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How to Quickly Clean Up a Messy Landscape

  • 15 min read

Need to quickly clean up a messy landscape? I have some strategies you can use to improve aesthetics when short on time, and where you should NOT cut corners (because you don’t want to increase maintenance later on).

There are too many shortcuts in the world of landscaping that might improve a space quickly, but create extra maintenance later on… Learn common mistakes to avoid and tricks for improving the aesthetics of your landscape when you’re short on time.

If you’re new here, hello and welcome!

My name is Eve Hanlin. I’m a certified horticulturist and landscape designer who helps new and experienced gardeners plan and design successful garden projects. Here at Garden Project Academy, I offer online courses & resources on practical & ecological strategies, so you can make the world a better place with this opportunity you have to do some landscaping.

What to Realistically Expect

One of the biggest challenges homeowners face is balancing the desire for a lush, beautiful landscape with ALSO wanting quick results. TV shows and magazines often present inspiring before-and-after images that can set unrealistic expectations. While these sources are not intentionally misleading, they can create the illusion that a perfect landscape can be achieved overnight.

It’s important to understand that big, breathtaking transformations are possible, but often require more time and effort than anticipated.

When is a messy-looking landscape actually bad?

A manicured or neat-looking yard is commonly valued in many landscapes here where I’m based in the United States… But the reasons for this are worth considering. Why do we find neat and tidy landscapes aesthetically pleasing? When is a messy-looking space actually bad?

Embracing a little mess in certain cases can be beneficial. For example, many native pollinators and other insect species are in decline or facing extinction because us humans are taking up a lot of space! Simple changes can have a significant positive impact.

  • “Leaving the leaves” from your trees in your garden beds can save you time and energy in the autumn, and creates habitat for many beneficial creatures to survive the winter
  • Many native pollinators lay eggs inside plant stems and stalks. So waiting to trim plant stalks until spring warms up will allow them to complete their lifecycles
  • Some native bees need small patches of exposed soil for their nests. Did you know that 70% of native bees are ground nesting? Then, might get the opportunity to see a tiny, stingerless bee dig a little burrow! Or carry off tiny clumps of clay soil to protect their eggs inside a stem, elsewhere in your yard!

There are many small changes, like these, that can add up to make a significant impact. Learn more about creating nesting habitat, here.

Of course, there are examples of “mess” in yards that can create problems. Most notably, invasive or aggressive weed species that can spread.

There can also be pressure from neighbors to maintain a certain level of neatness, or property valuation norms that favor a more manicured look.

What is your balance? What level of neatness is backed by quality values, and when is it better for us to embrace a little mess? Consider this as you quickly clean up your messy landscape.

Quick Wins for Immediate Impact

If you’re looking to make a noticeable difference in a short amount of time, there are several actions you can take to spruce up your existing landscape.

Neaten The Edges and Clear Pathways:

A crisp, clean, and visually defined edge is a landscaping superpower– it creates an almost instant sense of order, intention, and polish. Even a chaotic garden bed can look intentional if the lawn edge is neat or the pathway is very defined. A field becomes an intentional meadow when a path is mown through it.

There are various options and styles… It can be as simple as digging a victorian trench along the edge of your lawn.

Apply Fresh Mulch:

A fresh layer of mulch not only improves the look of your garden beds but also helps suppress weeds, retain moisture, and improve plant and soil health. It’s one of the easiest ways to quickly clean up a messy-looking landscape.

There are many mulch options! Here’s a quick mulch guide.

