Sunday, March 11, 2012

Searching for Garden Ideas

Last week, I called my front yard a white trash disaster.

(Politically correct police, simmer down. I can use that term because they are my people.)

Maybe it's even worse than that. 'Cause a plastic goose and a tractor tire annual bed might be an improvement. Last summer my sister Dyan and I took out yard waste bag after yard waste bag of weeds, stuff that the previous owners cultivated like plants that were actually weeds, and a buggy, diseased flowering plum that was slowly dying where it was. There remains to tackle a giant clump of pampas grass that appears to be devouring the northeast corner of the house, and another couple of weekends bushwacking out the front border. All that's left is refuse and some yardage of sump hose. This is what was left after Sherman marched to the sea, after the potato famine, after Agent Orange. It's that bad. I need help.

Here's my before:
Yessiree, we had a bumper crop of rocks and crabgrass last year.
Because I live in a Cape Cod style house, I'd prefer to see a mixed perennial border, more like this:

Here's another before, a slightly different view of the front border near the driveway:

This is where the lines of little rocks segue into broken chunks of concrete. Sigh.
The falling down retaining wall is made of up of oh-so-thrifty broken chunks of concrete probably from a previously removed driveway. The pole lantern doesn't work, and has become a little cock-eyed as the ground has shifted over the years. The deck isn't badly constructed, but I don't approve of decks on the fronts of houses. To me that just screams mobile home trailer. At any rate, it's entirely incongruous with the Colonial Revival style of the house. But that's an entire other blog entry.

Here's another view, of the front of the house proper:

I got nothin'
The corner there created by the deck and the house shows last summer's remains of a hydrangea that is actually quite lovely, but is planted literally 8 inches from the foundation. It's going to be a major job to move it out a proper distance into the border.

Browsing the internet I found this cute as a button Cape Cod and garden. This is the look I'm striving for:

What are the positives?

1. A few good pieces of plant material: the hydrangea, lily of the valley, monarda, coreopsis, some salvia and some creeping sedums. Also some bulbs, but I'm still waiting to see what I've got: daffodils, crocus, and alliums, I think.

2. Good, black Midwestern topsoil.

3. Well, dangit, I don't have a three. I'm just trying to be, well, positive.

Where to start? Well, I do know a few things I'm going to do:

1. I'm going to eliminate all the rinky-dink little pieces of grass caused by the random edges of the driveway bed, and make it a straight rectangular bed all the way to the sidewalk.

2. I'm going to get more "structure" into the garden from shrubs, probably a small ornamental tree at the northeast corner instead of the menacing pampas, and containers and stone (not chunks o' concrete).

3. I would like a perennial border full of "classics" that would fit with the 1930s-1940s era of my house: lilies, roses, asters, iris and peonies.

And I have some visuals I've collected which have inspired my garden daydreaming through the winter, like birdhouses:

and garden sculpture:

Source: via Laura on Pinterest

And container plantings:

Beyond that, I'm looking for suggestions, any and all. I live in the wintery Midwest, so any plant suggestions need to be hardy to Zone 4. Winter may be already over here, so I'll start digging soon. In desperation. It's gotta get better from here on out.


  1. i've seen hydrangeas planted close. i think it will be ok and not pose a threat to the foundation. let a vine grow up the lamppost. shove some solar lights. the chunks of concrete border does not look offensive, nor does the little rocks border, but they do together. unless you plan on replacing it w/ something as significant, they (concrete chunks) serve a purpose, as it prevents the salt accumulated on the cars in the winter from washing onto your garden and killing it all come springtime. do not let ivy grow on your house, the little suckers will damage your siding or brick. you're not that far north from me, I consider myself zone 5 to the revised 2003 map (you can thank global warming for that)

    1. Thanks Joy! I agree the retaining wall and rocks don't "go" together,and after living in Seattle and observing boston ivy completely destroy brick homes, I don't think I'll go that route either. I'm considering replacing the retaining wall with something that will coordinate better with the red brick foundation of the house, but I agree it needs to stay in some form. I think there's just so many decisions to be made I'm feeling overwhelmed.

  2. I think you've got some great "inspiration photos" there. How about modifying that ugly deck to be more of a "front porch" by redoing the railings and planting a raised bed garden directly in front of the deck area to screen it from the street a bit. I'm a big fan of raised beds or berms of soil, planted with native shrubs and trees, with a gravel/paver or slate area in between, so there's no mowing. I use a heavy-duty roadbed landscape fabric that I get from the local rental center under the gravel. You stretch it out, pin it down with landscape "staples" and cover it up. You'd be surprised how well it ties everything together, and cuts down on maintenance while still allowing rainwater etc. to percolate through. I think there are some really tough roses that would work in your climate, especially rugosas, and maybe a crabapple for the front yard? It's going to be lovely. I'd plant lots of fragrant plants, too, so you can sit out on your (soon to be screened off) deck and enjoy a glass of iced tea or another cold beverage of your choice.

    1. My sister and I thought that it might look more attractive to replace the deck railing with the classic turned spindle style, painted white to match the house trim, to make it more "porch" and less "deck." With your vote too, Gayle, I think that's an idea that's on the right track. I was also thinking of shrub roses in front of the deck to hide the foundation and camouflage it a little (okay a lot!). A crabapple is also a great idea! Thanks!

  3. I'm glad you're on the track of a good solution, Laura. I also thought of (but forgot to mention) the idea of putting up a pergola over your door, to provide some shade and a bit of weather protection over the door. You could use a bit of clear fiberglass/plastic "roofing" to keep the rain and snow off, and it would look more like your inspiration blue cottage picture, especially with some vines growing on it. It's going to be so cute; can't wait to see what you come up with. If I wasn't so far away (Oregon), I'd be over to help this spring!

  4. I'm in the wrong zone, but I thought I would add some food for thought. I have a retaining wall with Creeping phlox(phlox Subulata) planted on top of the wall to about 2 feet back. In the spring the pretty little purplish/pink flowers cascade down the wall and it is beautiful. In the dead of summer, which is really hot here in the south, the flowers fade off and it is a thick green bushy cascade and ground cover, with an occasional flower. It's perenial and will spread bigger every year. I'm betting it would flower longer in your zone.
    Another favorite is Loropetalum, or fringe flower. I don't think it is as hardy up north, but with the right mulch in the winter it might make it. It grows big and tall and is full of beautiful pink to red flowers in the spring and a rich purple leaf in the summer/fall/winter. Mine covers the area under my front porch and gives me stunning color year round. Down here in the south, you really can't kill them and they get overgrown, but that might be ok up there. Another favorite for year round color is the Oak Leaf Hydrangea. It has big white trianglular puffy blooms in the spring/early summer and beautiful big leaves. Unlike most hydrangeas it has leaves year round and in the winter they are a beautiful red color...dropping off when replaced with green leaves and buds in the spring.

  5. I forgot May Night Salvia. It's hardy to zone 4. Beautiful stalky blue blooms.

    1. Hi Carol! Hope I get to meet you when I come visit Dyan this summer! Thanks for all your ideas, and don't you know, May Night is on my list of must haves. I LOVE that intense blue. :)