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Lawn, garden and tree maintenance advice for those taking control of their first backyard

Lawn, garden and tree maintenance advice for those taking control of their first backyard

21 February, 2022

If you've never had a backyard before, the maintenance can be daunting, and short of asking Dad around to mow the lawn, it can be hard to know where to start.

To help first-time backyard owners and renters or those wanting to make light work of their yard, ABC Life spoke to some green thumbs and put together a handy guide.

We discover how to keep grass alive, some basic gardening tips and what it takes to care for trees and shrubs.

When I first moved out of home, I lived in a ramshackle share house in Brisbane with one of my best friends.

We had chickens, a compost pile, fantastic indoor plants and a lot of lawn, which tended to turn brown and lifeless in the Queensland heat.

As I soon realised, grass can be surprisingly hard to maintain.

Regardless of the variety, or the climate, if you want your lawn to look green and healthy there are three things you really need to do, horticulturist Nic Feleppa says.

Cut it regularly.

All grass needs to be cut. How often depends on the variety, Mr Feleppa says. If you want your grass to always look green, you need to mow regularly: that means a minimum of every two weeks in summer for most popular varieties, like buffalo and couch. If you wait too long between mows, you'll be left with grass that's brown and straw-like. A good rule of thumb is to only cut off about a third of the grass each time.

Water it.

The right amount of water depends on the type of grass and the climate. Daniel Rawson, who works as a design manager at a Melbourne-based landscaping firm, says the trick is to give your lawn a good drink occasionally rather than shorter, more frequent waterings. It's best to water in the early mornings, or the late afternoon, to prevent the moisture evaporating.

Feed it.

Lawns are nitrogen-hungry and from time to time they need to be fed with fertiliser. Mr Feleppa prefers to use organic-based products, like a blood and bone, or a lawn feeder that releases nutrients slowly over time.

Making a start in the garden

There's lot of great reasons to get into the garden. It's been shown to be good for your health, quality of life, fitness and even social life.

"It's quite therapeutic, getting back in contact with nature. We have a connection with our plants and our soil. Anyone who hasn't done it before needs to try it to understand," Mr Feleppa says.

"I'll have a stressful day and I'll go out into the garden, and I'll just feel refreshed."

Whatever you want to grow, you'll need good soil. Here's some tips for understanding and preparing soil from Mr Rawson.

Soil tends to be either sand-based or clay-based. The sandier the soil is, the more it will drain. To test your soil, Mr Rawson recommends digging a hole in your garden bed or wherever you are thinking of getting to work. "We suggest looking about 200-300 millimetres under the soil," he says. At that depth, you'll have an idea about how much moisture is available to your plants.

If the soil is dry the best way to improve it is to add organic matter, like compost or manure. Interestingly, using organic matter is also the best way to improve a clay soil.

Once you've improved your soil, and planted something, adding mulch can help lock in the moisture and deter weeds.

When deciding what to plant, there's a lot to think about. For starters, there's the maintenance involved, the climate and conditions, the appearance of the plant, and cost to consider.

If you're not sure, or just want some ideas, the nursery is a good first stop for advice.

Landscape architect Jim Fogarty also recommends taking a walk around the block and looking at the plants in your neighbourhood.

"Your best bet is to use plants that grow naturally … they won't need a lot of water," he says.

"Natives need less care, and they often provide food source for local birds as well as things like bees and butterflies."

Grevilleas, banksias, kangaroo paw, callistemon, eucalypts and Australian wildflowers are all good options, he adds.

If you're planting natives, keep in mind that some species are sensitive to phosphorus fertilisers.

If you're renting, make sure to check with your landlord before getting stuck in, especially if you're thinking of planting something major like a gum tree. (The roots could damage pipes, and your landlord may not want a big tree on their property.)

Looking after trees and shrubs

Trees or shrubs can require a different approach. If you're renting, generally your landlord will be responsible for maintaining larger trees on the property.

Regardless, it's probably a good idea to check before getting your hands dirty.

If a tree is struggling, it's usually because the soil is too dry or too wet, Mr Fogarty explains.

"Sometimes people water tress that are already too wet — they're actually killing them," he says.

When it comes to pruning, it's best to get some advice before getting to work.

While shrubs can respond well to a good prune, other plants — like lavender and some trees — can struggle or die if cut back too hard, Mr Fogarty adds.

If you already have something in your garden, but aren't sure what it is, try taking a photo and taking it to your local nursery.

"You can really deform the natural leader [a tree's main, vertical stem] on a tree [by over-pruning]. With a fruit tree you have more of an open licence. Ask someone at the nursery about or an arborist if you have some large trees," Mr Fogarty says.

If in doubt, restraint is the way to go, he adds.

It's a great thrill to see a plant that you've picked up at a nursery grow from a seed or sapling and thrive.

By learning a bit more about how plants and gardening works, you'll be able to better enjoy the fruits of your labour.