  • Shredded bark or bark dust (especially dark colored) is a popular, formal look. Many use this successfully, though it has its downsides. The small material size can compact to create a crust and repel water. It also doesn’t last as long (the smaller the material, the faster it decomposes).
  • Bark nuggets last longer. I’m personally a fan of small fir bark nuggets (and bright red fir bark nuggets fade to a natural-looking brown color after a few weeks).
  • Wood chips also make a wonderful mulch. It is a myth that cedar chips inhibit plant growth or bind nitrogen in the soil. They can slightly decrease the germination/sprouting of seeds on the surface, but this is GREAT in the landscape when you don’t want weed seeds to sprout. If you decide you want to sow some seeds someday, just rake the mulch off the surface and fluff up the soil a bit before you sow.
  • Arborist chip mulches are another one of my favorites. Because they can be delivered for completely FREE (since arborists often need to pay to drop them at a local yard debris composting facility). They decompose a little faster than other mulch materials, because they have a nice mix of shredded leaves, needles, and wood… But this is wonderful for your soil and plants! It adds nutrients and organic matter to your soil. Learn more about the pros and cons of arborist chip mulch, here.
  • DO NOT USE LANDSCAPE FABRIC. This might surprise you because it is so common in the landscaping industry. It seems effective and reduces maintenance for the first year or two, but then it actually increases maintenance over time. Let me repeat: it increases maintenance over time. It also can be harmful to plant health over time. With certain exceptions (like agricultural applications, a slightly different context), I am certain that everyone’s use of landscape fabric in gardens will decrease over time, as people better understand the downsides. Learn all about landscape fabric here.
  • DO NOT USE RUBBER MULCHES. They are actually pretty toxic, notably flammable, and truly not as effective at preventing weeds as organic, woody materials. If you have it in your landscape, I generally recommend raking it up and disposing of it. As much as I love recycling, this is not an effective use of old tires. Learn more about rubber mulch, here.

There are many other mulch options, and they can vary from region to region. I recommend an organic woody mulch material.

More Mulch Tips

PLEASE NOTE: Compost and mulch are NOT the same thing (although in different regions the names are sometimes used interchangeably).

Compost is decomposed organic matter (soil)
Mulch is undecomposed organic matter (like wood, bark, needles, hazelnut shells, etc.)

You can purchase mulch in bags at the local garden center OR have it delivered by the cubic yard (which can be more affordable). If you have access to a truck or trailer and can purchase it by the cubic yard, even better! Research local sources.

Mulch should be at least 2 inches deep for proper weed suppression. I typically aim for 2 or 3 inches.

If you already have mulch in your garden beds, adding an inch or two can work wonders.

Don’t bury the stems or trunks of plants: taper the mulch down to the plant, but go for proper depth in the areas between plants.

“Sheet Mulch” Weedy Areas:

As mentioned previously, proper mulch improves plant and soil health, significantly decreases the number of weeds, and decreases irrigation needs. But other mulch can be used to suppress unwanted plants… Or, what we call weeds!

If you have an overgrown weedy jungle or even a patch of lawn that you’d like to turn into a garden bed, sheet mulching is an incredible option. It smothers as it decomposes, and can eventually be planted into.

I personally start with a layer of cardboard (no tape, overlapping so no gaps) and at least 3 inches of mulch, though there are many methods. Some people will spread 12 inches of arborist chips over an area (lucky people who can find that much). Then wait 6 months to a year for the cardboard and most of the mulch to decompose, and you’ll have a beautifully prepared garden bed. There’s a lot that goes into these methods, learn more here.

REMEMBER: Sheet mulching smothers! Cardboard smothers! Don’t use these methods around the roots of plants you want to keep happy and healthy.

Sheet mulching and cardboard smothering out a lawn

Prune Shrubs and Remove Dead or Unhealthy Plants:

Pruning overgrown shrubs and removing old or dead plants can create a quick, “before and after” type transformation.

BUT don’t go on a plant-removing spree too fast: I recommend identifying the plants you have and learning a bit about them, first.

Existing plants can be incorporated into future design plans. You also have the option to transplant existing plants to another spot in your yard where they may grow better. Sometimes, it’s nice to retain existing plants as “filler plants” until new, desired plants become established, which helps prevent an overly flat landscape during the transition. Existing plants also can provide some cooling shade to new, young plants, making it easier for them to get established.

You can also dig up and offer unwanted plants to friends or neighbors for free, or trade them for new plants (gardeners love plant swaps). One person’s overgrown plant is another person’s privacy hedgerow treasure: you’d be surprised by what people are thrilled to come and pick up!

PLEASE NOTE: Proper pruning is NOT shaving everything small with electric hedge trimmers. This can create extra maintenance in the future and permanently damage the plant’s structure. An example of this to avoid: topping trees. Learn proper pruning techniques before getting started. This is one of those corners you should not cut!

Add Annual Plants:

Incorporating annual plants into your garden can add bright colors and fill in gaps while your perennials, shrubs, and trees take time to establish.

Since annuals complete their lifecycle in just one growing season, many are quick to fill in and bloom. Unless you let annuals go to seed and naturalize in your landscape, expect to replant next year. BUT establishing low-maintenance perennials, shrubs, and trees will reduce maintenance in the long run.

