Dreary Rental to Secluded Retreat: Front Garden Transformation

Renovating a neglected rental property into a functional and comfortable home was a significant challenge, but one that that these young homeowners, Katie and Evan were up to. Both trained as architects, they knew what to look for, what they were getting into, and understood that this was going to be a long term project. When it came to renovating the landscape, however, Katie had the perfect solution – her mum (i.e. me)! In fact it was no surprise to see that my daughter was already planning her garden wish list long before she asked for a landscape design as her Christmas present in 2013.

The Site Challenges: 2013

Random, overgrown trees and shrubs engulfed the house and made the front garden unusable. Rock edging made mowing difficult and weeding a nightmare.

Overgrown shrubs and trees created a prison-like feel from inside the home.

Parking was at a premium and overhead power lines a consideration.

Parking on this suburban road was difficult yet the driveway would not accommodate their own vehicles as well as those of visitors.

Low power lines restricted safe planting heights

Privacy between homes was needed yet fences were not a realistic option. Rock necklaces were a nuisance.

Fences between neighboring properties was not possible yet some things definitely needed to be hidden, including a bright yellow hydrant at the corner of the front garden

A fire hydrant was really not the focal point this young couple were looking for


What were they thinking??? How NOT to divert water from a downspout

The existing downspouts poured water via a flexible pipe across the pathway  – neither functional nor safe

The Wish List

A sitting area in the front garden that was private, yet was friendly enough to invite neighbors over

A focal point from within the home

Easy access to the new patio from the front door

Remove lawn entirely

Plan ahead for their future family

A design that they could implement themselves over a number of years as time and budget allowed

The Original Design

The original design

The idea was to create a patio surrounded by gabion walls to suggest a sense of enclosure. the gabion walls would be capped to double as a sitting wall for extra guests.

Layering easy-care plants would add to the buffer between the house and the street. These were selected to offer year-round interest with dramatic bark, colorful foliage and seasonal flowers. Pots were tucked into the borders as focal points and pathway markers.

Adding a dedicated  space for 2 vehicles at the front of the property would ease parking concerns.

Starting the Transformation: 2014

The early stages were hard physical work. Trees, shrubs and grass needed to be removed, endless rocks dug out, run off from the downspouts needed to be re-routed and a lifetime of weeds addressed. Digging, sheet mulching, and patience were employed in equal measure.

Design Evolution: 2015-2020

2015: When installing a design one usually builds the infrastructure  – patios and paths – before planting. But Katie is my daughter after all, so it was no surprise that she wanted to start with the plants. Our first major shopping trip for new plants was in spring 2015.

Smooth concrete pavers with tight joints give this space a timeless yet contemporary vibe

As it turned out that was no bad thing as although it made later patio preparation a little trickier, these plants had time to mature over the intervening years, and as the plants grew in it became apparent that the gabion walls were not necessarily needed for privacy as the tree canopies and filtered shrub foliage were sufficient – a cost-saving option.

The road and yellow hydrant are now hidden from view by layers of plants

2019: After four years it was time for the patio. Opting for the clean contemporary lines of dimensional pavers, a rectilinear shape rather than the original oval made more sense as it would be easier to lay and have less wastage since no pavers would have to be cut.

2020: The finishing touch was the selection of furniture and soft furnishings. I love the colors they chose! Shades of blue from navy to teal and turquoise are repeated while orange and red accents add a youthful punch. All these colors are repeated in the surrounding flowers and foliage.

Plant Selection

Other than one or two strategic shopping sprees many of the plants were extras from my own stock, gifts, or random samples that would work better in Katie's garden than my own, so we juggled the combinations on site and adapted the planting plan as necessary.

This beautiful Purple Ghost Japanese maple moved from one apartment to the next before finally being allowed to call this home! Katie has done a lovely job of echoing colors from the surrounding foliage in her pots and furnishings.

The container grown Purple Ghost and Orange Dream Japanese maples that Katie had enjoyed in her earlier rental homes finally found permanent spots in this garden where they have filled out to become beautiful specimen trees.

A dwarf gingko (left) is a favorite of Evan's. The butter-yellow color on fall is a garden highlight

A sterile butterfly bush (a share from my garden) will soon be covered with fragrant, deep blue-purple flowers that attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Viewed from the front window this is always a show stopper in summer.

