What can I do with my garbage backyard? Tips on cleaning it and getting it ready for gardening

What can I do with my garbage backyard? Tips on cleaning it and getting it ready for gardening
Garbage yard, before the cleaning. Photos by Caroline Shadood/Brokelyn.

Six years back I struck Brooklyn gold, renting the ground floor of a semi-decent place. The backyard was pure luxury: a dust bowl with no grass or hope for plant life, a one-eyed garbage kitten prancing around, some used condoms and takeout containers strewn about for good measure … the list goes on. Somewhere between the trash and the aggressive optimism I saw something else: gorgeous sunlight, a morning glory vine creeping up the fence, various cool rocks, the perfect spot for a cheap charcoal grill. 

Maybe right now you look at your garbage backyard and feel hopeless. The sight is daunting, messy, and potentially dangerous. Plus landscaping is something for people with money, reserved for the ‘burbs and the balconies of high rises. Sure, like most things in New York, having a bigger budget can alleviate problems more easily. But that’s not why we are here.


If you try to conquer your garbage backyard all at once you will likely become overwhelmed, so, make your first step an observational one. Put on some old sneakers or boots, cover your legs in solid pants, and head outside to assess the yard. Walk the perimeter and take it all in. Is your yard concrete, gravel, dirt, grass, or a combo? Are there trees or plants of any kind? Does the yard have morning sunlight, afternoon sunlight, or no sunlight at all? Scope it out and take mental notes, or physical ones if that’s your style. This process can be as quick as five minutes, or it can be more of a lingering experience. The amount of sunlight bares what kinds of plants you buy. There are low light level plants! Concrete isn’t a dealbreaker because I’ve found you should plant in planters anyway. 

Garbage backyard checklist: Taking note of these will help you decide what to plant

-What kind of sun is there? Full sun? Morning sun? Afternoon sun? No sun at all?

-What does the ground look like? Is there any dirt, grass, or weeds growing?

-Is it a full concrete block? Bricks, stones?

-Any signs of pests? Rats, mice, squirrels, etc?


Garbage backyard, before the clean up. Photos by Caroline Shadood.
Garbage backyard, before the clean up. Photos by Caroline Shadood.

During the observational phase I noticed my garbage fence was constructed from old oven parts and mattresses frankensteined together with a tangle of rusty wire and poison ivy! First I thought I’d buy vines to help cover it up, then I learned the significantly cheaper thing to do would be to buy bamboo rolls and cover it instead.


The cleaning-ing begins.
The cleaning-ing begins.

Next, it’s time to turn your garbage backyard into a blank slate by clearing it out of trash and debris. For this stage you will need heavy duty trash bags + work gloves or gardening gloves + a good deal of time. On the first day of cleaning, I devoted four hours, took out seven bags of trash and it still looked not great. Depending on garbage levels, this process could take several cleaning spurts (or several days), whatever you’re comfortable with. In total I devoted three separate weekend days, two-four-ish hours per day, that resulted 12 heaping bags of trash.

We consulted Amelia Kirby, garden designer and creative director at Ferox Folia, a landscape company based in Brooklyn, for advice on cleaning out the garbage, and she gave this important tip:

“Be weary when digging into your new backyard,” she said. “There is a ton of history there which isn’t always pretty. Chunks of metal, aluminum cans, general trash sometimes even the surprise syringe, especially if you’re renting a space that has a backyard that has not been maintained in some years. People have a habit of throwing trash into vacant lots. So dig and clear out carefully and methodically with gloves!”


It's coming together!
It’s coming together!

Now that we’ve purged our garbage backyards of accumulated nonsense, it’s time for the fun part. I asked Amelia what to do with common NYC backyard problems:

Garbage backyard FAQ:

Q: What can I do with my garbage backyard OVERTAKEN BY KNOTWEED?

A: Knotweed – Polygonum Cuspidatum- an invasive Japanese plant that terrorizes NYC backyards. There are many ways to attempt to eradicate the situation. Consistent cutting back of stalks and digging of rhizomes can weaken the plant or ultimately kill it off. You must be consistent in this battle. Other alternatives are placing layers of landscaping fabric below soil level. This creates a layer which can suffocate new knotweed growth from arising.  Landscaping Fabric can be found at most hardware stores and nurseries. Dumping concentrated vinegar into clumped areas can also weaken roots and new growth if you are willing to put up with the temporary smell.


Rats off to ya!
Rats off to ya!

Q: What can I do with my garbage backyard that’s INFESTED WITH RATS?

A: One natural rat deterrent is mint. Planting mint in containers around your backyard perimeter can steer away rats/mice but doesn’t promise 100 percent results. This is a fantastic alternative to chemical sprays and exterminators.

Q: what can I do with my garbage backyard WITH A FERAL CAT PROBLEM?

A: Cats are their own issue. There is not much you can do to keep out something as nimble as a cat. They can roam along fences and such. You will never keep them away completely, no matter what money you spend. You can though-keep your veggies/ornamental gardens protected from cat poo and digging by erecting small mesh fences around these small gardens. Places stakes and meshing around perimeters up to three to four feet.

Q: Is there a way to prevent bird motherfuckers from eating my grass seed?

A: No. Also don’t bother with planting grass. Even if it does fill in, it’s a maintenance nightmare.

Q: Do I really need to test the soil?

A: The soil is the foundation that your flowers and plants will grow in and the richer it is the healthier they will be. The type of soil that you grow your plants is highly determined by the natural composition of the garden as well as the location you are in. It is highly advisable to obtain a soil test to help you identify on the nutrient levels available in your soil because without this information, you will never be sure whether your plants are getting the right nutrients to thrive.

Q: Can my garbage backyard even HANDLE PLANT LIFE? Should I give up? We’re all going to die anyway.

A: There is hope. Don’t give up. Don’t directly plant edibles into Brooklyn/Manhattan soil. Always put your edibles into planters. You are never sure of the chemical content of the soil.

Most backyards that have been ignored for years may have trouble yielding in the first couple years. Planting in pots/containers with fresh bagged soil from your local nursery and hardware store will bring fastest and most promising results. Find creative ways to make planters with old recycled containers etc. Or buy new from local nursery and hardware.

There really isn’t a concrete answer to all of these questions and keeping reality in mind is very important. Everything requires maintenance for true success. Invasive animals and plants are hard to control in an environment that sandwiches us so close together. As we compete for space, our backyards are also very much so theirs.

The final product, ready to plant. Part 2 of this series is coming soon!
The final product, ready to plant. Part 2 of this series is coming soon!

Stay tuned for part 2 of our series on what to do with your garbage backyard, to find out how to transform your now-clean yard into a green oasis! Until then, to follow Caroline’s progress in the backyard, follow the #garbagebackyard tag on Instagram.

 For more tales of garbage cats, gardening and the occasional music industry rant, follow Caroline: @shadood.

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