For bonus points, seek out native annual wildflowers: They support native insects (the bottom of the food chain) and can be stunning. The Xerces Society is a great place to find native plant recommendations for many regions.

Don’t cut corners with weed removal!

Proper weed removal can take a few years. And please note: not all weeds are equally bad. Some can be slow-growing, easy to remove, or even useful! Others can be aggressive. Weeds are classified by local organizations or governments as invasive, when appropriate. Different regions have different classification systems.

Not all invasive species are aggressive or difficult to remove, but some are both invasive AND aggressive.

Any particularly invasive weed species onsite must identified and carefully eradicated. Trying to cut corners on this can create significantly more work!

For example, mowing or tilling certain aggressive weed species can propagate hundreds more.

The best thing you can do is learn what’s onsite.

  • Use your favorite plant ID app (like iNaturalist) and compare what you find to a local list of invasive species
  • Get help from an experienced gardening friend (or multiple, if possible. Everyone has experience with different weeds!)
  • Reach out to local organizations to see if anyone offers free weed identification consultations, or hire an expert for a weed ID consultation

Make a plan for properly removing before installing any new garden beds in the same spot. Best practices are different for different species or different regions. Some aggressive weeds can be pretty easy to remove using the right method. Others can require a few repeated rounds of the same method, or multiple methods. Learn more, here.

Knowledge of what you have onsite will empower you to solve the problem as efficiently as possible. If you have an aggressive weed lurking in the corner of your yard, it’s best to know as soon as possible, so removal can be as easy as possible.  

REMEMBER: Balance is critical!

If your neighbors are glaring at your messy front yard, and your work schedule is crazy, and vines are attempting to strangle you as you bring in your groceries… It’s understandable to want fast solutions!

But it is CRITICAL that you balance these fast transformational techniques with the important long-term landscaping investments. A beautiful, healthy, and long-term-low-maintenance landscaping requires a few investments.

For Example

It’s okay to plant an annual plant that will bloom this year, but also plant some trees or shrubs that will bloom for you and wildlife in 3 or 5 or 10 years.

Because you can get stuck in a cycle of planting annual plants year after year forever…

So balance this with investing in something that will grow to the perfect size to fill the space without pruning, and bloom on its own each year.

Longer Journey to an Oasis

Especially if you are aiming to create a garden oasis, it’s essential to understand that this transformation will take time and patience.

Most perennials and shrubs take at least 3 years to really get rolling. A common gardening rhyme says, “First year they sleep, second they creep, third they leap.” It can take 5-10 years for a garden to really fill in.

Starting with smaller plants and waiting for them to grow can save you significant money.

Many times, smaller plants can catch up. If you purchase a plant that is 1 year old in a 1 gallon sized pot, and one that is 2 years old in a 3 gallon sized pot, many times can’t tell the difference after a few years. You may opt to invest more in larger plants because the landscape looks fuller at the time of installation. But either way, time is the most important element.

What is perfectionism pressure?

In the world of landscaping, there’s often an unspoken pressure for landscapes to have a certain level of neatness. I call it “Perfectionism Pressure.” This pressure comes from many places: societal norms, neighbors’ expectations, or our own standards. You can spot perfectionism pressure when you design something different for your front yard than for your backyard.

Sometimes this pressure pushes us towards landscaping practices or design styles that are not in alignment with our values or goals. Sometimes it can even take the joy and authenticity out of gardening!

It’s definitely okay to want a neat landscape. But it’s critical to recognize when this pressure is taking the joy out of the process, or pushing you to create a landscape that you would not otherwise authentically create and enjoy.

Find a healthy balance, and make a plan that is in alignment with your personal values.

Start with a plan

A good landscape design plan includes phases of installation, with steps prioritized based on your needs and the needs of the landscape… Because no one can truly clean up their messy landscape overnight! Unless you have unlimited time and money.

If you need help with this, check out my other free resources, or my paid course Design-Your-Own Landscape Layout, where I guide you step-by-step through the design and planning process.

If you have other tips for how to quickly clean up a messy landscape that you’d like to share, post them on social and tag @gardenprojectacademy. Or reach out at, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks and happy gardening!

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Eve Hanlin

Eve Hanlin

We are an online education company offering online landscape design and gardening resources to help you with your next garden project.