Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Garden Diary: The Front Garden

The "front" of our house on Federal Twist - the facade facing the road - is actually the back. It presents a simple wall to visitors. The real front of the house is at the back, where an unbroken wall of floor to ceiling windows gives onto the main garden, and surrounding it, the woods.

The choice of where the front garden would be was predetermined by a barren gravel circle at the front entrance. The house is about 165 feet from the road, with open woods in between, so screening wasn't absolutely necessary, but added privacy was desirable since none of the windows are covered. Even more important, I wanted to create a focal point and add visual interest. The photo above is the front garden, still in progress, this past summer. The second photo shows the original front "garden" when we purchased the house in fall of 2004.

The house is a simple, shed-like structure, at least viewed from the side facing the road. The only notable front views out are from the kitchen window and sliding doors in the dining room. The original view out was onto a circular graveled area about 28 feet in diameter, with a mostly dead crab apple, a couple of scraggly burning bushes (Euonymous alatus), a line of arborvitae, and two Sedum spectabile 'Autumn Joy' eaten to the ground by deer. To the side were two rotting, frequently amputated Japanese cherries.

Looking out toward the road, the view of the woods was not without interest but also not particularly notable. We needed something to look at from inside the house, to provide additional screening in place of window and door coverings, and to make the facade facing the road more welcoming - something that would screen our uncovered expanses of glass, providing privacy, while signaling a greeting to visitors and giving clear direction to the house entry, which was hidden at the far end of a dark porch.

After we cleared most of the area, the first plant to go in was a large Ravenna grass (Saccharum ravennae), which I split in two - a discard of our friend Roberta, who found it overwhelming in her small Lambertville garden (I had put it there). This was in May of 2005. You'll have to click on the photo to see the two grasses in the wide expanse of gravel.
In the top photo you can see how, once the grass matured, its fountain-like shape and large size made it a welcoming gesture to anyone turning into the drive.

Planting continued through that summer of 2005, and by August was essentially finished. I used several Miscanthus (Gracillimus, Yaku Jima, Adagio), Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway'), Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail', catmint (Nepeta m. 'Walkers Low'), Sedum 'Matrona', Bluestocking monarda (Monarda d. 'Blaustrumpf'), a small lilac (personal request from Phil), Pennisetum a. 'Moudry', a few Japanese Blood Grasses (Imperator cylindrica rubrum), Aster laterifolius 'Lady in Black', Lychnis coronaria, purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'), and an inkberry holly (Ilex glabra) to anchor one corner. I scattered seed of Verbena bonariensis and bronze fennel, and I kept two of the arborvitae, the legacy Sedum 'Autumn Joy', and self-seeded Eupatorium rugosum (a really invasive thug I'm now trying to eliminate). The first year planting looks scraggly but by the next spring it had filled out well, as you can see in the next three photos taken in late June 2006.

In 11 months, the Miscanthus, Joe Pye Weed, and Saccarum had grown into substantial islands of graceful foliage and the Nepeta 'Walkers Low', just passing its early prolific bloom, had relaxed into the contours of its surroundings like an old hand.

All of this was working on the large scale, creating a new space and transforming the house on Federal Twist into a place with a little more mystery than before.

On the smaller scale, details of flower and foliage shape and texture began to add interest - monarda busy with bees and butterflies ...

Purple smoke bush graced by the magenta of Lychnis coronaria ...

and the smoke bush again, with cat mint and Sedum 'Matrona' against a hedge of burning bush.

Under the gravel is clay, same as everywhere else at Federal Twist. Unlike the main garden at the back, this one is raised above the surrounding grade, so drainage is much better. Though it makes a very heavy planting medium, the clay is rich and, after only two years, it looks like some of the grasses will need to be divided next year.

To finish, a couple of views from this past summer ...


  1. Everything looks very "established" in your gardens. Very restful. I enjoyed my visit.

  2. Looks are deceiving. The planting is only two years old.

  3. This is a beautiful change for your home. I'm sure you enjoy it a lot more than the gravel circle with dying plants! The combination of textures and colors is very wonderful.

    This is also quite inspiring for anyone wishing to change the aspect of an area, because it shows how quickly things can grow and develop; you don't have to wait years for an amazing transformation to occur.

  4. Simply outstanding! This looks fantastic. I can't get any grass to grow in my shady front lawn (or maybe I should just say dirt) and I'm trying to come up with ideas for an alternative. This is really beautiful.

  5. healingmagichands, I was surprised myself to find how quickly I had a front garden. One year from summer to the next spring did it.

  6. Phillip, I was fortunate to have a raised area to get the plants above the wet so typical of the rest of our land, and the rich clay promotes rapid growth. Right plants, right place. I too have a woodland area with shade, lots of tree roots, but no rich layer of organic soil, only mineral clay, and I'm having a difficult time getting plants established there. I dump leaves there every fall in hope I'll eventually increase the organic content of the soil.



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