One of the great things about walking for exercise is that it allows you to see marvelous things—architectural details on buildings, variations in paving and curbing materials, and, of course, gardens. Experience and the loud honking of other peoples’ horns has taught me that when you are at the wheel of a car, you risk accidents when you slow down to focus on a particularly intriguing rose or a stunning stand of yarrow. Besides, at 30 mph even the most delectable phlox is nothing more than a colorful blob.
Plants and flowers are my passion, and as I walk around my town, I love what I see happening. Gardens are happening, especially front gardens, and they are sprouting in front of all kinds of houses. Of course there are still lots of impeccably maintained swathes of color-coordinated impatiens frothing at the feet of manicured shrubs, and there is nothing wrong with that. But there are also pockets of highly individual planting schemes. As I walk by I look at them and try to guess what they have to say about individual gardeners.
One woman of my acquaintance, the mother of two small children, needs her backyard for child play space. For the past few years she has also been she is in the process of making her small front yard her personal playground. Two years ago she took out the overgrown yews in front of her house, substituting hydrangeas, which have now reached respectable size. In front of the hydrangeas she has created beds full of cranesbills, hellebores and other flowering plants that can take some shade. Something is in bloom most of the time, and her plant choices and layout mark her as a thoughtful passionate gardener.
Another gardener that I know is an artist. She has almost no backyard and her side yard is taken up with children’s play equipment. Her sunny front garden has exuberant roses and a changing assortment of sun loving plants. Some years giant sunflowers have dominated one corner of the plot. You can imagine someone painting the whole display.
It is fascinating to watch the progress of specific front gardens. Some people start with just one or two plants, possibly hostas under a tree, or salvia in the corner by the driveway. As time goes on and the plants thrive, the gardening bug begins to take hold. More plants appear and areas of grass disappear. Sometimes perennials displace annuals; other times the selection of annuals becomes more bold and colorful. Tenuous beginnings give way to confident expressions of individuality.
My own front garden started two years ago with a row of Hybrid Musk rose bushes along the driveway. I had transplanted them from my previous garden with visions of an old-fashioned rose hedge. The relaxed habit of the Hybrid Musks has made the rose hedge an impossible dream, but the bushes thrive in the sunny, well-drained location. After installing the roses along the driveway, I decided to flank my front walkway with a double border of mixed perennials and annuals. Now it is full of coreopsis (‘Moonbeam’ and ‘Zagreb’), daisies, annual cosmos, white sage, ‘Abraham Darby’ and ‘Charlotte’ English roses and gold and yellow nasturtiums. Needless to say, the two beds get a little wider every year. Now I am working my way around the perimeter of the front yard, adding clumps of lilies, a butterfly bush and lots of shade lovers at the less-sunny south end. A friend predicted that eventually the beds will get so wide that I will be able to mow the front lawn with a weed whacker. He could be right.
Like my acquaintance who replaced her yews with hydrangeas, I have also taken out old, overgrown shrubs in order to put in something more floriferous and personally appealing. From what I have seen this may be something of a trend. When a new family moved in down the street, one of the first things they did was to remove uninteresting foundation shrubs in favor of a front garden complete with a small fountain.
A realtor friend has recently replaced a portion of the grass on two sides of the perimeter of her front lawn with a colorful cottage-style garden. The plants are still young and the planting scheme has yet to fill out, but a few years from now it will be absolutely glorious. I saw my friend installing plants on a recent Sunday. She was wearing a smile so broad that if she hadn’t been clad in gardening clothes I would have sworn that she had just come from the closing on a million dollar house. That’s the power of front yard gardening.
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg