How a Creative Gardener Grew a Tropical Oasis in the Northeast

Meet the 2019 winner of our first annual America's Best Front Yard Contest.

On Saturday mornings, Kevin Anthony Prall can typically be found in his front yard watering plants, pulling weeds, and fielding questions from incredulous passersby. "My palms can be traffic stoppers," says Kevin, a horticulturist and landscape consultant. The reason: His home is in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, (near Pittsburgh), not the tropics.

When Kevin and his husband, Layne Bennett, moved into the 1912 home eight years ago, the front yard was basically barren. Kevin, who missed the palm trees of his former home in Florida, tracked down a variety that could survive Northeast winters (with some cold-weather protection).

He didn't want them to be a novelty, but rather an integral part of a tapestry that includes azaleas, geraniums, and more. It's a diverse but intentional mix. "I think about balancing color and texture with everything I plant," he says. Today, the garden is a bright spot in the community, which has struggled since the closing of a major factory decades ago. "Our garden is for everyone," says Kevin, who has been known to give neighbors baby palms seeded from his trees. "My wish is that it's a sign of hope and change."

Front yard with multiple plants with two people sitting
Brie Williams

Kevin Anthony Prall, on the right, and Layne Bennett focus on foliage texture through unexpected pairings like palms and Japanese maples, ferns, and holly. Beds curve across the yard for a sense of flow.

In the summer, Kevin and Layne eat every meal, and sometimes even nap, on the front porch. In addition to the trees, a hanging planter filled with calibrachoa and trailing bacopa blocks street views.

Brick walkway in garden leading to large plant
Brie Williams

The dark, palm-like leaves of a tall potted cordyline make it a focal point at the entrance of a path to the backyard.

Portrait of person sitting on front stairs
Brie Williams

Kevin's Top Gardening Tips

Q: What's the secret to growing palms in Pennsylvania?

A: Winters here are milder than they used to be, but even hardier palms like my Windmill types still need protection from the cold. My process is extreme—it involves burlap, Christmas lights, foam, and more— but ensures my palms don't just survive, they thrive.

Q: How do you design your beds?

A: I start with the main players—trees, shrubs—and work my way down to smaller plants.

Q: What's the trick to planting on a slope?

A: To help keep water around the root ball of each plant, at planting time I create a little terrace by piling soil on the downhill side.

Q: Any tips for new gardeners?

A: Figure out what excites you about gardening and dive into it with all the passion you can muster.

More About America's Best Front Yard Contest

Nearly 900 of our readers entered BH&G's inaugural America's Best Front Yard Contest! We were so impressed with each entry we saw and the amazing diversity of styles and plants these gardens showcased. Keep on planting, pruning, and painting, and you, too, could have the chance to win the honor of America's Best Front Yard. Stay tuned for information on next year's competition.

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