Are you ready for more gardening projects on TerrificBroth? Better buckle up, because we are!
A few weeks ago, we attended a water wise gardening seminar and registered for a free landscaping consultation at the end. We needed some advice on our front yard, which was covered in bindweeds and dying lawn grass when we moved in:
We made some improvement to the front of the house during the past year. But the lawn is still in bad shape despite thousands gallons of water we gave it:
As you can see from the first photo or in this video, our front yard slopes down on the north side. The slope starts fairly gentle but becomes quite significant over the last 40 feet.
Facing west and sloping down to the north, this front yard is beaten down by strong afternoon sun and northwest wind. It did not stand a chance.
From a whole year of watering, weeding, and mowing this slope, we knew that we did not have the energy to keep up. We want our front yard to look good, but we also need it to be low-maintenance. More importantly, we need it to use less water than it does now. So, when the landscape consultant came to our house, I only have one question – what should I plant in place of grass in our front yard?
The landscape consultant was pleasantly surprised by my question. She was probably expecting me to ask her how to keep the lawn green, which most of the people would desire. As most of the landscaping experts in Denver area, she prefers xeriscape and is good at designing urban spaces using xeriscape principles. But most of the time, her clients prefers green turf which is usually water-thirsty. Especially if HOA is involved. Most of the time, the best she could do is to suggest a relatively drought tolerant grass to put in.
Although unexpected, she quickly adjusted to my question and started giving me a bunch of plant names. I did not want to just cover everything with rocks and succulents – we still appreciate flowers and soft texture, and we want our garden to be a refuge for pollinators, birds, and insects. With birds and bees in mind, we spent almost an hour chatting about plants and ended up with a solid planting map at the end:
This plan calls for the removal of 600 sqft turf, almost half of our front yard, and replace it with perennials and evergreens. We will also be putting in a dry creek to redirect the rain water from our downspout to the new garden space (labeled as “11” in the sketch below).
So what are we planting here? Let me break down the plan for you. If you are a plant freak like me, I can hear your heart racing.
First, the blue in the sketch above is our house and driveway, and all the circles will be plants. This sketch has west at the top, so this new garden will occupy the northwest half of our front yard and butts against our future front fence. The boundary was drawn arbitrarily; it most followed the line along which the slope became steep towards the streets to the west (up) and our neighbor’s driveway to the north (right).
The first order of business is to create a wind barrier for this slope. We get really strong north/northwest wind coming from the Rockies during all four seasons, and our house does not have any tall structure on its north/northwest to slow down the wind. On a slope like ours, the wind travels upward and sucks away all the moisture in the top soil, making the clay harder and more compact. Generally speaking, two practices are recommended for combating drying wind – mulch heavily, and plant tall trees on the north side as a windbreaker. And we will be doing both.
To create a wind barrier, we chose to plant six arborvitaes along the north side of the yard, aligning our neighbor’s driveway. Planting a tall hedge there will not only slow down the wind, but also conceal the cars filling up the driveway everyday.
After some research, I chose the “North Pole” arborvitae for its winter hardiness and soft look. I ordered six of them and they arrived quickly and soundly.
2. A Corner Anchor
The six arborvitae are expected to run 3/4 of the northern side. For the corner, I prefer something softer than an evergreen, a flowering plant with a decent height. Having lived in SoCal I have missed the smell of citrus blooms. So mock orange became an easy choice for this corner. I chose a compact variety called Snow White Sensation, which gives pure white and double flowers.
3. Winter interests and Food for Birds
Most of the trees in our neighborhood are deciduous trees, which means that they lose their leaves in winter. From December to April, for five months, everything looks dead and it is really depressing. I crave more winter interests.
The arborvitaes we bought are evergreens; they will be bright and soft green during winter months. We have two existing pine trees that have dark green needles. To add some red, I decided to use three winter berries called “Berry Poppins”. These berry shrubs are known for their bright red berries which last entire winter until early spring. which can be a steady food supply for hungry birds. Also, they look incredible against snow.
These berries needs both male and female plants to bear fruit, so I also purchased a male plant “Mr. Poppins”. The male plant will not bear fruit, but it will flower in Spring for some Spring/Summer interests.
