Nothing Grows in My Yard. What Can I Do? Leave a comment

Space is the number one thing gardeners want more of. But what happens when you have the space, but nothing grows in it? Front yards are notoriously difficult to grow in for urban areas, and there are actually quite a few reasons why your garden or yard may be struggling. But not all hope is lost!

nothing grows in my yard

Not so long ago, I received this question and photo from a reader…

“I live in Houston, Texas, in a subdivision. We have two large oak trees in the front yard that we trim every spring. But my front flower bed will not grow anything!! We cut the tree limbs back further to help let In sunlight. Still, nothing grows. We have removed all the soil and planted new things several times. I even left roses in the pots ( I gave up and moved them to the backyard, and they are beautiful now). What can I do??”

front yard with a sparse lawn and empty flower bed

This is such a frustrating experience that is, unfortunately, way too common. Many people struggle to get their yards to support the growth of plants, especially those in the front.

If your house faces similar issues, not all hope is lost. Read on to see why your yard might have issues growing plants and what you can do about it.

white dogwood tree along sidewalk strip
Don’t let this discourage you from growing large trees! This dogwood tree was very beloved to me in my old garden.

Caught Before It’s Too Late

Back when I was house hunting, I found a really lovely house for sale in my neighbourhood. At first, it ticked off all the boxes. It had these beautiful old-growth trees on the front street, a nice little backyard, and a great interior layout.

But then I looked at the soil, and my heart sank. I knew nothing was going to grow there.

I couldn’t tell you exactly why that is, as I don’t carry a soil test kit wherever I go, but I suspected that those old-growth trees were causing a bigger issue for surrounding vegetation.

Sure enough, I looked at all the houses on the street, and none had gardens. While someone might be able to do raised beds and containers, that isn’t my preferred way of gardening. I wanted a place where I could landscape entirely.

And so, as a gardener, I couldn’t imagine myself living there anymore despite it being a lovely house.

clematis vine entrance
While we all wish our front yards could look like this, it helps to work with what you have rather than against it.

The Problem With Large Street Trees

The old growth trees were a big indicator for me. Of course, they provide plenty of shade which can make it difficult for some plants to grow underneath.

They also have extensive root systems. When you look up at the tree, think about how the root system will be equally as big—oftentimes even larger.

That’s an oldie. A tree of such a large size will need to gather lots of nutrients and water from the surrounding soil to feed the entire tree. This makes it really, really hard for smaller plants to compete with a giant like that.

In some cases, turf grasses can’t even grow. You’ll end up with moss and lichen as companion plants, as they grow well with trees.

So you’re left with a front yard that struggles to grow anything.

Stephanie with the power planter in front of large oak tree
At my previous rental house, we had very large oak trees, which made it difficult to plant under. But I persisted, which you can read about here.

Allelopathic Trees That Produce Chemicals

Some trees are even bigger bullies (or geniuses—however you look at it). These trees produce chemicals that will prevent other plants from growing. They don’t want to compete with other trees, so this can really prevent growth in small urban areas. They’re known as allelopathic.

For instance, black walnut trees (Juglans nigra) and butternut (Juglans cinerea) produce a compound known as Juglone. It prevents plants from germinating and causes plants to look wilted.

Allelopathic plants release these chemicals through their roots or as they decompose. These chemicals can affect a plant’s ability to germinate, develop roots, or take in nutrients. Some plants are sensitive to these chemicals, while others might not be affected at all.

Here are some more allelopathic trees and shrubs to be on the lookout for:

Bearberry
Elderberry
English laurel
Forsythia
Junipers
Rhododendron
Sugar maple
Sumac

It should be noted that most large trees are allelopathic in some sense, as they take in so much water to stop other plants from competing.

2 Juniper 'Mint Julip' Spiral Topiaries in containers ready to be planted
Research if any of the larger trees or shrubs in your yard can affect other nearby plants.

So, You’ve Got Soil Issues

Beyond large trees, it’s also important to look at the soil. In my previous house, there was so much debris in the soil that was left behind by builders who knows how long ago. It took me years to get rid of it all and rebuild the soil into something rich and grow-worthy.

You also will want to know what type of soil you have. Is it overly clay and compact? Is it gritty and dries out quickly? Is it soggy nearly all the time? Good soil needs to be able to both retain water while still having good air circulation for the roots.

I highly recommend you do a soil test to determine your soil’s pH. Adding organic amendments is the best way to turn bad soil into good soil, but it takes a lot of work and patience.

Toxic Substances

It could also be likely that someone has dumped something toxic into the area, such as herbicides. These are very toxic substances that will kill anything, not just weeds. It can have long-lasting residual effects long after the substance is used.

Pollution

If you live on a busy street, pollution could also be a very real issue. Pollution directly harms plants, entering through the stomata of the leaves and injuring them. It also settles in the soil, making it quite acidic and making it difficult for plants to take in nutrients.

Animals

There could be animals living underground that are also an issue, such as moles or voles. These animals might eat the vegetation or roots or damage them simply by habiting the area.

flowery garden gloves with a handful of compost
Compost is garden gold and the best way to fix poor soil.

What to Do if Nothing Grows in Your Garden

Let’s get down to what you can actually do about the problem! If you want to fix it immediately, your best bet is to use raised beds.

By bringing the soil up or working in containers, you’ll create your own little ecosystem, which can help solve some of the other issues. Be mindful that if the issue is tree roots, they can grow up into them. Trees will always strive to find nutritious soil and well-watered areas!

If the issue is soil, it will take a lot of time and patience to turn it into something grow-worthy. You’ll need to aerate the soil, continually add layers of organic matter to build it up, and bring in cover crops to help fix it. Weeds are great for turning bad soil into good soil!

Acceptance

What many people don’t want to hear is that maybe you need to take a different approach to your garden. If you want a very landscaped garden, you might have to accept the fact that garden beds with perennials, vegetables, or fruits may not be in the plan.

Instead, treat the area like it’s a concrete slab where nothing grows. Opt for a rock garden with hints of potted flowers or a lovely patio.

You can add some nice flagstone, put some moss in between, perhaps put in a fountain, and add some furniture to create a welcome space.

You can accept that you have this big, beautiful tree and get to work with it rather than fight with it. An outdoor space you can enjoy is still very much possible!

front yard garden with bench and a fountain surrounded by river rocks
This was my old front yard, which was very shady and grew little. So I embraced it with a fountain and sitting space!

More Tips for Front Yard Gardening

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