Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dare To Share: Front Yard Gardening

Karen Fuoco, The Travelling Gardener

It is 2006 and the front garden has come a long way. If you search the internet for “Front Garden” information, it is evident that “anything goes” for front yard design, style, colour scheme and aestetics. It is now an acceptable place to show your personality and creativity. Front yard gardening is also about respecting biodiversity, regenerating community, accepting low maintenance practices and making the best use of what land you have.

The author's front garden

Lifestyle affects garden design and since backyards are very small with most homes nowadays, people are utilizing all available land on their property for a varied number of activities. Gardens are used for maintaining health, playing, working, relaxing and therapy. Front yard gardens are “interactive”. For example, neighbours come and visit front yard gardens by walking by it often and some joggers will actually change their routes so that they pass by daily. And if you offer plants and seeds to help your neighbours plant a front yard garden, the more beautiful your neighbourhood becomes.

Designing for high function and low maintenance

Upon deciding to brave the blank canvass of your front yard, how do you make an interesting, beautiful, low maintenance, ecologically diverse front garden? Start by hardscaping a large percentage of your land. That is the one key aspect that is not currently done enough in front gardens. Most have very little hardscaping save for perhaps a retaining wall and/or walkway to the front door. Hardscaping keeps maintenance to a minimum, saves expense and time on lawn maintenance, provides outdoor living space and adds structure to a garden.

After considering the architectural style of your house and the drainage, design the garden with a heavy emphasis on hardscaping the “floor” (decks, patios), “walls” (dividers, fences) and “ceiling” (trees, pergolas) of your garden living space. That old “shag carpet” which you call a lawn has got to go! Replace it with hardwood flooring or slate, just as you would for an indoor room. Hardscaping costs could be prohibitive and may be a compelling reason not to do it. However not all hardscaping is expensive and a front yard can be done in phases, just as your backyard was most likely done.

Some current design practices are : creative flooring, using vegetables as ornamentals, encouraging wildlife, using glass, fabric, metal, plastic or recycled materials, front yards as office space to work in and not just for dining, wildflowers - but not unkempt, using bold dark colours for more than just “accents”, building a Portico (a porch or walkway with a roof supported by columns, often leading to the entrance of a building), building a terrace or “greeting room” near the front door, painted planters that introduce texture, fragrance and color, using “movement” (moving sculpture, moving water), using self awareness to garden better, adding dramatic landscape lighting.

A bubbling fountain is easy to make

How you will use your front yard living space will help determine what design elements you’ll need. If you need inspiration for some creative design ideas, try this web site: . Raised flower beds in the middle of your landscape or a meandering low wall in an asymmetrical pattern in the middle of your lawn can break up a large space. Stone walls are always beautiful and age well. The wall doesn’t have to “surround” anything as typical as the perimeter of the yard. It can be a piece of garden art. Add sphere, cone, and weeping shapes. If your lawn is large, intersect it with a large circle garden with a trellis or pergola right in the middle of the yard for soaring vertical gardening. Other vertical elements could be ornamental trees, sculpture, obelisks and fences.

Experiment with designing a garden right near the edge of your property at the curb as well as adding more depth to the shrubbery at the foundation of the house. Consider taking out overgrown foundation shrubs or renovating an old yew, cedar or young pine that has a nice straight trunk, sculpting it into a topiary or standard lollipop. This is cheap, easy and adds instant drama.

Hydrangeas spill over the fence to greet pedestrians

Mix up the terrain for an exhuberant effect. Create hills, valleys, dry riverbeds, platforms, berms, winding pathways, ponds, terraces. Use several of these - all on the same front yard! Consider liabilities, like ponds. Small children could fall in so check with by-laws.
Maintenance can be reduced by using inanimate objects as substitutes for structural plants. For example, some shrubs are used for low hedges yet a low stone wall could serve the same purpose and be maintenance free. Instead of planting a tree for shade, a pergola could do the job with no worry of damaging a house foundation. If planting annuals en mass interests you but you are weary of having to plant so many plants for your yearly patterns, substitute with a mosaic pattern using varied mulches, coloured cement patio stones, pavers, tiles, brick, colored gravel or crushed glass.

A garden upfront is occasionally affected by vandalism and theft. This is not often a garden topic but these things do happen. My advice is to be brave! Vandalism is just the thing that will wane with time when more front gardens are created. Front gardens exude pride in the community and children who grow up with gardens surrounding them will have a closer connection to nature and an appreciation gardens. If you do experience vandalism, clean it up quickly and resolve to clean it up every time it happens. Chances are, the perpetrator will give up or grow up and the community is all the better for it since you have stood your ground.

Curb side gardens add beauty to the neighbour-

Regarding theft, remind yourself that you are gardening on the “front lines”. For objects of art, display sturdy, heavy objects that are discretely pinned, bolted or chained down so they won’t be carried away. Trellises with cemented footings, large interesting rocks and concrete benches are all good choices for front garden décor.

Lastly, often missing in the front yard is unusual colours (like tourquois) on the front door, house trim and garden objects. To give your garden sparkle and cohesiveness, pick an unusual colour rarely seen amongst your plants and paint your front door and most garden accessories that colour.

