I've written a lot about the misconception that you have to be an expert gardener in order to have a beautiful yard. Many equate gardening with fear; they are "cursed" with a black thumb and kill everything they touch. Very scary language for a field that's dominated by kind old ladies!
While gardening doesn't need to be complicated, I understand why it can be so overwhelming. Walking through the rows and rows of plants at the garden center without any help in sight sends many back to their cars defeated and empty handed. "I'll do a little research online" you tell yourself, only to be inundated by even more information. You slowly close your laptop and vow to tackle the yard next month, never to return again.
Not all is lost. Consider this a cheat sheet for the homeowner who wants to keep a respectable yard, but would rather do literally anything else. A guide to doing the bare minimum, if you will.
Just. Get Started.
The first step to a beautiful yard is taking the first step. It may seem like a no brainer, but many put off starting their project only to create bigger problems down the line. Just because you aren't prepared to do a full-blown revamp of your landscaping doesn't mean you should avoid it completely. You'd be surprised what a difference a few small steps can make. If you're putting off doing anything so you can take time to come up with the perfect, mistake-free plan, give up now. Mistakes are inevitable. I've made many, and I still make them today. You don't have to be an expert to start a garden, but you need to get started to become an expert.
Get rid of what you hate.
Time can make a small project a lot more difficult down the line. Trees grow taller, weeds spread quickly, and the roots of that bush you despise grow ever deeper into the ground. So if there is something growing in your yard you know you absolutely don't want, get rid of it today (I'm looking at you, ditch lilies). Chances are if you don't like it now you probably won't like it when it's twenty feet taller or takes over your entire garden bed. So grab whatever tool necessary and cut it to the ground. If you're dealing a tree or a shrub and you aren't planning on immediately planting something in its spot, don't worry about digging out all the roots. They will slowly disintegrate on their own and will be easier to dig out once you are ready to replant. (Note: if you have a few errant shoots of new growth coming out of the stump, stick a flowerpot over it and for a week or two until the growth dies).
Plant where you can see.
The first place many homeowners focus their gardening efforts is the front elevation of their home (re: curb appeal), but I would argue a different strategy. If you are limited on time or funds, start with what you can see from indoors. What window do you find yourself looking out the most? For me, it's the window above my sink while I'm washing dishes. From there I can see a Japanese maple we inherited from the prior owners. Beneath it I planted a three seasons garden (hyacinths, peonies, bee balm, and "Autumn Joy" stone crop with lamb's ear as a border). This way I get to enjoy the fruits of my labor throughout the day without needing to go outdoors.
Another strategy is to plant offensively. Can you see directly into your neighbor's bathroom and wish you couldn't? Tired of staring at the old rusty camper that's parked in your neighbor's driveway 365 days a year? Plant a screen! You may not have the money to purchase a twenty year old oak tree, but it's amazing how fast shrubs can grow while you're busy working on other house projects. Small trees like dogwoods and magnolias, arborvitae, and viburnums are great options for fast(ish) growing screens. Just make sure you're planting inside your property line.
When in doubt, weed.
If you don't know what to prune, what shrubs to remove, or what flowers to plant, at least weed the beds. There's a huge difference between garden beds that are left to fend for themselves versus the ones that are kept neat and tidy. "But how do I know it's a weed?" I constantly refer to the wise words of my former boss: "It's only a weed if you don't like it". Love buttercups? Not weeds! Hate tulips? Then they are weeds. Pull what you don't like and leave what you do. If you're unsure, pull everything up between your bushes and trees. You may lose out on some existing landscape plants installed by owners past, but it's not the end of the world. Hate bending over or getting on your hands and knees to weed? Let me introduce the action hoe. Mulching after you weed is another way to instantly improve the look of your yard. Plus, it works great suppressing future weeds and keeping moisture in the soil.