Mother Earth Living

Garden Spaces: Plant a Front-Step Garden

A front-step garden makes for a pretty, green entry, adds gardening space and allows you to cater to difficult or tender plants.
By Kathleen Halloran
February/March 2007
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Illustration by Gayle Ford

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• Design Plans: Grow These Herbs For Your Front-Step Garden 

Whether you’re a plant lover with limited space or one whose mature garden is full, you’re probably on the lookout for another spot to tuck a few more herbs. One convenient and often overlooked place is the area around the front steps (or whatever stairs you have that are wide enough to accommodate a grouping of containers). As long as it gets sufficient sunlight, a garden that steps up the stairs can add drama to an entryway, and it’s the perfect place to show off your topiary or other prize specimens.

Not just an afterthought of the garden proper, this container garden can be a useful adjunct to the landscape. You can use this space for plants that you don’t want to put in your beds, either because they might be too rambunctious there, or need some special care, or because you’re unsure of their ability to make it through the winter.

We’ve included many tender perennial favorites in this little garden, which is especially convenient during the changing of the seasons, when the weather is whimsical and unpredictable. Some of our most valued potted plants—such as the slow-growing bay laurel, rosemary shaped into fanciful topiary and the luscious lemon verbena—are all tender to frost, and can be pulled easily into the house or onto the porch for protection, if needed.

Become a Stair Master

The width of your stairs may determine your arrangement of pots, as you don’t want to clutter a stairway and have to walk carefully or knock against them as you pass. Even a regular-sized staircase often can accommodate an orderly line of single pots at the edge of each step. If the staircase is wide enough, line both sides of the steps with containers.

Staircase railings sometimes can handle a hanging basket or windowbox type container, adding to the green impression you get approaching the front door. If the stairway is covered, hang a basket in a place that is attractive but not in the way.

Groupings of plants like this are a great way to showcase your favorite or unusual containers and to be creative in how you coordinate the colors or shapes of the pots. I’ve seen lovely, large olive oil tins used this way; hypertufa is a good option, as are clay pots with a weathered patina. Whatever containers you use, good drainage is essential, so make sure there are plenty of holes in the bottom of the pot, and don’t cover up those drainage holes.

Keep Your Step Up

As with all container gardening, the larger the pots, the better the chance your plants will survive and thrive. You can put two or three plants in one large container and find interesting combinations of leaf shapes, colors and textures. Use a fast-draining, porous potting mix, and check the water daily. Let the pots drain freely, or put saucers under them to avoid staining your steps; don’t let the pots sit in water.

It’s a good idea to add a layer of moss, such as sphagnum or green moss, over the top of the soil; it looks good and has the same benefits of mulch in your garden beds—preserving water, discouraging weeds from sprouting and preventing your potting soil from getting a hard crust.

A regular dousing with a good organic fertilizer, such as compost tea, will keep your step garden looking good. If you include culinary herbs, pruning to keep the plants in shape gives you plenty of snippings to use in the kitchen.

Kathleen Halloran, a former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor who gardens in lovely Austin, Texas.

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