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?


  1. I don't have much to offer, beyond the basics --- anchor the area with a shrub (or three, depending on the size) and then have odd-number multiples of whatever perennials you choose (because too many different varieties makes it look cluttered and incohesive) --- all of which I'm sure you already know! We've been working on our yard ever since we moved here four years ago (too long of a story for a comment, but maybe I'll elaborate in a post), and as we did have some hardscaping professionally done, the landscape designer also put trees/shrubs/perennials into the plan. It was extremely helpful to see how she designed it, although when we went to do the planting I did end up changing it up quite a bit, based on what plants I liked. One thing that surprised me was how inexpensive it was to get a plan drawn up. At our greenhouse they charged only $75 (if I recall correctly) and then we had to buy a gift card (basically they're discounting the design work by ensuring you buy the plants from them). I know you said you were starting to get things figured out on your own, but just in case you hit a wall, maybe your greenhouses would operate on the same principle?). I look forward to seeing what you come up with --- I LOVE a lovely garden, but I always feel rather "flittery" when I'm working out there, and sometimes feel so overwhelmed by it all that I just come in and bake or knit ;)

    1. Oh, wow, what an awesome idea to get plans from your local greenhouse, I never would have thought it would be so cheap! Alas, I just checked and the nurseries where I like to buy plants don't offer design services. But a plan for my site that I could then swap different plants in and out of would be pretty dreamy! I'd love to read a post about what you've done with your outdoors.

      Yeah, I know that cluttered/incohesive look all too well. Even though I know and understand the rules about multiples, it's hard to reign in my not-so-inner plant collector/botany nerd.

  2. I can relate to every single part of this, especially the part about wanting some general principles and having a hard time finding them. Then, there's the added wrinkle (for me) of not knowing much about gardening. Which plants grow well where, and how to care for them.

    We've had some general design principles in the garden: Cohesive color scheme (we like lots of orange, red, yellow). Mix of textures (some spiky, some softer/curvier, some heavy, some wispy). Nice mix of evergreens (so the garden doesn't look bare in winter) and perennials. Clumping is good (several of the same kind of plants together).

    We read the markers that come with the plants so we have some idea if what we're wanting will actually grow in the spot we have in mind. Then, we put stuff in the ground and see what happens. Some things die, and we accept that as part of the process. This is our 4th year in our house, and we're finally really pleased with the front yard. We figure we just need to keep throwing stuff at it and see what sticks.

    1. Yeah, I was wondering why that sort of diy advice for gardens is so hard to come by when there is so much home diy how-to out there. But then it struck me that actually most home diy advice doesn't have much to do with design principles (and the lack of that info for indoors often frustrates me too!).

      I think what overwhelms me is that I do think about the types of principles you are mentioning...but then there are just SO many variables at play that I can't figure out how to pick a specific plant!

      I do like the idea that a lot of this is trial and error -- pretty sure I even read that in an actual gardening book, that perennials have to be moved an average of three times before they find their proper home. But scrapping an idea and starting over seems harder with living things than with a can of paint!