Tackling a Problem Side Yard

My good friends Jean and Jim have asked for my help figuring out what to do with the side yard to the south of their home. Right now this area has a U-shaped flower bed. The northern arm of the U lies along the house, and receives lots of sun. It is mostly empty, though it has some peonies, a rose bush, Calico Asters (Aster lateriflorus), and Cream False Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

The northern arm of the U. Please note that while Judy’s camera is fixed, Judy herself has gone to New Orleans on a work trip, poor thing. Or so she claims. Anyhow, that’s why I took this picture and the next one. I am not much of a photographer. Fortunately, the remainder are hers.


The southern arm lies along a chain link fence (marking the border with the neighbors). It gets some morning sun but is mostly shady and the soil is moist. There’s a golden alexander (Zizia aurea) and an oak leaf hydrangea in the southwest corner. Otherwise this area is pretty much overrun by Creeping Buttercup (Ranuculus repens).

The southern arm of the U. Jean had pulled out the Buttercup foliate, you can see it stealthily growing back.

The far end of the U faces west and backs against the chain link fence. Some conifers about 30′ tall stand on the other side of the fence. Down the middle of this side yard is a peninsula of lawn with large square pavers for stepping stones. The whole property had been professionally landscaped by the prior owner and the garden designer had surrounded the stepping stones with Buttercups, which went on to rampage through the moist part of the yard. Oops.

So there are two challenges. First,  fill the empty spaces on the northern arm with perennials adapted to a dryish sunny spot, particularly ones which will shine after the peonies are done blooming. Second, come up with some tough plants that like moisture and shade – and that can compete with and even  shade out the Creeping Buttercups. (My feeling is that trying to remove the Buttercups is a fool’s errand, unless Jean wants to use some very heavy duty herbicides, which she doesn’t.)

Preference is for plants that are mat-forming or otherwise dense enough to inhibit weeds. Filling in quickly would also be a good thing.

I’m trying to come up with a list of plants for this project. Some initial thoughts …

For the north/sunny arm:

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Smooth Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis)

Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

The above have the advantage of being free, as I have to remove some from my beds.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) ‘Paprika’

False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)

Bluebeard (Caryopteris clandonensis)

Pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii)

Shining coneflower (Rudbeckia nitida) ‘Herbstsonne’

Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’

Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata) ‘Katherine’

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) ‘Northwind’

Switchgrass ‘Northwind’ (Panicum virgatum)

Obviously, this list will have to be narrowed down, but I’m thinking of a basically blue/yellow border with something tall to stand in front of the gas meter.

For the south/moist/shady arm:

Variegated sedge (Carex morrowii) ‘Ice Dance’

Palm Sedge (Carex muskingumensis)

Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) ‘Raspberry Wine’

Monarda didyma ‘Raspberry Wine’

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)

Wall Iris (Iris tectorum)

Dwarf Goatsbeard (Aruncus aethusifolius)

Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila)

Variegated Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum odoratum) ‘Variegatum’

Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophyllum)

Siberian Bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla)

OK, once again, this list needs to be narrowed down.

So which would you choose? Which would you reject? What suggestions do you have that aren’t listed?

All ideas are welcome. I’m waiting. My friends Jean and Jim are waiting. Help!

11 Comments on “Tackling a Problem Side Yard

  1. A fun challenge! Good lists, I would probably add in some hardy geraniums, as they give good ground cover and colour, and are fairly robust. Love the thought of the Panicum and my favourite Salvia in the north arm, lifted with yellow from sunflowers and ‘Susans’.

  2. Sometimes pulling any rampant self-spreader IS a fool’s errand (this coming from a fool with so many errands on his to-do list), but unless there is a rush to plant, you could try a smother mulch: lay down newspaper, 6-10 sheets or so in a way that overlaps and covers the entire area. Moisten the newspaper and cover the entire area with a six-inch deep layer of compost or organic ‘garden soil’ mix. By spring, the invaders should be smothered out, the newspaper beginnning to compost away, and you should be able to plant any shallow-rooting plants right into your layer of soil amendment. Any deeper-rooted plants can go right through the newspaper, and if any of your spreaders make it through, hand pulling will be much easier. I have used this method to successfully eradicate large swaths of shotweed and velvet grass, and have seen gardeners smother out tougher weeds like horsetail and even blackberry using corrugated cardboard (the brown, unprinted kind) in place of the newspaper and with a deeper layer of topping. Vinegar spray can sometimes be a good substitute for chemical weed control, too.

  3. This is Jean, who is referenced in the post above. I am so excited to get going and can’t wait to see what Jason recommends, based on your feedback. Thanks for writing in your thoughts!

  4. I really enjoy reading these challenge posts and their comment threads. It’s like being with a group of garden friends and chewing over what we love best. One of these days, I’ll jump into making suggestions and do so with both feet.

  5. I’m a big fans of the Susans in all their forms. I think they brighten a border quicker than nearly anything. Panicum ‘Northwind’ is another great plant. It turns the prettiest golden yellow in fall, but it needs to go way in the back because it gets so tall. Mine is about six feet now. Smaller panicums if you need them, are ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Heavy Metal.’ I grow both of them, and they are great. I don’t think you can go wrong with variegated solomon seal. Great plant, but it will grow a lot. We grow Monardas in full sun here. When I’ve grown them in partial shade, they get mildew. I hope that helps. I loved a lot of your suggestions. Aren’t new garden beds grand?~~Dee

    • Yes, I have to start meddling with my friends’ gardens because I’m running out of space in my own garden to shoehorn in new plants. Sounds like we should think twice about the Monardas in that spot.

  6. How big is this area Jason. I can’t quite grasp that from your description. I’m a big proponent of flowering shrubs, especially in areas that just are, and are not particularly used, like a narrow side yard with a chain link fence and utilities. She has an oak leaf hydrangea (I love those!) Maybe add a couple other nicer flowering shrubs: Quickfire hydrangea or Pinkie Winkie, I have a variegated red twig dogwood that is magnificent (they can be drought tolerant once established). Silver Queen is fungal resistant and smaller, although yellow-twigged. Also, I like ninebarks. If you are looking for a ground cover I would consider the lamium yellow archangel lamium galeobdolon (subspecies montanum). I’m sure it will run right over that buttercup thing. It is nearly evergreen too and blooms in May. It seems to be little used because it can have invasive qualities, but it grows so uniformly and will grow under trees where nothing else does well. ( I can send you boxes of cuttings, if you like, to root.) I like that panicum Heavy metal that Dee suggested, but also miscanthus purpurea- Purple flame grass will bloom in shade.) and, plug of the month: Turtlehead! I like the rubeckia nitidia, too! You want growthy things that don’t colonize and look tidy (other than the ground eating lamium).

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