The front yard is the place most people fix first -- and for good reason. Often, it's what others see, and that the family sees most often.
The builder's bit of lawn, two trees, and few foundation shrubs fall far short of the existing possibilities. Streetscaping is an excellent investment in both present enjoyment and future value. A pleasant view from the street gives a sense of individual pride and accomplishment. And it adds greatly to your property's value by setting the yard apart and making it beautiful.
The first thing to do when planning a new front yard is to recognize your bias. The satisfaction of returning home and that you see your front yard from inside the house can skew your feelings about how your yard looks to the public. For a more honest assessment, walk down the street, then turn back. Do the same from the other direction. Also, get in your car and approach your house slowly from each direction.
Does your house blend with those nearby? Is it appealing? Distinctive? Does it sit well on the site or look out of place? Does it need stronger horizontal or vertical lines? Does it nestle among the trees? List all its virtues and shortcomings.
When you go to other houses, take note of the convenience of their entryways. Can you easily see where to turn into the drive? Is the drive wide enough for you to open your car door and get out without stepping on plants or grass? Can you easily tell which door to approach? Are walks and steps easily negotiated?
Take what you learn during these studies and carefully weigh your front yard's planting needs -- street trees, trees and shrub for framing and accent, flowers, lawn, and ground covers -- and its structural needs -- walks, steps, drive, stoop, edgings, and fences.
Pay particular attention when planning your front yard to making your home's entrance clear and inviting. Use plants and structures to lead people where you can greet them most gracefully. Dramatize the front door with a lamppost, an accent shrub, a trellis to block the rain or wind, or pots of geraniums.
Be sure knockers and bells are evident, at a convenient height, and not hidden behind a locked screen door. The best stoops are large enough for two people to stand on with some cover from the elements and for doors to swing open. A bench here is a great help.
Driveways, too, should be readily visible. A simple, low planting can mark the turn. If trees or shrubs obstruct the view, remove them for safety's sake. Where curves or slopes are involved, the placement of the driveway on one side of the yard or another can make a marked increase in visibility.
For night arrivals, lighting should mark the turn from the road to the drive, from the drive to the walk, any curves or steps, and the front door.
Make steps as wide as the walks they connect. Steps should be emphatic and noticeable. A plant accent can help. So can a change of texture. Never use just one step. If the slope is that slight, use a ramp. Three steps are the ideal minimum, though two are acceptable.
Check regularly that your steps are safe and not slick in snow or rain. Try to create at least one stepless entrance into your house for wheelchair visitors or possible future or emergency use. Or make conditional plans for a ramp, avoiding any plantings that would interfere.
Edgings give an important and neat outline to your yard, as well as dramatic contrasts of form, texture, and color. For permanent neatness, build in small concrete curbs; set bricks on edge, on end, or diagonally; lay landscape timbers; stand flagstones or tiles on edge; or install one of the ready-made edgings available in garden centers. Metal or rubber strips are less lovely, but they are inexpensive and serviceable.
Borders of flowers, bulbs, or ground covers can be used with, or instead of, other edgings. Use the plants with the proper ultimate spread and good year-round appearance. Don't set the plants so close to the walk that they overgrow it.
Every house facade and site have visual assets and liabilities. The well-done front yard highlights the pleasing points and masks the poor ones.
All the elements of good design come into play as you arrange your component parts for the ideal front yard. But don't be put off by the aesthetic terms -- balance, scale, unity, and the like -- used by designers. All are largely a matter of common sense. If a scene pleases your eye, then it's probably well designed.
If your house needs or will adapt to your desire for a special theme garden like colonial, cottage, Oriental, or Spanish, the look must begin in the front yard. Themes are successful only if you unify all the garden aspects carefully.
You'll also need to determine if your preference is for, and your site demands, a formal or informal landscape. Formal settings include strong geometric lines and architectural features, clipped hedges, and uniformly shaped plants and beds. Informal designs are marked by free-flowing, natural-looking elements. Generally, informal home styles and sloping land require less rigid landscapes. Formal houses and flat land can be treated either way.
To achieve balance in a landscape, try to position elements so they give equal weight -- through size, color, texture, or other aspects -- to each side of a scene. How formal this weighting should be again is dictated by style of house and personal preference. Symmetrical houses often look best when each feature and plant is duplicated on the opposite side of a front walk (as long as the walk isn't too long or too narrow). Most houses, though, are asymmetrical, since they have only one garage or drive. In this case, balance is more subtle. Perhaps a tall tree belongs on the side opposite the driveway.