In spring the neighbors lilac bush can be enjoyed as the shrubs in front have been cut back. Soon the emerging feathery foliage of the Lemony Lace elderberry will fill in, as will the coppiced stems of a Grace smoke bush seen just behind the sofa

At this time of year (early May) the Lemony Lace elderberry and Grace smoke bush are just growing in after their annual coppicing. By summer they will add bold color to the corner. Yet in spring, their reduced height allows the couple to enjoy the neighbors lilac tree in full bloom.

Layers of evergreen and deciduous foliage partially screen the home while still offering an attractive road-side view. The dedicated parking area is inviting thanks to colorful foliage and flowers that change throughout the year.

The shady border by the new parking area features winter blooming hellebores intermingled with spring flowering Jack Frost Siberian bugloss, variegated Solomon's seal and feathery ferns. In summer and fall late blooming black-eyed Susan's bloom surprisingly well under the river birch canopy while the chartreuse foliage of a Little Honey oak leaf hydrangea adds sparkle beneath the towering conifer.

From the patio the yellow hydrant is hidden behind layers of Portuguese laurel, Rainbow drooping fetterbush and autumn ferns, a wonderful evergreen tapestry.

Anna decided to help me with my photo shoot – she loves "copying Nana".

Pots nestled into the borders are refreshed seasonally, allowing Katie to play with fun combinations. Regular readers may recognize a few of the containers as I have featured them in some of my online courses in the past!

None of the plants chosen need complicated pruning. The spirea get trimmed for size control and we did some limbing up on the river birch this winter but otherwise it's easy care.

Just for Anna

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The future family became a present one with the arrival of Anna in 2017, so having easy paths for tricycles and fun treasures to discover suddenly assumed greater importance. (A bonus for me was a budding assistant photographer).

The Result: a hidden oasis

Layers of deciduous and evergreen plants create a filtered view from the street. A dedicated parking area makes things easier for visitors.

Hidden in plain sight, this colorful, private sitting area reflects both the youthful style and the personality of its homeowners.

The bright foliage of an Orange Dream Japanese maple frames the sofa perfectly.

Reviewing Anna's garden photography

It's a perfect spot for bedtime stories or an evening glass of wine. A place to take a Zoom call or to chat with the neighbors. It is inviting yet private. As Katie said:

 I loved it the moment we went mega-shopping, but it really feels like it’s becoming our oasis now.

It's certainly a far cry from where they started and I couldn't be more proud of them.

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  1. Patterson Webster on May 11, 2021 at 6:36 am

    A very impressive make-over. Congratulations.

    • Karen Chapman on May 11, 2021 at 7:44 am

      Thank you so much

  2. Krista Hanson-Walker on May 11, 2021 at 11:20 am

    I am so glad you focused on family, your daughter and hers, so close to Mother's Day! Wonderful and as always enjoyable. Thankyou!

    Whidbey Island

    • Karen Chapman on May 11, 2021 at 6:19 pm

      So glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Katie on May 11, 2021 at 9:03 pm

    I was on walk through this neighborhood the other day and caught a glimpse of this delightful courtyard from the street. I had to stop and appreciate the design. So lovely!

    • Karen Chapman on May 12, 2021 at 8:16 am

      Oh how fun!!

  4. Mike McGarvey on May 12, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    Nice job!
    I see you don't like rock necklaces lining garden beds as much as I do and for the same reasons. They also look bad by taking away a more natural look. What was their eventual location? Round rocks and boulders are difficult to place unless you have a stream, wet or otherwise. I've used them for walls that were planted to cover them up. A well constructed quarry rock wall looks much better than a field rock one and is less likely to be completely covered up by foliage….at least by me. 🙂
    I really like the parking and patio solution to the front yard. The neighbors are going to have to 'up their game'. 🙂

    • Katie on May 12, 2021 at 4:49 pm

      The rocks were re-homed to a neighbor who was delighted to use them to line a large firepit.

      • Karen Chapman on May 13, 2021 at 7:19 am

        Great way to re-purpose

    • Karen Chapman on May 13, 2021 at 7:20 am

      Thanks Mike – their neighbors are already busy 🙂

  5. Katie Pond on May 12, 2021 at 4:55 pm

    Love seeing our little oasis through your eyes! Thank you, Mum!!!!

    • Karen Chapman on May 13, 2021 at 7:18 am

      Thanks for letting me share the story!