Rehabilitating a gravel-covered yard
I have moved into a home that has an almost entirely gravel-covered front yard, with a yard fabric underneath it. I would like to slowly work at uncovering the yard and making the soil well again - planting native ground covers or possibly grass (but not wedded to the grass idea).
I have already uncovered a small stretch of yard, about 5 feet long and 2.5 wide and found hard-packed earth underneath - but with worms!! I have covered this bit with fallen leaves from trees for now.
The area is east-facing and gets quite a bit of sun during the summer.
My questions: What can I do now, over the winter and beyond, to bring this soil back? When and what could I plant there or does it need more time?
Multnomah County Oregon
Covering soil with gravel and landscape fabric is one of the worst things for soil health (even worse is black plastic, which is totally impermeable). Kudos to you for wanting to reverse the damage and improve the health of your soil. The good news is, soil is resilient!
You have made a great start. The fact that there are worms in the soil indicates that it is not too damaged - there must still be some organic content for them to eat, and the soil isn't so compacted that they can't move. What the soil needs is air, water, organic matter, and all the little living soil organisms (visible and not) that are naturally present. The sooner you get all the gravel and fabric off, the better.
Of course, simply uncovering the soil would invite a host of weeds to sprout, so covering it with a deep organic mulch is the next step. You have already started that with the leaves. If you can get enough leaves (here in Corvallis the waste disposal company will deliver 7 yards for free) they are good. Even better would be arborist wood chips - the chipped remains of pruned or removed trees and shrubs. This typically has a mix of tree types, both woody and green elements, and a range of chip size, all of which are excellent for gradually building the soil, and protecting it while that happens. You can often find a local arborist who will deliver these for free, rather than take them to the dump. Check ChipDrop online.
As for what to plant there, first please get your soil tested. That will give you a baseline for its chemical condition. You should also dig a test pit or two to evaluate just how compacted it is, and also check winter drainage (If water stands in a 1ft deep hole for many hours or days, you have a drainage problem).
Beyond that, it sounds like you want a low-maintenance, but preferably native, planting. With the sunny location, this might be just perfect for a native meadow or prairie planting. As it happens, Multnomah County has published a wonderful book called “The Meadowscaping Handbook”, https://wmswcd.org/projects/the-meadowscaping-handbook/. I suggest downloading a copy to see if you like the idea.
There are many sources of seed for “native” meadow plantings. Most contain a mix of annuals and perennials, and often have seed that is not only non-native, but invasive. However, since you’re not doing a restoration project, there is really nothing wrong with including non-natives in your planting. It takes awhile to get a mixed planting established, and you might want to start some perennials from plugs rather than seed, so they will establish faster. A good site for research is http://www.heritageseedlings.com/native-seed. They are a wholesaler, but you may be able to find a place to get their seed mixes, too.