frat house. Plus with multiple income streams, we thought rent would never be an issue. Well, three months in and they'd only mowed once - at our request - and one of the neighbors joked that if they spent as much time on the yard as they did cleaning their cars/motorbikes, the place would be the most immaculate in the city!

Getting tenants to mow just seems to be an ongoing issue - our old home, which we've also rented out, has just as bad a problem with the sitting tenant, even though we even ended up buying a mower for the property to encourage them to take care of the yard. Well, look at the attached picture - the tenant claimed their lawn service hadn't been around for a couple of weeks! Yeah right!

I'll look into the pea gravel suggestion. Someone else also suggested some suitable ground cover. That might be an idea as well.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 10:39AM
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So, there is a HOA involved in this situation. As a former Grounds Chairman in two such communities where we really tried to work with homeowner needs your thoughts of total gravel/concrete front yard coverage would not be acceptable. Better check this idea with your HOA first for clarification. With all the foreclosures more and more houses not selling are being rented in some exclusive HOA's and control is being lost. I am seeing this on many southern plantations. Have you retained the right to inspect the house interior for upkeep? I hope so. A beautiful, expensive house across from us was trashed in six months by renters.

For the moment you appear stuck with the problem and your tenants will not cooperate. If you are not willing to pay for yard maintenance then there are few other options in this poor real estate market.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 10:58AM
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Is there anything in the contract about maintaining the yard or abiding by the HOA restrictions? If so, maybe you have grounds for eviction? I have no idea, just throwing it out there. I would never rent a house to a group of single guys, or even single girls after seeing the condition of some of my dd's friends places.

There isn't anything to prevent you from hiring a lawn service at your expense. It would be cheaper than doing any of the landscaping you mentioned, and other than concrete, nothing will stop the weeds. I have a dry stream area that has black plastic with gravel under it. Nutsedge pops through it, and weeds sprout along the edge. I haven't had anything sprout in the leaves and stuff that collects in it, but I do have to sweep that off the edge occasionally. Less work for me than mowing there, but still work.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 11:22AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Around here cheaper mow and blow servicescan be found for about $50 to $80/monthly for once a week mowing, so low end annual cost is only $600 a year. You can't begin to replace a lawn for anything close to that cost. I'd suggest you absorb the cost for the remainder of the current one year lease, and learn your lesson that rentals in your area need to include the cost of yard service. As others have pointed out, any alternative treatment also requires maintenance which your current tennants are not willing to do, so you'd be better off rewriting the lease agreeent and capturing the costs with higher rent fees when the lease expires. As Nandina points out, many if not most HOA's are unlikely to accept a graveled front yard as replacement for existing lawn...

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 11:31AM
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There are a few groundcover ideas that come to mind, but any would require you to fully dispense with weeds first as groundcover with weeds in it looks terrible. To do so, I'd be inclined to spray the area with Round-up AND 2,4-D-based herbicide and ALSO smother it with a layer of cardboard and mulch (which you would plant THROUGH a few weeks later.) I'd use both methods because weeds would be a big issue and either of the aforementioned methods alone would not be sufficient to take care of all weeds. (If there is nutgrass in the area it still might not take care of that.) Use of pre-emergent herbicide after planting would be useful to keep new weed seeds from germinating.

One groundcover that would most look like a lawn is DWARF mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana'. ('Nana' ONLY!... regular dwarf is too tall.) I've seen it used in quite large areas as a lawn substitute and it looks good. It grows 2" to 4" ht. and is very dark green. With irrigation--at least during establishment--it is not that slow at spreading. (It does not like lime.) Takes sun or shade.

Another possibility is perennial peanut (Arachis glabrata) rated for zone 8B to 11. There are a small handful of lawn-substitute varieties, but 'Ecoturf' is the most commonly found. I also found 'Gold Mound' but could not tell ANY physical difference between the two. (There are varieties that are NOT for use as a lawn so don't research those; you would not run across them in the landscape trade.) The main advantages to Arachis is good looks, TONS of bloom, rapid cover, 6" ht. but can be mowed to keep shorter (every 45-60 days), needs no fertilizer or irrigation (after it gets going). And since it grows rapidly with irrigation and fertilizer, can be spaced at 3' or 4' (gallons) to start. The main disadvantage is that it needs edging as it grows laterally. Tenants may edge with car tires! It requires full sun so will not grow into the shaded area. It's color is 'grass' green.

