How do you know when it's time to re-think the front garden? Certainly overgrown trees and a fractured driveway are clues but spray painting the lawn green last summer was the final 'Aha!' moment for my Greater Seattle area clients. Yet funnily enough when I initially suggested a complete renovation they innocently asked "Which tree would you remove?" and were rather alarmed when I said "Both!"
Gardens grow and evolve so it really isn't surprising that a landscape installed over 40 years ago is now in need of an overhaul, but identifying the problems and finding creative solutions can sometimes take a professional. This garden is not viewed from the home's interior, being separated by a fenced courtyard. However passers-by and visitors see this space and it offers an important first impression of who and what is beyond: what we often refer to as curb appeal. It suggests the quality and style one can anticipate beyond the fence as well as a glimpse into the personalities of the homeowners – whether we like that idea or not! When putting our homes up for sale this curb appeal is paramount, but even for homeowners like these who have no intention of moving, making a good first impression is important. After all you don't typically greet guests with your hair in curlers I assume?
Poured concrete driveways can last 30 years before major cracking occurs, so this one was well past it's sell-by date. While the size of the driveway was adequate the paths felt awkward, especially if trying to navigate around parked vehicles. They were too close to the garage wall.
Additionally a previous homeowner had added a concrete pad to the right of the driveway that was no longer needed so this was a good time to re-think that space. Defining the property boundary and screening the neighbor's garbage cans would be helpful too.
I wonder how small these towering conifers were in the mid 1970's? Certainly much smaller than they are now! When large trees have lost their ornamental value, are casting excessive shade, their roots are causing problems and their scale in relation to the home is all wrong it may be time to consider removing them.
Likewise after years of increasing shade the understory shrubs have slowly defoliated and become susceptible to disease.
Seattle may be known for its rain but last year went down in history for its unprecedented summer drought. Unless you spent hundreds of dollars on watering your lawn the chances were that it turned brown. I have to hand it to these homeowners for seeking a remedy but I'm not sure that spray painting the lawn green is going to catch on as a long term solution.
The first question I asked was why they needed a lawn at all. Like many homeowners it was simply there by default. Yet it served no purpose while taking time and money to fertilize, water, mow and edge regularly. While there needed to be a 'negative space' in the front garden, that doesn't have to mean grass.
Actually the problem is less dogs than their owners who seem to think it is perfectly acceptable to allow their canine companions to use this space as a bathroom! Words fail me……
Seriously folks, if your dog has an accident clean it up. Ugh. Anyway, while I can't offer dog-owner training classes I can try to design the space to deter paws.
I needed to come up with a plan that addressed all the above problems, was easy to maintain, had an understated elegance and level of artistry that reflected the home's interior and private gardens yet did not feel incongruous in the neighborhood. Here's what I came up with.
Revise the hardscape
The additional parking pad to the right of the driveway was removed and replaced with a path to the side gate. Both this path and the one which leads to the front door were angled to facilitate easier access.
Down to the bare bones
The overgrown trees and shrubs were removed, stumps ground out and the area graded to provide a berm around the perimeter of a central space. The homeowners wished to keep the laurel as they like having a hedge against the fence but everything else was removed.
No more lawn
What would traditionally have been a lawn was re-created as a gravel garden. Landscape fabric was laid under a 3" decorative gravel that the clients selected. Metal edging keeps this from migrating into the planting beds.
Hand selected boulders were added to the bermed planting beds while a few were placed to deliberately ease the transition to the gravel area.
The plant palette
The planting beds were shaped to accommodate two specimen trees; one was a weeping dogwood that was transplanted from the courtyard. The other was a topiary pine that the clients selected for its architectural style. This makes an excellent focal point when viewed from the home as well as the street.
To balance the existing laurel and complete the informal hedge I added a number of H.M Eddie yew. I haven't used these before but like that they are slightly fuller than the Hicks yew and do not produce berries. Together these evergreens formed a backdrop to colorful foliage shrubs including Ogon spirea which has feathery gold leaves that really catch the eye as the shimmer and move in the breeze and the bronze-toned Coppertina ninebark which boasts spring flowers, red fall color and exfoliating bark.
Winter interest comes from the many different evergreens including Gulf Stream heavenly bamboo – an excellent mounded form that does well here and Midwinter Fire dogwood which has stems that range from red to gold.
I love dogs but like my clients want them to keep their paws on the sidewalk! To discourage them I added the berm and boulders, then interplanted with a number of thorny shrubs including the rich plum colored Concorde barberry and the dwarf coral hedge barberry which is evergreen and has orange flowers in spring. At the last minute we also added Wood's Compact kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi 'Wood's Compacta') which will form a dense, twiggy groundcover.
No matter how much we love our neighbors we don't necessarily want to see their garbage cans. With that in mind I added a number of evergreen and deciduous shrubs that will quickly grow in to provide screening while still being 'neighborly'.
To complete the gravel garden I created planting pockets near the boulders. Mexican feather grass and an assortment of hardy succulents add color and texture in an understated, naturalistic style. (Be sure to check if Mexican feather grass is invasive in your area and ask a professional to recommend an alternative if necessary)
The homeowners found the most perfect container to place by the front gate; the colors repeat the hues of their home while the texture suggests it was a treasure discovered at the bottom of the ocean – love it!
They planted it with a simple purple fountain grass for summer interest: the dark color was needed for contrast. Adding other plants would have been too fussy.
I asked how things were faring with the dogs and was told that so far people are being respectful. "We do have the occasional dog prints on the mulch but no little gifts have been left for us, yet. We have actually observed people allowing their dogs to wander up the small embankment and back down as they are walking on the sidewalk with their dogs." Let's hope that decreases as the plants grow in.
Is it time to re-think your front garden?