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Eating the Elephant

June 14, 2017

Eat An Elephant 2Yesterday, as I gazed across the massive expanse of grass in my new backyard – the one that desperately needs weeding – I was reminded of the old joke, “How do you eat an elephant?” (The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.”)

My previous (city) property was a good size (approximately 60’ x 180’), with lots of trees and two manageable garden areas (the one adjacent to the front walkway was about 12’ x 6’; the other was really the ‘front yard’ – a 25’ x 10’ space next to the driveway that ran from the side of the garage to the street). We had no ‘lawn’ – because grass simply wouldn’t grow under the trees (our backyard, however, was a lovely shade of green because moss DOES grow in deep shade).

When we moved into that house (in the fall of 2000), the ‘gardens’ were mostly filled with lumps of hard dirt out of which sprouted a few tenacious weeds and the odd clump of wild grass. It took me almost ten years (as well as 40 cubic yards of topsoil and lots of ‘sweat equity’) to get them to the point where they could honestly be called ‘gardens’. Over the years, I experimented with a multitude of plants – all touted as ‘deep shade’ varieties by local garden centres – but had little success with most. In the end, I stuck with ground covers (English ivy, vinca, sweet woodruff) and proven hardy perennials (hostas, lily of the valley, bleeding hearts, ferns) from the gardens of family members and friends, along with a few things ‘liberated’ from woodlots and the side of the road (hardy geranium, wild violets) and annual doses of mixed shade-loving wildflower seeds from Costco. During the last few years we lived in that house, the gardens were pretty much self sufficient, and quite lovely.


The front walkway garden at our previous home.


The front ‘yard’ / garden at our previous home.

And then we moved – to a four-acre property that is primarily pine forest (on three sides) with a huge grassy ‘backyard’ and a single ‘developed’ garden space (that the previous owners had planted with the help of the neighbours, but not maintained; the few daylilies and hostas that had survived were completely choked by heavy grass and weeds, including about a million dandelions!) Once we’d settled into the house, I took up the challenge of restoring it (as best I could in late summer). I weeded and dug up the grass (which took weeks!), and moved a few plants from other areas into the space. Eventually I’d had done enough to be pleased with the result, and knew I’d add my own personal touches to it during the coming years.


The garden at the new house about half way through my initial clean up (the entire garden had been choked with grass and weeds, seen here in the ‘background’ only); the hostas and lilies were original.


The garden at the new house once I’d finished cleaning it up, moved a few hostas from other areas, and added some of my garden statuary (early fall 2016).

As soon as spring arrived this year (in spurts and starts, as it is wont to do in southern Ontario) I weeded (again!), divided up the lilies and some overgrown hostas, transplanted some more, and added two store-bought bleeding hearts to ‘fill in the gaps’.  I’m impressed with the result – the space (which is about 4000 square feet in size – or the same as the two gardens at our previous home combined) is actually looking fairly prosperous. The only ‘downside’ has been the realization that weeding will be a never-ending process in this rural / forested area (and that poison ivy tends to creep in from the forest – a lesson learned the ‘hard way’ late last year.)


The side garden on May 9 (2017) – cleared of weeds and ready for the ‘personal touch’.


The garden a month later with hostas and lilies divided, new plants, etc. added

With the garden basically taken care of (except for the relentless need to weed), I could finally turn my attention to the massive ‘lawn’ at the back of the house. Now, I’ve had lawns before – at the house before the last house I lived in, we had generous lawns front and back. We also had a lawn care company that came in regularly to aerate, fertilize, banish weeds and slugs, and over-seed in the fall (I had two small children, a part-time teaching job, a gazillion volunteer responsibilities, and a household to look after – outsourcing the yard work was a necessity at the time); all we had to do was mow and water. Facing the prospect of looking after more than 8000 square feet of grass (especially after 17 years of not having any) on my own was daunting, to say the least (the ‘backyard’ here – if you include the gravel area near the garage, where the fire pit and wood storage shed are – is just about the same size as our ENTIRE URBAN PROPERTY– house, yard, driveway, and trees – had been!)


My backyard ‘lawn’

Last summer was hot and dry – near drought conditions. By the time we’d moved in (in late July), the lawn was already looking pretty sad. And since I was busy with the house and gardens (and, to be honest, not all that fond of ‘grass’), I did the bare minimum – pulled up a hundred or so dandelions (as well as a smattering of other weeds and a goodly amount of crabgrass), filled in the resulting ‘holes’ with topsoil and grass seed, and watered sporadically (moving the sprinkler a dozen times to cover it all). In early fall, I followed the Farmer’s Almanac guide to fertilizing, dethatching, and over-seeding (to the tune of about $300 in supplies) in the hopes of bringing it back to life (or at least giving it a head start for spring). It (sort of) worked.

