Beginning Landscaping for a New House

Q: We just bought a lovely house in Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood. The house has a big back yard but we’ve run into a couple of landscape challenges. We don’t really know where to start.

We’ve recently learned that people used to bury their trash in the yard. Every time it rains, our yard surfaces bottles, shoes, old dolls, etc. and quite a bit of glass. When it comes to planting, is there a category for “trash soil”?

When it rains, all of the runoff makes its way to the back fence. Not just from our yard, but from neighboring yards. Grass doesn’t grow along the fence. I dream of something pretty there one day, like shrubs and a flower bed. We only get partial sun, maybe 3-5 hours a day.
We have no idea what we’re doing.

A: Congratulations on the new home!

Back in the day, I renovated houses in Grant Park and Ormewood Park so I am well aware of the mysteries that can be unearthed in a backyard like yours. I think you should mount a shelf on the back fence and put your buried treasures on display there.

Your first consideration is how much sunshine the landscape gets. No matter how tempting it is in spring, don’t plant flowers that like full sun, like coneflower, daylily, or Shasta daisy. New Guinea impatiens, hosta, variegated Solomon’s seal, and variegated Japanese fern will give you color without needing lots of sunshine. There are lots of other flower choices but these will get you started.

I see that you have a “lawn” but my bet is mostly shade-tolerant “weeds”. Unless you enjoy banging your head against a wall trying to get grass to grow there, I would treat the weeds as my initial lawn. Fertilize in April, June and September, mow regularly, and see how it looks after year!

The water against the back fence is more complicated. Is there any way to concentrate the water in one spot, install a drain, and pipe it somewhere else underground? You could consider a rain garden (check my website for details) but it might have a hard time drying out after a big rain.

Go make friends with the people at a local independent nursery. I know they are more expensive than the big box stores but the advice they can give is worth a lot. Keep a collection of photos of your landscape in the car so you can drop by the nursery, buy some things, and ask for a little more advice with each purchase. They probably have someone who could do a consult visit to your home for not much money.

I have a list of shade tolerant plants on my website. Check it out for more ideas.

Above all, don’t get frustrated. Work on one spot at a time and gradually the whole landscape will look great.