Before. Photo: Steve Bender

My stepson, Tom, and his fiancee, Ashley, just bought their first house. They were excited, but also intimidated by the overwhelming tasks that awaited. For 10 years, the little old lady who sold the house hadn't cleaned inside (she had pets in there -- hazmat suits required) nor trimmed anything outside. What plants should Tom and Ashley remove? What should they leave? Fortunately, they called the right people -- Mr. and Mrs. Grumpy.

We brought with us the big guns -- pruning saw, pole saw, heavy-duty loppers, pruning shears, string trimmer, blower, yard rake, and hedge trimmer. When we saw exactly what awaited, I wished we had added a chainsaw and Bobcat.

The Daunting Task From what I was told, the previous owner had once enjoyed an "English cottage style" garden with lots of roses, bulbs, perennials, and flowering vines, trees, and shrubs. Indeed, I could spot little daffodils, bearded iris, and spider lilies poking up. All that stuff takes constant vigilance lest it take over. She was not able to do this. Thus, garbage can plants like Chinese privet, Japanese honeysuckle, nandina, smilax, and winged elm had seeded themselves in and grown into monsters blocking the front entrance. An unpruned crepe myrtle was rubbing up against wood siding. And a Carolina jessamine vine trained over the garage door was doing what vines do naturally -- swallowing everything in sight. (The back yard was much worse.) So this is what we did one Saturday morning.

emAfter. Photo: Steve Bender/em

Job #1. Prune the crepe myrtle. Fortunately, Tom and Ashley had called on the most qualified Grump in the world to do this. The tree still needs a little work, but basically what I did was remove any branches touching the house or growing toward it (there must always be free air movement between the house and plants); remove all dead branches; remove all rubbing and crossing branches; and cut out all branches growing inwards towards the center of the tree, instead of growing up and out.

Job #2. Cut down the ugly privet and nandina hiding the front walk. This gave me great joy. All trunks were treated with herbicide to prevent regrowth. We decided to spare the 'Coral Bells' azalea and pair of yuccas under the downstairs window that our pruning had revealed.

Job #3. Cut out the Carolina jessamine over the garage door that brushed every car that came out or went in. Eventually the vine will be cut to the ground and trained on a new trellis so that it doesn't touch wood or get in the way.

Job #4. Remove all the detritus that had accumulated during 10 years of neglect. This included about a ton of pine straw, dozens of pots with dead plants in them, and plastic flats of plants that were never planted. We also unearthed the body of Jimmy Hoffa and notified the authorities.

The Job That Remains Mrs. Grumpy and I were proud of the change we were able to effect during the course of a morning and a six-pack of beer. Obviously, though, much still needs to be done. Those rotten RR ties have to go. So do the window boxes and shutters (new siding will take care of that). And don't even get me started on the bizarre garage door.

What will we add? Well, some sort of low stone or brick retaining wall in place of the RR ties. Low-growing, slow-growing evergreens in place of the privet. And a couple of low, mounding shrubs and ground cover in front of the bare brick wall.

Stay tuned for when Mr. & Mrs. Grumpy tackle the back yard. That's gonna require an entire chilled keg!