Here is a link that might be useful: Link is about establishing dwarf mondo lawn

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 11:50AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Yes, I was forgetting the HOA for the moment I wrote pea gravel, and of course I don't know Florida. And no one was more surprised than me when it ended up serving well at the neighbour's - I was aghast (quietly) when they put it in but it is holding up well and successfully suppressing weeds. But that is, upon reflection, where there is regular foot traffic. It might not work as well with no foot traffic and/or in Florida.

By the way, changing over to ground cover is a heckuva lot of work. I vote for getting a service at their expense. It appears you supplied a lawnmower, so with the fact that there was a lawn that they were planning to have the use of, the expectation should have been clear - at least, clear enough for them to ask about.

Karin L

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 12:16PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Oh, for a minute I thought maybe you owned the house next door to mine. The one with the environmentalist renters who don't believe in harming weeds... You own the house and you are ultimately responsible for the maintenance. Yes, you have a business, you are making money, and will have to spend some now and then. I agree with Bahia's recommendation to eat the cost until you can raise the rent to help you cover it. Unfortunately it's not realistic to expect the tenant to take care of your property unless that stipulation was in the written agreement. This is your investment; it's to your benefit to take care of it. Care would include an occasional weed treatment, fertilizer, as well as the mowing and edging, really much easier to care for than anything else you could substitute.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 3:12PM
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Just to answer a few questions, yes there is a HOA with the original house I posted about, and they have already okay-ed the idea of putting in the gravel - it's not a straight gravel operation by the way, but more along the lines of a Japanese rock garden, with a few plants here and there as highlights. I figured if I lay black plastic underneath, with a bed of gravel above a couple of inches thick, nothing is going to grow through it!

A neighbor suggested using Asiatic dwarf jasmine as ground cover instead of the gravel option, while another did suggest perennial peanut. The dwarf Mondo makes me a little leery, as I half imagine the HOA screaming at us that it looks like unkempt grass in need of a mowing!

As for the point about using a lawn service and writing it into the lease when we renew it, that is something we've definitely considered for our old home (the one with the pictures above of the rampant lawn) because the problem is that the area is so large that I think it puts the tenants off from keeping it well looked after. As I said, we bought a mower for the property that we wrote into the lease - they just didn't want to use it.

The other house that I originally posted about though is a different situation, given that the front yard is relatively small (30' x 35'). The other issue I should have mentioned is that it isn't just case of taking care of the lawn - the present area is really in bad shape, with crab grass, bare patches everywhere, weeds, etc, and really should be replaced. That was our original intention and we had already lined up the replacement sod. But when we realized that the tenants weren't going to look after it, my wife and I looked at each other and wondered what would be the point of throwing all that money down for new sod, only to watch it either go wild through lack of attention, or die because the tenants wouldn't bother giving it the abundant twice-a-day watering needed in the first month - that or we'd have to drive over twice a day to take care of it ourselves. Then I also discovered that the sprinkler system was shot, because what I thought were mere missing sprinkler heads turned out to be crushed pipes from former tenants parking off the concrete constantly and on the lawn (a fact confirmed by neighbors) or what was left of it. So it would all have to be dug up and replaced.

Throw all that into the pot, and that's why we started thinking about alternatives that would circumvent these issues, such as a Japanese rock garden with drought resistant plantings and little care required by tenants, or ground cover like dwarf jasmine that needs no watering once established - or so we're told.

A last point. Yes, we've had plenty of grounds with both properties to issue evictions, but you know, who wants to do that unless really forced to? Last year the family that rented out our old home went into a divorce, the husband moved out, and the family thus lost their chief source of income because the mother was a stay-at-home parent home schooling her children - AND she had her crippled old mother living with her. Sounds like some kind of cliche, right? They ended up getting three months behind on rent, we even put their security deposit towards the payments (with the tenant's permission) to try and keep them afloat, yet reached a point eventually where we simply couldn't afford to keep making two mortgage payments and were virtually begging this woman to find a job to save us having to evict her. My wife and I just sat there totally stressed and virtually in tears, asking ourselves how we'd ever reached a point where we were going to be forced to toss a financially destitute woman, with her two young children and an elderly grandmother, on the street. To say it was a horrible feeling doesn't even come close, but thankfully her church eventually came to the rescue and she eventually dug her way out of the her precarious financial state. The fact she's letting the house virtually fall apart outside, and all the disingenuous excuses she uses to cover it, have worn down our last reserves of kindness, and we have already told her that three years is more than enough and that she needs to find another place to live in when the current lease runs out.