This spring the grass was far greener than it had been in the fall (although some of that colour admittedly was from a variety of weeds). I sprayed the larger of the dandelions with weed killer (I don’t like putting too much on the lawn, because it eventually seeps into the water system), pulled up some of the smaller ones, and yanked out some wild clover and plantain. I applied the recommended spring fertilizer, raked out a couple of patches of thatch and added new seed. It was looking (relatively) good by mid May.


Speedwell in grass

And then along came a new ‘invader’ – speedwell (a ‘creeper’ with tiny blue flowers that has spread throughout the lawn; I also had it in the gardens in early spring, but it was pretty easy to pull out there, as nothing else had emerged at the time it started sprouting). An Internet search revealed that it can be kept at bay (by killing the seeds before they germinate) with an early-spring application of corn gluten fertilizer. But it was clearly too late for that! So – what to do about it?

There was only one answer – pull it up (my husband jokes that I never met a weed I didn’t want to yank out of the ground – and he’s right!) So one day, I started pulling it up. It was a slow process, but the sun was shining, I had my headphones on (with some lively music to keep me moving forward and distracted from the actual task at hand), and the mosquitoes (which are abundant this year, thanks to an unseasonably wet April and May) seemed to be leaving me alone. After about an hour, my bucket was full, but when I raised my head and looked around, I realized I’d barely covered ten square feet of lawn (to give you some perspective, the edges of the lawn aren’t ‘square’, but overall it’s about 120 feet wide by 70 or so feet deep). I was shocked – eliminating the speedwell (along with some other weeds that were lurking amongst the grass) seemed an absolutely overwhelming (read: impossible) task!

I was about to just give up when I remembered that joke about the elephant. Maybe, I thought, if I attack the lawn ‘one bite at a time’ (as opposed to thinking I could do it in ‘one fell swoop’), by summer’s end I’ll have consumed the entire ‘elephant’ (i.e., the weeds will be gone). And, honestly, I see no other option (except for bringing someone in to deal with it – but I refuse to pay someone to do something I can do myself now that I’m retired, no matter how onerous!) So, I’ll be weeding – one ‘bite’ of lawn at a time – from now until September (and next spring, I’ll apply the appropriate fertilizer/weed blocker before it reaches this point again!)

My new gardens (and that huge lawn, which is eventually going to be broken up into pathways through various raised gardens, with a walking labyrinth in the centre) are a huge ‘work in progress’ – just like my life here on … the other side of 55.

  1. June 23, 2017 12:08 pm

    When I had 2 acres, I felt it wasn’t enough: I wanted 5, 10, 50 acres. Now I am down to 1 acre and it is still way too much. I admire your effort and dedication: It makes me tired just thinking about it.

    Here are my observations about lawns and landscaping:

    1. 50% of everything you plant dies.
    2. A weed lawn is a wonderful site especially if you are averse to seeding, mowing and live with a low-yielding well.
    3. The best lawn is a neighbor’s well-groomed lawn that looks as though it part of your yard.

  2. June 17, 2017 10:08 am

    Wow, your improvements are wonderful and I’m impressed with all you’ve accomplished. Love the photos. I’m right there with you on the weeding. It’s a constant task here in our country acreage too. We’ve kind of given up on the weeds in the lawn – that elephant just seemed too big to eat even in one bite at a time! 😉 – except for some large patches of weeds. But I try to keep the flower gardens and shrub areas free of them. It can be daunting.

    • June 17, 2017 11:11 am

      Thanks. My husband keeps telling me I should wear blinders when I’m outside – ones that only let me see the gardens and not the lawn (what I really need are ‘rose coloured glasses’ that block the weeds from view!)

  3. June 16, 2017 3:55 am

    Good effort and intresting info..I am here new on wordpress…writing prose n poetry..visit me ..hope you will like it.

  4. Margy permalink
    June 15, 2017 10:59 pm

    Big job! We have 4 acres too, most of it is forest. A big lawn too, but a few years back I started to leave it growing tall in ‘borders’ that outline grass paths that meander around the yard. I also spot ‘weed’ with appropriate weed killers when needed, and mulch my flower beds heavily, which tends to reduce how many weed seeds gain a foothold!

    • June 16, 2017 7:54 am

      Thanks for the advice. I’m gradually learning all the idiosyncrasies of rural living and adapting to them. I definitely have plans for the ‘lawn’ but it will be a couple of years before I can implement them. I do want to reduce the grass but keep it manageable (i.e., accessible by lawn tractor for mowing) so I have to plan accordingly. Still, I wouldn’t go back to the city for anything!

  5. June 14, 2017 9:29 pm

    Reminds me of that song…..”I fought the lawn and the lawn won.” lol We have lots a grass and I am getting to old to take care of it all! I feel your pain! But you have been super successful. Love the photos.

    • June 15, 2017 7:42 am

      Thanks. It’s a work in progress and I have big plans – I just hope I can see them all through.

  6. June 14, 2017 5:16 pm

    I went crazy laughing when i read this article!! Thank-you. I am fwdg immediatly to all my fellow Green tribers: read it and weep LOL.

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