I live in the Pacific Northwest (Portland), and I have a small urban back yard (20'x30'). In the decade I have owned the house, I have never really done much with it, and it has ranged from boring but reasonably maintained grass lawn to complete weedlot, and everything in between. Its current state is weedlot.

I would like to transform it into a beautiful garden...but one that's as low maintenance as possible (I am returning to grad school while working full-time: time is the scarcest resource).

Earlier this year, I planted two trees I like (a Stewartia and a Ash Cimmaron), but I am at a loss as to what to do with the rest of the yard, and I don't know where to start. I am not in love with grass, and I like the idea of lusher, wilder-looking gardens. I also love moss gardens, and there are parts of the yard that are mostly in shade all day long.

Various people have offered to help and, as well-intentioned as they have been, no one has really been able to see anything through, and I've realized that this is on me to do right. So, here are my questions:

  • What book(s) should I read? Katie Elzer-Peters' intro book on gardening seems like a safe bet for fundamentals, but the TOC doesn't indicate there's much there about planning a garden, or starting from scratch. Any recommendations would be welcome.

  • Given that I want to essentially start from scratch, what is the most effective way to start from ground zero? I understand that an effective way to kill everything and start from scratch is to cover the entire lawn with something that blocks the sun for an extended period of time. Is there a book or article that describes this technique, and is that my best bet?

  • Is there a book, article, or website that covers budgeting for this kind of project? While time is more critical than money, grad school isn't cheap, so I do have to budget: money is not not unlimited. It would also be helpful to know in advance when I can expect large expenses so I can plan my budget accordingly.

  • I am not adverse to seeking professional help, but I don't even know the right questions to ask, or whether I should be looking for a landscaper or gardener. And, as I mentioned, money is not unlimited, so if I were to hire someone to do all or part of this project, I would have to be mindful of that expense. Should I consider a professional and, if so, what should I look for and what questions should I ask?

It is currently mid-summer, and it would be nice if this project were well underway within a year. What should I be doing now to start seeing results next year?


We are newly settled on a piece of land in the PNW, and our goals are similar to yours, except we are also interested in creating food systems. Is that one of your goals as well, or will you be concentrating mainly on ornamental plantings? Whether you hire a professional or not, once you decide your path, you should have no reason to not begin your garden this late summer/early fall.

The phrase that springs to mind when I read your post is "forest gardening." This is a philosophy and a practice of gardening in such a way as to emulate as many of the typical "niches" found in a natural forest, but in a garden setting. In other words, you will have large trees, smaller understory trees, large shrubs, low shrubs, herbs/forbs/perennial flowers, groundcover and vines. This gives a lush effect, lower maintenance (especially if you choose wisely and include plants that will fix nitrogen and help conserve water in the summer) and better control over your water resources. Most forest gardens are designed to also give the garden owner food, but they do not have to be. The same principles can be applied to purely ornamental plantings.

The other key phrase that springs to mind when I read your post is "lasagna gardening." Lasagna gardening is often combined with forest gardening in order to allow the forest garden to be planted in stages and grow together more naturally over time. Lasagna gardening is a type of gardening that begins, as you mentioned, with layering compostable items like cardboard, wood chips, compost, straw, onto the area where you plan to garden. This can be planted sparingly right away (for instance, with a few of the trees or shrubs you wish to use for your garden's backbone) or it can be left to rot the weeds and lawn underneath and mellow into compost and new soil over the fall and winter, and then fully planted in the spring.

Lasagna gardening, combined with forest gardening, can result in a fairly low maintenance, lush and varied garden that can provide fruit, wood, flowers, herbs, water storage and control, plus wildlife cover and feed.

Books I would recommend are:

Whether to hire a professional or not depends on your physical condition, how much heavy work needs to be done on the property you wish to transform, and how much spare time you have vs how much spare money you have. The techniques mentioned above do not require either a professional designer or professional landscape help, unless you get pretty ambitious. Even so, renting some heavier equipment for a day or a week can get a LOT of prep work done in a short amount of time, and the cost is pretty reasonable. You can also hire someone to do the heavy leveling and land shaping if needed.

There are also many sites and blogs online that can help you get started. Just google "forest gardening pacific northwest" and "lasagna gardening" and you should have some good ideas for your climate. Good luck!