4. Xeriscape Perennials for Pollinators
The mock orange, evergreen hedge, and winter berries are the bigger and anchor pieces in this design. Although they together attenuate the northwest wind, they are not xeriscape plants. Therefore, for the rest of the garden covering the slope, we chose all drought-tolerate plants including perennial flowers and shrubs. I had such a good success with the garden-in-a-box from Resource Central this Spring – the one I got is called honeybee heaven and it attracts bumblebees and mason bees like crazy – that I decided to purchase another one of their fall gardens for this space. The garden kit I ordered is called “Cool Connection”, which includes 23 plants – such as penstemon, dwarf larkspur, and Salvia. These plants are not only drought tolerant but also hummingbird- and butterfly-friendly.
In the planting map above, the penstemon, the dwarf blue larkspur, and the rose queen Salvia will be planted in the red triangle labeled as “8”. This garden kits provide three of each plants so they will be planted as clusters. I adore the color of these plants – they mostly bloom pinks, purples, and blues, hence the name “Cool Connection”.
The kit also provides three Butterfly weeds. I will likely put them in where the red circle labeled as 8 with a double bubblemint hyssop which blooms pink (also included in the garden kit).
5. Adding Soft Texture with Grasses
Next to the perennial flowers we will be adding some grasses. Blue grama grass is Colorado’s state grass, whose seed packets last entire winter and are an excellent food source for small birds.
The garden kits includes three of them, along with three switch grass which is a popular roadside plant in the Denver area. These grass are practically zero-water plants after the first year, and their long-lasting foliage provide shelters for small birds and insects in Winter months. They will be planted in green triangles labeled as “7”.
Also will be planted in area “7” are a couple of blue oat grasses. If you have not heard blue oat grass, or blue avena grass, definitely check it out. It has beautiful blue blades and its upright form just looks so perky.
6. Trying out New Shrubs!
OK by this time if you are still reading, I am impressed. We are more than half way there. I promise. If you think this garden is pretty full, keep in mind that we have 600~700 sqft to fill! In addition to flowers, I also need low growing shrubs and ground covers. One plant the landscaping consultant highly recommended is sandcherry, which is a native plant that bear edible fruits in late summer. It also has a striking red foliage in the Fall. I have never had sand cherry before. But I figured that I could always leave them for wildlife if I do not fond the flavor.
The sandberry will be planted in the circle labeled as “6”, and “4” will be a dwarf mugo pine. We have two pine trees already in our front yard but they look very different. And this dwaft mugo pine will look completely different from either of them. It has short branches and low to the ground, but it will bear tiny cones on the tip of the upright branches. A cutie indeed.
7. Boulders and Groundcovers
Aside from everything I’ve named, we will use boulder rocks (the “5”s) and groundcover plants sparsely. Groundcover (the “10”‘s) is a great way to keep the soil cool and moist. It is more attractive to mulch and can spread and spill over boulders for a more dramatic effect. The garden kit I mentioned above includes some ground covers such as Prairie Winecups. I also got some sedum, veronica, and creeping phlox from a local nursery.
8. My First Irises
The last category of plants in this front yard will be irises. I have never had irises before and am dying to give it a try. They do excellent in our area – one neighbor has dozens of them in his front yard and they made a big statement in the Spring. I ordered some purple ones and white ones, and plan to tuck them in here and there to add some height (for example, in area labeled as “9”). I may have ordered too many, but I can always plant them in the backyard for some cut flowers.
9. Planting Progress
If you are wondering what we have been doing these past a couple weeks, now you know! I’ve been hunting down plants, while Slav has been digging in the front yard to remove all the sod. We even have some plants in the ground already!
The winter berries arrived first. They are tiny now but they will grow to 4 feet wide /tall and fill in eventually.
Yesterday, we got all six arborvitaes into the ground:
They are a bit root bound but otherwise very healthy. I broke open the old roots and planted them with lots of good compost. These trees are already 3 feet tall and they are supposed to grow a few inches each year.
Most of the perennials we ordered will come in late August and late September. To prepare for planting, Slav removed all the sod and turned the soil.
He did a really good job edging the grass. We will install the same plastic edging I used in the backyard to separate the flower beds and the grass.
While we were getting the edging from Home Depot I saw a mugo pine. It is actually hard to hunt down online so of course it came home with us:
Isn’t it cute?
We are working on getting this big planting area prepared for fall planting, and we need to figure out a way to retain soil and mulch so they do not spill over the sidewalk every time it rains. Although right now our front yard looks like a mud pit, I think it still looked better than dead grass – at lease you can tell it is renovated! I knew that after all the planting in fall, this yard will be so different for so much better! So stay tuned, friends!