Achieving pleasant scale -- or, keeping elements in proportion to each other -- is also subtle, since plants must grow before you can be sure. Choose plants that will complement your home's size at maturity, as well as some plants that will grow fast enough to quickly make a mark. Don't let anything dwarf your house.
The design principles of unity and simplicity often go together. Several plants of the same color and kind have more effect and give greater pleasure in a landscape than one each of several types. Use only enough variety for sustaining bloom and adding visual interest.
If you want more types of plants, say for continual harvests of many kinds of fruit, try combining plants with similar or at least compatible shapes, textures, and foliage or bloom colors.
Trees (and larger shrubs) are the first components to consider in front-yard design.
Because a framed view often is much more attractive than a completely revealed view, give serious thought to planting taller trees on either side of your house and at least one behind it. Trees here give the yard and house a look of permanence, and soften the second story or roofline against the sky. If you can afford only one or two more-mature trees, than plant them here.
Besides providing framing, trees and larger shrubs, along with the buildings, make up the masses in the landscape. Choose and place them for interest of outline, texture, and color in all seasons and for shade and energy control. Harmonize the shapes of the plants -- round, pyramidal, weeping -- with each other and the structures. Give visual relief by judiciously varying leaf size and shape and the textures of structural materials.
Trees and shrubs also are good for marking boundaries and separating functional areas.
To add beauty and perhaps additional shade to a front yard, carefully situate very choice -- or accent -- trees between the street and the house. Accent trees make such a lasting impression, you may well identify certain houses by the dogwood or Japanese maple in the front yard. When selecting accent -- also called specimen or ornamental -- trees, use reliable native types with good habits and few pest problems.
In the past, plants were set where house meets ground to hide foundations and first-floor basements. Today, these so-called foundation plantings are often inappropriate and widely abused. Builders put in plants with enough size but little character, and they can soon outgrow their usefulness. Many houses come with a surrounding cloud or a border of stiffly spotted evergreens that destroy a house's style.
Plants near the house are essential only to soften its angles and help it blend in with its surroundings. Concentrate on the complete setting, not just the foundation line. Your plantings here should be simple and dignified. They should be in careful scale so they enhance rather than hide the house. You won't see these plants from inside except for perhaps a little by the windowsill, so don't waste your beauties here.
Raised planting beds are often used instead of or together with foundation plantings. Build them deep enough to provide ample soil for root growth and bottomless so the bedding soil mixes with the soil below.
Because soil in raised beds dries out more quickly than in the ground (and because few plants can withstand full sun plus the heat reflected from house walls), place beds in spots that receive shade for part of the day.
Plants here have star billing. Be sure they are hardy, are of appropriate ultimate size, and have neat, season-long appearance. Choose dwarf evergreens, flowering shrubs, fruit trees, perennials, or bulbs. For the most profusion and longest season of bloom, rely on annuals. Cascading petunia, vinca, and asparagus fern look lovely hanging over a bed's edges. Leave some edges clear, though, for sit-down gardening or just sitting down.
The old rule that the front yard is for the public and the backyard is for fun and family is sometimes better broken. Is your front yard the sunniest in a cool climate? The coolest in summer? On the south side where tender plants and fruit can best survive the cold? The largest part of your yard? Then reclaim some or all of it for private family use. A wall, fence, or sometimes only a small screen can give you the privacy you need.
If you'd like a pair or row of trees to line the street outside your house, choose carefully. Check with your city for any ordinances on street plantings. These regulations might govern both the kinds of plantings and planting distances. Find out who is responsible for maintaining the trees.
Determine the location of water and sewer lines. If there are any plans for widening the street, plant far enough back. Look up to check overhead wires, and plant only small trees beneath.
In the inner city, only a few trees -- including maple, ash, hawthorn, ginkgo, smoke tree, amur oak, Austrian or Scotch pine, littleleaf linden, and plane tree -- survive the pollution and limited soil surface.
In the suburbs, growing conditions are better, making plant selection easier, but avoid trees that might drop staining fruit or petals on nearby cars.
No tree should be planted closer to the curb than 3-1/2 feet. Given the best distance between curb and sidewalk -- at least 12 feet -- plant closer to the sidewalk. It usually is better to plant a tree that will be small at maturity. Smaller plants adapt more easily to adverse conditions and are less expensive to maintain later. Streetside is not the place to crowd trees.