  • 1
    Very helpful, thank you! I'm glad I asked...I wouldn't have even known to look for these things. I'm going to give it a couple of days to let other people have a chance to weigh in, but this is a good candidate for me to mark as the correct answer, thank you so much! Aug 12 '14 at 23:17
  • 1
    Oh, and my physical condition is fine. It's more about time, but I can dig a ditch with the best of them. Aug 12 '14 at 23:19
  • 1
    You're welcome! I hope the project goes well. Whatever kind of gardening you decide to do, just remember that the key to lowering maintenance is to work with nature where possible, and not against her.
    – TeresaMcgH
    Aug 13 '14 at 1:17
  • 1
    Teresa! You live in the Pacific Northwest? I really like your answer. One has to understand nature to work with her. You are so correct. I have never read these books but I will now.
    – stormy
    Aug 17 '14 at 5:17
  • Yes, we live in the Cascade foothills of Western Washington state. You are so right, and that understanding sometimes takes some time and a change in the way you look at things. Because I have changed my perspective on how to plan a garden, I have change my mind several times already concerning where I wanted to put different elements on our property. I'm learning to observer first what the conditions are like and what already grows well in a spot before I start to think about how I want to change it.
    – TeresaMcgH
    Aug 18 '14 at 0:54

Good answer from Teresa, but I've got a something to add, in particular regarding design, which is something I've been doing in the UK for some years. What you should expect from a professional is for them to view the area, measure up, then come up with a drawing/plan and a list of plants, with images, then consult with you regarding that plan, so you know what its going to look like before you agree.

If you want to tackle it yourself, have a look at as many garden books with pictures of different gardens as you can find, or look online at maybe small garden designs for your area. This is just about getting ideas for the style of garden you want - once you've a clear idea of how you want it to look and whether you want food plants (more work than ornamentals), think then about the space and what you'd like to do in it. Children (sandbox?) play area, barbecue area, paving, paths, sunbathing (or not), shade for when its hot, what about any pets and their requirements, storage outside in the garden, pond or water feature anywhere, that kind of thing. Work out where the best place is for any of these requirements, then work your design around that. Also work out which way it faces - whether its north, south, whatever, and work out the track of the sun, so you know which areas will be in shade and when, and how long for. Shade areas will not be so dry as sunny areas, which means you can and possibly should use different plants in that area. I think you're in USDA Zone 8, but check that - it's another important factor for choosing plants. It's actually easier to work out a design if you measure up and make a scale drawing of your space and mark on it features which cannot be changed, then fill in what you want, again to scale. If you're computer savvy, you can probably use a programme to do this, otherwise, a pencil, ruler and some graph paper work well.

Probably the most difficult part for you will be knowing which plants to use, which is something that a professional will/should have expert knowledge about. Given the space is small, as you've already planted two trees, one of which (the Ash) will reach 60 feet in a fairly short space of time, with a spread of 30 feet at maturity, you can see that your garden will be very shaded indeed once it grows, though it depends to some extent which variety you chose. Perhaps a smaller tree might have been a better choice for such a small area, if you didn't pick a columnar (upright) variety.

Low maintenance gardens have a classic formula - large, medium and small shrubs to create the skeleton or framework for the garden which is 'to scale' with the size of the area, with some perennials, grasses and groundcovers in between to create a layered effect.

What I'm really saying is, the first place to start is to research and then decide exactly what you want, then work out how you're going to do it, starting with clearance of existing planting, then soil improvement/amendment as necessary.


Ethan, I am a Landscape Architect and I'm kinda retired and I've been waiting for a question such as yours. I'd like to try to communicate via this site to show the process of designing the landscape. A low-maintenance landscape is one that is well designed. A poor design is simply going to be high-maintenance.

If you are interested I'd like to ask you to invest a bit more time. Make a sketch of your property lines, where your home is situated, roads, orientation, wind direction, existing plants, what is happening with the neighboring properties, measure lengths, widths, try to get a sense of elevations such as where and what the high point is, same with low point of your property, the height of your main floor of your home.

Now highlight the area you'd like to focus first. What would you like to be doing in this area? Do you have a dog? Do you want to grow vegetables...

Take pictures. We can whip out a base plan and go from there. We'll make it very simple but this will get you started in the right direction. What do you think?


Given that you have little time, and will soon have even less time I would

  • Kill of all the weed with gypsophile
  • Cover the ground with a weed control membrane
  • Cover the membrane with gravel or large wood chips.
  • Pull up ALL weeds you see in the grave/wood chips.
  • Whenever you wish to put a plant in
    • Move the gravel to the side
    • Cut a cross in the membrane
    • Pull the membrane away from the centre of the cross
    • Remove some soil and add lots of compost
    • Plant the plant
    • Put the membrane back
    • Put the gravel back.
  • 1
    I have to say something negative here, Ian. This is a horrible way to deal with the landscape. You are not alone however and this is kind of what is wrong with humans.
    – stormy
    Aug 17 '14 at 5:10
  • I entirely agree with @stormy. This is not a good way to go. And how can you kill plants with gypsophile? Definition: gypsophile noun 1. any plant living or thriving in soil containing gypsum.
    – J. Musser
    Aug 17 '14 at 6:25

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.