I have a small backyard that gets a couple hours of good sun a day. In the rainy season our dog completely destroyed what little grass existed when we moved in last summer. We are interested in planting grass and don’t know where to start. The yard is mostly mud now. Please let me know any tips and when we should start.
Your observations illustrate several things going on that contributed to the loss of your lawn: grass needs part to full sun for a good part of the day – just a couple of hours won’t support a good lawn. Foot traffic (dog or human) compacts the root zone, more so on wet soil. Compaction destroys the spaces that hold air in the soil. Without oxygen, roots die.
To be successful, you will have to work with what you’ve got. Having had a dog in my postage-stamp backyard, I can relate to the loss of plant life. The trick is to find a way for them to coexist. I just got a list of recently acquired books at the Miller Libary, which includes one called Dogscaping: Creating the Perfect Backyard and Garden for You and Your Dog, by Tom Barthel. (2009). This is very intriguing, and I wish I could peruse it before offering my advice. However, here’s hoping that this will not be too far off the mark. (And do let us know if you happen to use the book!)
Permeable pavers that let water soak into the soil below, installed with drainage underneath if necessary, would provide drier space for the pooch. You could then plant large, weather-proof pots with ornamental or edible plants, safe from the dog and nice to look at. This would be a patio-yard.
Alternatively, if the dog doesn’t need the run of the whole yard, you can put pavers in the pet space for a “sacrifice” area, then fence off space for a shade garden with plants that are adapted to low light and wet winters and dry summers like our native western Washington plants are. Try low growers like woodland or beach strawberries (Fragaria vesca, F. chiloensis), Oxalis oregana, Maianthemum dilatatum, and self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). Native buttercups are nice, but may be hard to find. The common ones that come in on their own are invasive weeds, but you may find they do the trick in a difficult spot if you don’t try growing anything else there. If you want some height, your plant choices are more extensive. Be patient and protect the plants. It takes 2-3 years for any plants to fully establish.
If you decide you still need the lawn look, a product called Ecoturf uses fewer resources than lawn grass, when established. However it too needs full sun to be successful. If you have some sun, or part sun for about 4-6 hours the prospects are better. And, if you really, really want that lawn, I’ll address that in a future column.
After a long muddy winter, the first order of business would be to get a soil test (King County residents can get free soil tests from the King Conservation District). When the soil is just damp and crumbly, work at least 2” of organic matter thoroughly into the top 6” of soil to get the soil life going again (April 1-30 is Compost Days – SPU is offering compost deals). The formula for finding out the cubic yards of compost needed for this 2” depth is [Length X Width X 1/6] divided by 27 = yards of product. Be careful not to work soil when it is wet, as that will cause more problems. If you are broadcasting seed, rake level and compact lightly to remove air pockets, then rake again. Topdress every year with organic mulch or mix in more compost around the base of plants.
Now is a good time for these options. Hope one works for you!
Seattle Public Utilities – plant lists and tips on the right plant for the right place
Great Plant Picks – photos and plant lists for shade.
Washington Native Plant Society – website lists native plant nurseries, and the Spring sale coming up on May 7.
Local nurseries can also point you in the right direction.