Thanks again for all the response. It's been really enjoyable seeing what everyone has to say on the matter.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 3:19PM
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@Just a postscript to CatKim. I'm not sure if you've ever rented a home (and I assure you I'm not being sarcastic) as it's standard practice to include a clause in the lease that stipulates that the tenant will take care of yard-work such as mowing lawns, unless they agree within the terms of the lease that additional payments are included in the rent to have a lawn service take care of matters. It's all within reason kind of stuff. As a landlord you wouldn't expect a tenant to go the expense of having trees trimmed or do it themselves, or climbing on roofs to remove leaves and debris. But the general day to day stuff is their responsibility via the terms of the lease. Both our rental properties have such clauses, so in essence they're legally in violation of their leases. That's why some of the other posters were discussing eviction processes.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 3:30PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

I'm renting now, and it's in the agreement that the owner does the yard work.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 4:12PM
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Timbo, I am going to challenge you. Tell me why this old ruse of an idea; black plastic covered with a few inches of gravel will cause you more problems than you presently have. Take a close look at the picture you posted, the surrounds and the grass type. You really need to think your "solution" through carefully. You are asking for trouble. Do you know why?

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 4:19PM
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Timbo, this may give you a clue to Nandina's riddle:

The second reason I curse previous owners of my property came through the interesting process of yard Archaeology: the slow and tedious act of removing previous mistakes and adventures of those who have lived in your home before you.

In addition to the bed just outside our front door that was still surface mulched with gravel, there are other original beds in this yard that used to be gravel beds. One does not have to carbon date such things. It belongs to the early disco neolithic period which was marked by afros, the Busstop, and Saturday Night Fever. In those wild days peoples lived upon the land who rolled out heavy plastics and bestowed upon them mounds of gravel interspersed hither and yon with a few plants.

I actually don't know if it was the first permutation of our yard's landscape, but I do know that it failed long, long ago. Below this gravel is the plastic. If you believe that it never goes away, you are correct. I find it deteriorating. Blech! If you believe that it prevents weeds, that ain't necessarily so..

It's a temporary fix. Given heat, rain, stretching, the plants that die leaving a hole in the plastic, the organics still caught above the plastic, etc. etc. weeds will do their thing.

And, throw in that you are thinking of a Japanese rock garden. Those look beautiful because even the gravel is raked and washed. As I understand it, a Japanese rock garden leans on the intentional presentation of the balance between nature and the presence of a human who is tending the garden. Unless you mean something more like the gas-station plantings in gravel beds, but lots of those have weeds when untended.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 7:53PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Just for the record, I did not say to use landscape fabric or plastic!! I would use neither. If you want to put something down, there is always newspaper, or you could find some old pure wool or other organic material carpeting and put your pea gravel or mulch on top of that.

And I do recommend mulch over pea gravel.

It is true that the major drawback of using any kind of gravel (especially normal size rocks) is for the next person making the change back to grass. But I think we're hoping to live in a post-grass world, most of us, so maybe that's not so bad. The other major drawback of gravel is if you have lawn somewhere nearby and gravel gets tracked into it. Very bad for mowers, and anyone standing nearby. But I noticed there are no nearby lawn areas.

OK, so you're saying you have to replace the lawn anyway. We took out a patch of lawn early this year and here is what we did: my husband turned it over with the spade, and I emptied all the wood chippings, leaves, and other mulch I had on hand over the surface. I planted little bits of ground cover in spaces in the mulch. The area has actually remained weed-free all summer, and so far the ground cover pieces have survived. Without having to consider what DH wanted, I would probably have just smothered the lawn with a thick layer of mulch as I think it would have worked just as well. But he wanted to actively kill the grass :-)

Can you get a truck load of wood chippings from a tree service? That would be ideal - again, in my climate. I don't know Florida.

Karin L

    Bookmark   August 3, 2012 at 9:37PM
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