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Get the flowers front and center

Garden Walk gardens are renowned for their curb appeal

Don Zinteck/Photographics 2

Who was the first to decree that a front yard landscape should be a few green shrubs plastered against the house, a corner tree, and two pointy evergreens?

Whoever it was, he or she is responsible for a lot of intolerably boring front gardens throughout America. It seems a majority of otherwise very nice landscapers still follow that tired old formula. Where are the flowers? Why doesn’t every front yard display them, exploit them, and celebrate them?

The good news is that Buffalo’s front yards are providing an exciting counterpoint to that old sterile landscape theme. In fact, it’s making us famous across the nation. Buffalo in Bloom jump-started the trend in the nineties, with a city-wide frontyard garden contest. Block by block, front yard flower gardening spread throughout the city, as gardeners copied their neighbors. At the same time, Garden Walk Buffalo was expanding from a simple West Side neighborhood tour to become the massive tourist attraction that it is today. By 2010, over 350 private gardens in Buffalo were visited by some 55,000 visitors in a two-day weekend. And every block of the Garden Walk territory is filled with front yards full of blooming flowers.

Gardening out front has been popular in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and many other horticultural pockets for years. Western New York always had gardeners, but most people did it privately, in their back yards. Not any more.

The sneaky approach
If you’re not ready to announce to the spouse that the front lawn is yesterday’s news and you’re replacing it with perennial borders, then you might start your front gardening transition by sneaking in just a few flowers. In the classic “foundation planting,” for instance, how about setting off those little shrubs with a skirt of begonias or coleus? Just dig a few holes in a semi-circle around each shrub, stuff in some compost, and plant. As long as you don’t destroy all the shrub roots, a few holes won’t be harmful, and the shrubs will probably benefit from the compost and the extra watering you’ll be doing. Start out with annuals. You’ll want perennials soon enough.
Or if an overgrown shrub needs replacing, or you have a gap between the ho-hum yews, put in some large perennials instead. You might try rodgersia, goatsbeard, baptisia, or a triangle of coneflowers perhaps—depending on the site. Or better yet, why not widen the bed by three or four feet (a better look to complement most houses) and make a sizable flower border that plays off the existing plants? Then you have space enough to repeat a pattern of large hostas, alternating with hellebores, Japanese painted ferns, or Bergenia, with a flowering front edge of whatever annuals strike your fancy. Do you see how you can just build outward gradually from what’s there already?

Be bold with an island
Turfgrass is not only overrated, it’s also a high-maintenance monoculture that guzzles water and—all too often—a lot of chemicals. Believe it or not, a well planted perennial bed is much less work—just a little tweaking and pleasurable tending, and there’s no Sunday afternoon mowing ever. Try this: Carve an island out of the front yard, perhaps a large kidney-shaped, egg-shaped, or oval bed. Make it at least 20 feet by 10 feet if you have room, especially if you want to include a small tree, a large piece of art, a dramatic container, or a large perennial grass or shrub as a focal point. (If you start too small, you’ll only push the edges out farther later on.) Now you must do the prep work or hire a professional to remove the sod, amend the soil—lots of compost, please—and make sure all weeds are gone. Next comes the fun part: choosing and designing with plants.
Designing an island planting relies on the same principles as borders: Large sweeps of one plant are more effective than polka-dot plantings or the one-of-everything style. Odd numbers form better clusters than even numbers. Long straight lines are fine for formal situations, but for your island you’ll want curves. Since this bed will be seen from many angles you should vary the plant heights. Remember, it’s boring to have everything tall in the middle of the bed, then the mediums, and a circle of short ones around the edge. Speaking of boring, don’t put your tall plant, fountain, or birdbath in the dead center of the bed. The eye likes balance, but symmetry just looks uptight.
These design suggestions are over-simplified, but they can take you a long way. For a front garden, if I had to make just one recommendation, it would be this: Choose just a few really good performers, with long bloom periods and attractive foliage, and use a lot of them. It’s still the front yard, and a simple and bold planting cries out, “Stop the car and look at that!”

Containerize, and keep them moving
Two wonderful things about containers: first, they offer so many ways to play off the house and other plants (colors, architectural features, shapes, textures); and second, you can change your mind and move them. This summer, while garden-walking, take a hard look at the way the most memorable gardens include container plantings. You’ll see them as hanging baskets, their flowers or flower colors repeated in the flowerbeds. They’ll appear as giant urns stuffed with four-foot grasses accompanied by mandevillas or sweet potato vines draping over the sides. They’ll show up on front steps, next to mailboxes, at the corner of the house, or at the end of the driveway. Smaller containers full of flowers will be plunked in the middle of a dull spot in the garden, where perennials have finished or where it’s too shady for much flowering. (Do you think the gardener grew them there? Absolutely not—she just put them there before you came over!) Finally, containers are the answer when there’s no more soil for plants, or your soil is clogged with tree roots or beyond hopeless. Many a Buffalo driveway is crammed with adorable pots because the gardener simply ran out of room.


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