Rose City Front Yard Landscaping With No Grass
Here is a classic Rose City Portland bungalow with a tiny front yard. My clients Julia and Bruce wanted a welcoming no lawn entry garden. They were planning to raise their family in this home so they wanted a landscape design for the long term. The front yard had difficult, near hostile growing conditions. Large trees to the south blocked sun and used up water and nutrients leaving little for other plants. Julia and Bruce had dealt with the greedy tree roots by installing raised beds for veggies in the front but then their new “Friends of Trees” street trees had grown to the point the veggies were not getting enough sun. The raised beds created a barrier, and made the walk to the front door too narrow. The raised beds had to go.
Landscape Designers Take
Our landscape design needs to solve these problems.
We need welcoming paths and walk that easily accommodate strollers and for extracting children from car seats. There was no path from the driveway to the front walk. They wanted some colorful plants and also winter interest for the front entry. They were ready to lose the raised beds and wanted to have professionals install the new front yard landscape. They wanted low maintenance in the front so they could focus their yard work efforts in the back where they have fruit trees and some edibles.
Julia and Bruce like and enjoy plants and when they have time, they like to play gardener so our planting plan needed to have spark…….but stay low maintenance in the front so they could focus their yard work efforts in the back.
Our plants need to be able to thrive in a hostile environment so the plants needed to be selected by an experienced garden designer. Our new plants will thrive in difficult light, soil full of greedy tree roots and become able to thrive with less water and little maintenance as they mature. The plants also need to be useful to birds, and insects including bees, providing food over a long period of time. Many plants will have color and interest year round and create a view from inside the house looking out the picture window. The current view was a neighbors driveway and a large number of garbage cans.
Unique Light Situation – Hot Shade
While they are not the only Portlanders who have trees blocking light, I want to point out that south facing yards with deciduous shade trees require thoughtful planting for success. I call it hot shade. There is no morning light. The afternoon light will fall between the leaves of the neighboring trees and the plants will receive dappled light for intermittent periods of time. Late afternoon the front yard will get a blast of direct hot sun for at least an hour before the street trees leaves filter the summer sun into dapples again. The dappled light will support many kinds of plants nutritionally, (remember plants eat sunlight) but the blast of full sun will toast deep shade plants leaves. There are not enough hours of light to support full sun plants. Yep not fair!
Solving This Dilemma
Internet authorities and plant books have lists of plants for shade and sun primarily but there is an entire universe of what I call “between plants”. For this tough little Portland front yard, I selected “shade” plants that I know will take quite a bit of sun. Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ is one such plant. The first summer its leaves will scorch and so I always tell clients what to expect so they don’t think I’m off my rocker. The second summer there will be less leaf scorch if proper watering occurs. Not every Brunnera variety will tolerate afternoon sun dappled or not but ‘Jack Frost’ will.
Closer to the sidewalk and more sun, I selected (more “between plants'”) full sun plants that I know will tolerate some shade. They don’t require 10 hours of direct sun to thrive. Most black eyed Susan (rudbeckia) are listed as full sun plants but I have used them happily in part shade areas. Those dapples of light make enough food for them. They are a perfect example of a “between plant’.
The sun was more intense and less dappled closer to the sidewalk so I placed the more sun tolerant plants there, including hens and chicks, summer flowering heather (calluna vulgaris) lavender and the strawberry tree. The strawberry tree was planted on a mound to help it thrive because it needs excellent drainage and this is a flat yard, and also to give it a head start from the big trees greedy roots. When the strawberry tree matures, the lavender will have to be removed as there will be too much shade for them at that point.
We installed a path to the front walk from the driveway. There were a few muddy small flagstones there before. We actually walked though the motions of unloading a child from a child seat to sell ourselves on the idea of making the path even wider. When the front yard is so small it can seem wrong, or at least sad, to add more hardscape and take away room for plants; but being able to get kids and their accessories out of the car without contortion is a lovely thing.