Planting for beauty and biodiversity

Amending any soil type is a long process with slow results. Therefore, lay newspaper down (3 sheets thick) on the lawn where the garden will be and dump a huge load of triple-mix (1/3 black peat, 1/3 good topsoil and 1/3 mushroom compost) down about 2 feet high. If there is some lawn, edge the garden with a mowing strip if possible for maintenance free mowing. Vary heights of plants dramatically and for a bold statement, use lots of variegated plants, red foliage plants and blue conifers. Conifers with unusual growth habits are more expensive but worth the investment in our 4 season climate. Try Picea abies f. 'pendula' - Weeping Norway Spruce or Thuja occidentalis 'Filiformis' - Threadleaf Arborvitae.

Choose shrubs from your backyard that you will want to “clone” for the front garden. Propagate those shrubs by “layering” ( and leave them to grow roots until the next year, when they will be ready to be cut from the mother shrub. This technique even works well for non-grafted roses like “Explorer” and “ground cover” roses. Collect seeds for easy-to-grow, drought tolerant plants such as poppies and larkspur. Take cuttings that root easily like Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea' or Brugmansia candida.

To avoid yearly planting of annuals, use mosaics

There are more plant choices for a garden in partial sun/sun than there are for gardens in the shade so be perceptive about how your tall objects throw shadows. Limb up existing trees artistically, keeping the shape of the tree elegant. This allows for under-planting. The John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative studies explains, “Covering the ground: in order to maximize the efficiency of the garden and minimize maintenance, we work to cover every inch of exposed soil. Plant stacking begins with plants covering the ground like groundcover, with small plants and shrubs next, and small fruit trees or vines serving as the umbrella. This keeps unwanted or volunteer plants from moving in, the soil temperature stays even, irrigation water is conserved, and all leaf droppings, plant cuttings and compost can be worked directly back in to the soil around the base of the plants.” Some shrubs make excellent “dwarf trees” if pruned into standards or multi-trunk specimens, like Salix integra 'Hakuro Nishiki'.

Be daring and plant a rare beauty or unusual specimen plant for the public to see. Be prepared to answer questions. In my garden, people are curious about larkspur Consolida Orientalis (I grow in groups), dark red leaved Castor Bean Ricinus communis, Heliopsis 'Loraine Sunshine', alliums of any kind, “Lady in red” salvia, plume poppy, crambe cordifolia, fillipendula rubra “venustra”, variegated Jacob’s Ladder (polemonium caeruleum “Brise d’ Anjou), sun-loving heuchera ‘Purple Mountain Majesty’, phlox P. 'Red Riding Hood', ‘Torch’ Tithonia, double antique rose peony poppy, clematis 'Princess Diana', dwarf blue clematis, “Sunburst” honey locust tree, “Candied Apple” dwarf ornamental crab trained as a spiral, weeping red jade ornamental crab, aubrieta, prairie poppy mallow Callirhoe involucrata, baptisia, Verbena bonariensis, and huge annual zinnias. The more variety of plant species in your garden, the better for biodiversity. I grow milkweed in small clumps as both food for the monarchs and as a structural groupings.

Mixed hard-
scaping can replace lawns

Mix up styles of gardening to make your own hybrid style that is both a personal expression and is aestethic for your house. For example, plunk a formal topiary in the middle of a cottage garden! Grow herbs for aromatherapy and culinary uses and plant neighbourly species that are not invasive. Contain grasses in very large bottomless pots and keep hedges low near curbs and driveways for safety.

For water conservation, ensure that rain does not run off onto the street. Rain gardens are becoming popular as gardeners make use of the rain they do receive and direct runoff into their gardens. According to the Applied Ecological Services website, “a rain garden is simply a shallow depression in the yard planted with native wetland or wet prairie wildflowers and grasses. Rain gardens allow water to naturally infiltrate back into the ground, managing rainwater and stormwater run-off in a more sustainable way. Whether you live near a creek or miles away from one in the heart of suburbia, a rain garden can help preserve your area's rivers and streams.” Use mulched leaves on the beds. It is perfect to feed the soil and keeps constant soil moisture and temperature. Install drip irrigation to those plants that need watering the most and this will save you many hours of grunt work. It is prudent to group plants hydrozones (based on water requirements). Drip irrigation is now like the internet: if you don’t have it – get it.

Lawn Gone…

There are high tech products available now that can be suitable replacements for grass. Artificial turf is a growing trend. The product is realistic looking and maintenance free, although it can be expensive. Thyme lawns work best if thyme is planted as filler between flat rocks. The plants need the rocks for the moisture held underneath. Design a rockscape; mix and match coloured rocks, round rocks with flat rocks and intersperse with patches of varying mulch.

A patio dissolves into a pond

Finally, if you look at the potential of your front property, there will be endless motivation for you to landscape and garden it. Use your front yard as another living space. If you had another room, what would you do with it? Would it be a spa? A gym? A Dining room? An office? Go for it.

For further investigation and ideas:


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