Reclaiming An Overgrown Yard — Part 2

March 3, 2016 | By | Comments (8)
Pruning knotweed

Mrs. Grumpy deals savagely with Japanese knotweed. Photo: Steve Bender

Last weekend, Mrs. Grumpy and I took a first crack at clearing the jungle in the front yard of first-time homeowners, Tom and Ashley. They bought the house from a little old lady who hadn’t done any yard work for about 10 years. If we thought the front was a nightmare, the back yard was worse. Yet so unselfish and giving are we that we dove right in this weekend. Here’s a bit of what we accomplished.

The back yard is actually quite spacious, but you’d never know. Many good plants have grown into monsters, while others just need a little work. The biggest problems were weedy trees, shrubs, and vines that seeded themselves in and have taken over. So the trick to doing this right is knowing what to take out, what to reduce in size, and what to obliterate.

The Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) Mrs. Grumpy is pruning above is a good example. The white-flowered form is one of the world’s worst weeds, spreading rapidly underground like a running bamboo. But this was the red-flowered, clump-forming kind called ‘Crimson Beauty.’ It isn’t invasive at all. It grows 6-7 feet tall and bears showy, bright-red blooms in late summer through fall. After it dies down during winter, all you need to do is cut the old stems to the ground. They’re hollow, so this is easy.

Other nice plants we uncovered and saved included a hardy lantana, Japanese maple, redbud, an ancient butterfly bush and chaste tree, both desperately in need of pruning, sasanqua camellia, winter honeysuckle, daffodils, and roses. Then we had to deal with the shade trees. Way too many shade trees.

Pole pruner

A pole pruner is just the ticket for sawing off branches high up. Photo: Judy Bender

One was this white ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) that I decided to save for the time being. I just used a pole pruner to remove a ring of lower branches that were crowding a redbud and also making it hard to walk underneath it. For the first time, you could start to see things around it. Like that cool boulder. Yes, I know, Emerald ash borers will probably take this tree out, but if they don’t it will become the biggest ash in America not named Kanye West.

A neglected river birch (Betula nigra) was spared as well. Like maples, it bleeds sap if pruned now, so we’ll have to wait to do that until spring. A garage-sized loropetalum and gigantic ‘Brown Turkey’ fig must also be brought to heel.

Other trees will fall to a chainsaw, like a trashy black cherry (Prunus serotina) that acts like a salad bar for tent caterpillars in spring and then seeds itself everywhere birds poop, and a prickly seed-ball bearing sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) that’s only tolerable in someone else’s yard. Weedy winged elms (Ulmus alatus) are likewise condemned.


Photo: Steve Bender

The neat thing about restoring a garden is that after you cut out all the stinking privet, Japanese honeysuckle, and vicious smilax vines, you uncover little treasures you can work with like this second lichen-blotched boulder. See the little daffs peeping out from the base? Who knows what gems remain?



  1. Lisa

    LOVE THE BOULDER [that has snail qualities]

    March 12, 2016 at 5:36 am
  2. Sue Kightlinger

    Please do keep us undated on all renovations of yard.

    March 11, 2016 at 8:36 am
  3. Fran Rogers

    Hopefully there will be a treasure trove of lovely little plants and bulbs once the clearing is done. When we moved into our house, we noticed some little leaves coming from under a stepping stone we had put down. We transplanted the bulbs to a safer place, and a few years later, we have a vast number of blue Dutch iris, incredibly tough and very lovely. Of course we share them every chance we have. So even one treasure is worth the work. Your work, of course, not ours.

    March 9, 2016 at 12:01 pm
  4. jen j

    I hope we get to see a spring time picture when the yard starts to leaf out more

    March 7, 2016 at 4:27 pm
  5. Susan

    Please keep us updated on the progress. I love that back yard and that big boulder. That makes it so quaint.

    March 4, 2016 at 1:27 pm
  6. grammyg53

    What we do for our kids, right Mr & Mrs Grumpy? I know they appreciate all of your hard work & expertise! I love the Kanye West comment. Teehee… I wonder if I “accidentally” took my chainsaw to the neighbor’s PITA tree that is killing our grapefruit tree by the overhang that keeps the sun from reaching the fruit… nah… don’t think he’d buy that it was by accident. LOVE the boulders and that cute little garden bench, too! Keep sending these photos.

    March 4, 2016 at 4:46 am
  7. Rebecca

    I love saving old yards. I have rescued quite a few over the years and have often found treasures like you mentioned. Good luck to the new young owners of the house as they enjoy the yard for years to come!

    March 3, 2016 at 2:46 pm
  8. Kathryn Maher

    Sounds like fun!

    March 3, 2016 at 2:33 pm

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