The landscape contractor, D & J Landscape Contracting, used large flagstone to create this path and it’s so exactly what my clients wanted. It’s quiet beauty and thoughtful placement of each flagstone enhances the entire entry experience.
Foundation Planting Trick – Pot up that Red Twig Dogwood
For a little winter drama we planted a red twig dogwood in an attractive pot for the entry pizzazz. There is enough sun (remember those dapples!) to allow the twigs to go a dark red in the winter and have green and cream leaves for spring through summer and a bit of fall color. If the twigs are in too much shade, there will not be pretty red twigs in winter and that would not produce the drama we want for winter.
Too often these narrow planting beds next to a house have vine maple or other small trees planted in a 36″ wide bed. This turns out badly because soon it will have to be deeply whacked just so people can use the walkway. This will happen with my red twig dogwood too unless we cheat.
This is one tough plant and a great performer but it is not a forever carefree solution because it will get too big. They will have to remove the shrub/small tree red twig dogwood from the pot every 3 years and whack at least 1/3rd to 1/2 of the roots off or it will crack a glazed ceramic pot. You can plant it in a plastic pot and not have to root prune it. Then in perhaps 5 to 7 years you will have to cut the pot off the plant, root prune the plant and put it in a new pot.
‘Listens to what you want (bird habitat, hosting, kids play area, privacy, interior views, etc.) and then draws up plans to fit your needs. Happy to refine the plans until it fits just right.
Great knowledge of plants. Chooses ones to accentuate your favorite season and colors.
Easy to work with. Had great references for contractors and where to source materials for a self completed project.’ Bruce and Julia
Arbutus unedo ‘Compacta’ Dwarf Strawberry Tree will become our focal point for the front entry and our picture window view.
This large shrub or small tree looks wonderful in winter with its red “strawberries” and yes the fruit drop can be a little messy. If you are a neat nik pass on this plant. My clients loved the color of the bark, color of the berries and are prepared to deal with some fruit drop. Butterflies use this plant for a host so don’t be alarmed if you see a large number of one kind of caterpillar on it. Do nothing and enjoy the show. The berries don’t taste good to people but some birds will eat them if hard pressed.
This tree will have a sinuous cinnamon barked trunk and branches and will become the focal point. Because it is evergreen it will also provide my clients with a view of something other than the driveway and garbage cans across the street from their picture window. It’s all about the shape of the small tree so I suggest either no pruning or having a pro come and visit every five years. It’s very low water needs and will tolerate the hot sun and reflected heat from the driveway and sidewalk too so it fits our site perfectly.
Arbutus Unedo Compacta – Dwarf Strawberry Tree
Azorella Trifurcata ‘Nana’ – Dwarf Cushion Bolax
Brunnera Macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ – Siberian Bug gloss
Azorella t. ‘Nana’ Cushion Bolax steppable ground cover.
3″ high cascading textural wonder ground cover (photo from Singing Gardens)
Calluna Vulgaris – Summer Heather
Ice Dance Carex Grass with Sky Pencil Holly
Carex Morrowii ‘Ice Dance’ – Evergreen Grass
Daphne Odora ‘Marginata’ – Variegated Winter Daphne (existing)
Erica Carnea – Spring Heather
Rudbeckia f. ‘Little Goldstar’ – Dwarf Black Eyed Susan
Sword Fern (Polystichum Munitum)
Polystichum Munitum – Native Sword Fern (existing and new plants)
Saxifraga ‘London’s Pride’ – Groundcover
Sedum ‘Cape Blanco’ – flower food for brown elfin butterfly and groundcover for landscape
Remember: no mulch over your Hen and Chicks to avoid rot
Sempervirens – Hens and Chicks
Vaccinium Ovatum – Huckleberry (existing) host for brown elfin butterfly
Does this Portland residential project inspire your front yard? Contact me to see how I can help your landscape design.