Design solutions: planning an entry garden

These days, we ask a front garden to do a lot of different things. It should be welcoming, provide safe and comfortable access to the house, and give an introduction to the style and personality of the house and its owners. In addition, it needs to serve as a buffer zone between the house and the street, provide the owners (if they are dedicated gardeners) with space to plant things, and conform to all state and local building codes. This is asking a great deal, especially you also want the garden to look good all year.

When Anne and David Bauer called me to look at their corner lot on a hillside in Palos Verdes, California, they felt that their front garden did none of these things. The south facing, irregularly shaped space was about 128 feet long and varied from 32 to 48 feet deep. A narrow, cracked concrete pathway sloped directly from the street to the front door, bordered on either side by chopped-back junipers and a small mat of grass. Making matters worse, the path was about six inches above the grade, so that if you slipped off the straight and narrow, you were ankle-deep in leaves and debris. In the rest of the yard, overgrown shrubbery cut off views and access the meter readers had to make annoying detours to do their jobs. To the side of the front door a steep stairway led down to a basement-level parking area. It wasn’t the sort of yard the neighbors write you pointed letters about, but neither was it hospitable, convenient, or entertaining. Instead of trying to repair this fairly conventional approach, we decided to rethink the entire space.

Our goal was an entry garden that would be functional, interesting, and attractive at all times, with good plants and something always in bloom (a more reasonable request here than in many other parts of the country). Our first priority was to create some feeling of enclosure, a screen between the house and the street with its parked cars. We decided that the best way to achieve this would be to lay out a large island bed opposite the front door, with a spine of small trees and flowering shrubs toward the street side. Thus positioned, it would also be able to visually include the Eucalyptus sideroxylon `Rosea’, the street tree of this sidewalk-less neighborhood.

On the east side of the bed we laid a patio-wide sweep of paving to serve as an approach from the street. Curving from a broad entrance at the curb to an open landing space in front of the door, then continuing in a tight spiral of steps down to the driveway level, this broad area of square adobe pavers is bounded by low retaining walls of dry-stacked broken sidewalk. This large paved expanse performs a number of valuable functions: It defines the planting areas next to the building and the large island bed at the street; it provides a comfortable walking surface; and, perhaps most important, it functions as the open, uncomplicated surface usually occupied by a grass lawn–a breathing space to complement the complexity of the planting. For even if one decides to eliminate grass from the garden (a sensible step in this dry climate), a garden room requires a floor.

It also requires furnishings. The loose and naturalistic planting we wanted would draw its strength from good foliage and interesting texture, but carefully selected ornaments would help the garden as a whole to gain focus. Large, simple concrete pots, for example, placed in the planted areas, draw the eye and add seasonal color; a trellis-backed arbor, covered with vines, shelters a bench near the front door and also screens the driveway. These objects are functional but also give the garden an inhabited feeling. The most compelling presence is a water-filled concrete pot by the front door, fitted with a little pump. Water bubbles from the lips of a sculpted face surrounded by aquatic ferns, adding sound and movement and the occasional dragonfly. Thus, ideally, the visitor is drawn into the garden, led down the path, lured to the fountain by the door, then provided with a seat to sit and admire it all.

Having dealt with the major practical considerations with a fairly simple gesture, we added the elaborations the plants. To give the garden more flat expanse without making it seem institutionally overpaved, we included swathes of gravel between the gridwork of pavers and the enclosing dry-stacked walls. The gravel also softened the break between the horizontal and vertical surfaces and between paved and unpaved areas. But best of all, it provided a terrific place for growing low mounding and creeping plants. The tufted, blue ornamental grass Festuca glauca and some of its new cultivars as well as oreganos, erodiums, and thymes are mixed in with small bulbs right at the edge of the paving; Mediterranean creepers such as Teucrium majoricum appreciate the protection from damp and the reflected light, and also get a cool root run.

The raised bed next to the house continues the mixture of plants from various Mediterranean climatic areas with good garden plants of all kinds. Lavenders spill from the top of the wall; the climbing roses `Cornelia’ and `Butterscotch’ share the creamy stucco wall with more tropical dombeya and tibouchina; and Japanese anemones and Helleborus argutifolius coexist with new plectranthus species in the shade of some vintage Pittosporum tobira, which are treasured for their February fragrance.

The main island bed does its screening job with purple-leaved Prunus xblireana and a group of Eucalyptus torquata, whose fuchsialike coral flowers echo the big eucalyptus at the street. The tall plants gain solidity from raphiolepis and Pittosporum crassifolium `Compactum’ and liveliness from a froth of `Iceberg’ roses, gray-leaved Helicbrysum petiolare, and deep-purple-flowered Limonium perezii. The shrubs leave bays for daylilies and smaller perennials, bulbs, and annual color bedding on the house side.

This sort of planting, which combines plants with somewhat different water requirements, can be tricky. While most of the plants are relatively drought-tolerant, the more demanding ones, like roses and a couple of the trees, either have their own sprinkler outlets or are put in places that naturally get or retain more water. This may qualify as xeriscape gardening, but in this mild, cool coastal area, these plants use no more water than did the old grass and junipers.

Although I think that the plants are the soul and purpose of this sort of gardening, the structure and planning are crucial. If the basic organization of a garden is strong enough and solves the functional, practical problems set by the site, it can then allow for a richness of planting that makes a garden fascinating without disrupting the serenity and clarity of purpose that make a plant collection or a front yard into a garden.

I began by saying that we ask a great deal of our entry gardens in this suburbanized world. I think we managed to accomplish quite a lot of it here, and this is only a beginning.

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