Thursday, August 27, 2015

Works in Progress: Front yard garden

My parents are up for their annual late-August visit, and this year's house project is working on the landscaping of the front yard.

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the task.

Some background: Our house was built in 1953. We are the third owners, and the second family to live here. A little over 10 years ago, a house flipper bought from the original owners, took the place down to the studs, put it back together, and then sold it to us. He did a nice job, and the place is in really good condition, but  as you might imagine there are a lot of builder-basic choices.

That shows in the landscaping, too, which is a bit chaotic at the moment. This bed directly in front of the house, shown in the photo above, contains what I am pretty sure are decades-old roses, a couple of lovely Japanese anemones that I planted two years ago, a mysterious volunteer bush that showed up a few years ago, and a line of what I call "flipper bushes": evergreen azaleas planted 10 inches from a walkway without regard to the landscaping (or lack thereof) of the rest of the property. See how the azaleas are right up at the front of the bed, where some soft, low perennials ought to be, and the back of the bed, where something evergreen-azalea-like for structure might be welcome, is a giant hole?

On the other side of the walkway, the front yard proper, is an even giant-er hole.

It used to be lawn, but it was never a very good lawn -- mostly moss and creeping buttercup, with just enough grass that you actually had to mow it, which was cumbersome to do because of the low-hanging branches of our big rhododendron.

So, two years ago, we decided to kill our lawn.

This is what it looked like for the first year after that.

And this is what is has looked like for the second year. Yes, we are Those Neighbors. The ones with the eyesore of a yard.

So the task now is to turn the front yard into some kind of pleasant and unified landscape. And I really have no idea where to begin.

My husband, wearing his project-manager hat, thinks we should choose one section of the yard to work on first, on the theory that seeing real progress in one spot will motivate us to continue working on the project. I see where he's coming from, but as with most house- and design-related projects, I find it very difficult to make individual decisions without an overall plan or vision in mind.

Plus, working on one section is sort of what I've been doing in this area of the yard, which is in front of the front porch and living room picture window. And the results are pretty underwhelming if you ask me:

A mishmash of plants, no structure, no sense of overall landscape.

But, developing that overall vision has been quite flummoxing. I've consulted a number of garden design books, but I've been frustrated by their paint-by-numbers approach. Sure, they give you garden plans, but what I really want to understand are the design principles behind those plans so that I can adapt them to my actual garden. Why is this kind of DIY advice so hard to find, or have I missed some obvious resources?

Anyway, I spent some time out front yesterday, pulling a few weeds, clipping a few branches, and generally flitting from task to task because I didn't really know what to do with myself. It felt pretty unproductive at the time, but I think I worked through a few things after all.

Let's start with what I know that I love. I love using native plants in my yard, and I also love English cottage gardens with their riotous perennial borders. Is there some way to make these two preferences compatible? It sounds a bit crazy, but people always say "buy what you love and it will somehow all work together" when it comes to home decorating, so I'm hoping the same might apply to decorating outdoors too.

I've realized that most of the front yard -- the bed directly in front of the house and the area underneath the cherry and big rhododendron shown in the photos above -- is shadier than I'd first thought. So I'll need to think of this area as a woodland garden -- I'm imagining lots of salal, sword ferns, and evergreen huckleberry for structure. And then a mix of shade-tolerant native and English-garden type perennials to fill in the nooks and crannies: native bleeding heart, angelica, foxglove.

The sunniest part of the yard is that end in front of the porch/living room window -- that current "mishmash of plants" above. Again I didn't realize this before now, I always thought of it as shadier. But I think this is where I can indulge my penchant for the cottage garden aesthetic.

Now that I have this overall vision, and especially a sense of which plants I want to repeat in different parts of the yard, I think I can follow my husband's "tackle one area at a time" approach. I have some ideas about what to do with that little bit in front of the dining room window, so that's first up:

This probably all makes more sense in my head than it does in print at this point, but hopefully soon it will make more sense in photographs!

Have you ever done any DIY landscape design? Are there any good resources about design principles for landscaping that you have come across?