Goodbye lawn, hello colourful garden!

A bold decision to invest in more stonework and plants which allowed for less mowing and watering gave these homeowners the front garden of their dreams...

For me, making a garden is a continuous, evolving process. I don’t believe I have ever made a garden that I didn’t come back to, time and again, and shifted, tweaked or re-thought the arrangement of plants. Sometimes a plant just doesn’t perform the way you expect it to, or sometimes it performs too well. On occasion (more than I care to admit), the placement is off and I have to re-arrange plants so that they are more naturally situated. Other times, I have to move some that have been overrun by neighbours and are struggling to thrive or to even be seen.

I have thought that this is a weakness on my part and if I were really good at it, plants would stay put. But I’m allowing myself to believe that because plants are living things, subject to the vagaries of their own DNA, the soil, the weather, the level of care they receive and more, I need to cut myself some slack. They’re not pieces of furniture that get placed and then only moved when it is time to change the decor. They are constantly changing, morphing and sometimes the vision you start with is not manifested in real life.

In this front garden, the original design was the product of a previous homeowner.

When I came on board, the house had been sold and the new owners had been there for several years. There was a large green ash in the front, which had a languorous bend to its trunk, but more importantly, was slowly giving up the ghost due to the infestation of emerald ash borer. After the tree came down, the garden was in full south-facing sun and the plantings of hosta and other shade-loving plants under its canopy were in danger of being fried.

The initial changes we made were linking the garden on the left with the garden on the right, moving most of the hosta to the shady north-facing garden in the back and filling in the new bed with easy care shrubs and perennials. The bed on the right was being held up by a lovely stone retaining wall, featuring a “dwarf” blue spruce. Of course, the blue spruce was not dwarf at all and besides beginning to push out the stone, it now overwhelmed the entire site. In the original garden it was a dwarf, but the new homeowners had replaced it after a portion of the front lawn and garden had to be dug up for sewer work. The problem was that even in the best nurseries, plants that are labelled as “dwarf” often aren’t. Not because of some label snafu, but, according to my own theory, because plants are trialed for several years and if their growth is slow and stalls at a certain size (in the case of evergreens, I guess-timate this to be about 10 years), they are labeled ‘dwarf’. But the problem arises when the tree (in this case, a blue spruce cultivar) decides at about year 10 or 11 to put on an unexpected growth spurt and ends up being much less dwarf than anyone imagines!

Be that as it may, this garden had more problems than just a giant dwarf blue spruce! It is south-facing and on a slope, making the lawn susceptible to drought. As you can see, the “lawn” is mainly weeds at this point and it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify its existence. In fact, the homeowners talked to me about replacing the lawn with stones! I refused to do that as I thought it would be a travesty (we’re not in Arizona after all!) and we brainstormed to find another solution.

With the help of an excellent design/landscaping/build contractor, Josh Poirier of Carter Construction, we brainstormed about how to make the front garden better. The homeowners decided that they wanted to invest in a primary path to the house (besides the one that linked to the driveway) and we agreed on one that connected with the flagstone patio at the base of the entrance stairs. With the addition of some beautiful stone slabs for steps, a careful extension and slight rebuild of the stone wall, as well as some artfully arranged boulders within the planting, the final product was completed.

Over the following season, plants began to grow and fill, providing colour and movement. I already could see where things needed tweaking; the gayfeather (Liatrus spicata ‘Kobold’) needed moving and the ornamental grasses that I had massed behind them became overbearing as they matured, obscuring what was behind.

The next door neighbour’s honeylocust provided the golden leaflet carpet that fell in the fall and the whole effect was charming. Isn’t the falling autumn sun magical?

Fast forward after a few more tweaks and today this is how the garden looks…

The large green mound in the foreground is Aster novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, a dwarfer but very vigorous New England aster that can reach 3’ in breadth and only 18” in height. It is a more attractively shaped aster than the old-fashioned taller varieties that always have knobby, bare legs. The colour happening now in this photo comes from the non-stop bloom of pink carpet roses, Allium ‘Millenium’ (which attracts a huge number of happy bees), Echinacea purpurea (pink and white on the left), as well as the creamy foil provided by flowering hydrangea and the glaucous blue of a new and authentically dwarf blue spruce called Picea pungens ‘Sester Dwarf’, very healthy lambs ears and a blue carpet juniper.

And don’t forget the spreading and luminously purple/blue perennial geranium in the foreground known as ‘Rozanne’.

But don’t be fooled; I’m not through with this garden yet lol! There is more to tweak and shift, especially since so many of these plants are growing so vigorously, sometimes overtaking their neighbours. The intention is to fill in the blanks where the mulch still shows through to make it a tapestry of colour, shape and texture.

You may also be shocked to hear that this garden has not once been irrigated this summer. Despite the fact that we’ve had bouts of serious drought, scorching temperatures and wilting sun, there is no plant in this garden that has wavered. We top-dressed with a mix of composted manure and worm castings in the spring and then covered the ground with shredded mulch. There are few weeds that show up here and there, as well as those that try to sneak in next to existing plants, but they are quickly dispatched. The only maintenance required is deadheading the roses to encourage continuous blooming.

I’ll continue to show you in later posts how this garden is progressing…