Design for Life: Putting Up a Good Front Yard

Water-conserving native plants infuse new life into a bland landscape design.

| March/April 2011

  • A row of agaves will welcome visitors to Carol's home.
  • Carol hopes to mimic the California desert in her front yard.
  • Bold native California poppies burst with color.

My front yard was ho-hum at best when I moved into my house several years ago. Industrial shrubs, lavender bushes and Japanese maples marched in rows across a pebbled landscape, punctuated by cobblestone patches. Because the yard’s only redeeming quality was a beautiful oak tree a few feet in front of the house, I vowed to replace the random, water-gulping plants and create a native wildlife habitat garden surrounding the grand old tree.

Last spring, I sat gazing at my transformed front yard, serene under several inches of fresh sawdust—all that remained of the oak tree, which had begun to invade my house and its foundation several months before. Here and there a shrub poked above the yellow-brown frosting, but otherwise it was a blank canvas. Without the oak tree, my yard was in even more need of an overhaul, and the time was right for a whole-yard renovation.

Beneath the blank surface, I found the sedimentary layers of my yard’s rich history, like a geological formation. As I excavated, I uncovered remnants of former groundcovers: rounded pebbles, sharper rocks, jagged white rocks, dyed-red pumice stones. And under all that? A layer of plastic covering the entire yard, limiting root penetration, suffocating soil microorganisms and allowing rainwater to pour off into the street.

Before I could plant, there was work to do.

Unearthing the Gifts 

As with any design challenge, my first priority was to assess the site’s gifts and challenges. I considered my home’s west-facing orientation. Like most in my neighborhood, my home mostly faces the backyard, but the front yard and rooms (my office and a bedroom) bake in the afternoon sun, becoming uncomfortably hot. However, prevailing breezes also come from the west, and the front yard provides a relaxing view of oak-studded hills to the north. I have no front porch, and activity on the street is minimal.

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