Designing a front yard garden…where do I start?

August 20, 2020 by Nancy Louwman, Master Gardener

Whenever I’ve moved in to a new home, I’ve immediately started backyard gardening first. The front garden always requires to some extent different thinking. While back yards are private spaces, often enclosed by fences and/or hedges, front yards are public spaces, viewed from the street, the driveway, the adjoining properties, and from your front windows overlooking the garden. Your design should take this fact into consideration as a well-designed front garden, which increases curb appeal, adds value to your home. Hopefully, the following information will be helpful to your design process. All pictures were taken here in Kingston.

Step 1

Using graph paper (helps keep elements to scale) and several sheets of tracing paper eventually placed over the initial plan, add existing permanent features first- the front of the house, pathways, the driveway, garage, fences and hedges, ditches, and vegetation you will keep like trees and shrubs, telephone poles, overhead or buried electrical and telephone wires, underground water and gas lines, etc.

Include as well any other positive or negative aspects of the property like

  • overly flat areas that could benefit from a raised bed
  • a windy area that could benefit from planting a windbreak
  • hot, dry, sunny areas, wet areas, heavy shade, etc.
  • borrowed views to use in your design or to block/obstruct with plantings.

These positives and negatives will also help shape your design. After the next steps, use the tracing paper over the initial drawn site plan to add the garden features you want to complete the picture.

Step 2

Make a list of the following items which will impact the features you add to your plan.

  1. Consider your neighborhood and the adjoining properties. Your property is like a piece of the entire puzzle, and better curb appeal is achieved with a lower profile garden that fits with the rest of the street. For example, my last front garden was a small, downtown, city property. I was able to replace all the grass with a cottage garden that fit well with the eclectic mix of existing, small, front plantings. My current property is in a neighborhood of lawns and low, long bungalows. Clearly, the same approach would not be esthetically pleasing.
  2. Determine the purposes of your garden. Do you want to create a habitat garden and provide food and shelter for wildlife? Do you want to create privacy and a sense of mystery? Are you trying to obscure the view of negative structures like facing houses and driveways? Do you want an area to grow food like the front garden pictured below?  A formal herb garden?
  • Determine your garden style which may be limited by your house façade.  A small cottage, for example, looks great with an informal, cottage garden (see below). A new, modern, home looks better with clean lines (pictured below), and simple plantings. A deep, wide, property looks good with a naturalistic, ‘wild’ garden design (see the work of Piet Oudolf) with curved beds and pathways.  Other design styles include Japanese Zen gardens, classic, formal gardens with straight lines, minimalist gardens often xeriscaped, and woodland gardens.
  • Check local bylaws, if necessary, to see, for example, if you can plant ditches, or to check height restrictions for fences and hedges. Check to see if any plant choices are considered noxious weeds by your locality, as these should be avoided.

You are now ready to place the first sheet of tracing paper over your site plan and add your trees, garden beds, fences/hedges, pathways, patios, and architectural features like gates, arbours, and obelisks. Work big to small, adding larger items first. Subsequent sheets of tracing paper can be used to add plant choices as you layer your garden plantings.

As you add to your design, consider the following design principles.

  • Small gardens look best with a simple design- one purpose, one style, limited plant species in colonies, small pyramidal or standard trees.
  • The lines of your house and garage are guides in your design. Extended out, they can be used to organize the placement of the garden features you want.
  • The ratio of proportions 1:1.6 looks best. So, an 8 foot- long bed looks best when 5 feet wide.
  • Unless you have a small front yard, go big in your design. For example, beds should span at least one half of the width of your house, and main pathways should be at least 4 feet wide. However, keep the scale of your design features in proportion to your house.
  • Frame the view of your house and front door by enclosing the property with trees, shrubs, and tall perennials. When adding fences or hedges, the typical ratio is 3:1, An 18 foot long hedge looks best 6 feet high.
  • Add a few focal points in your design to draw the eye up and make the garden appear larger. Note the effect created by the tall evergreens in both pictures below.

Architectural elements, like the gate below, can be extremely effective in creating atmosphere.

  • Plant for four seasons. Today, there is a wide variety of plants available that look beautiful in winter gardens.
  • To create a layered garden, choose plants of varying heights and widths. Also consider shape, texture, colour, and movement. Grasses look better in a windy area than echinacea. The garden below includes several all-season, beautifully textured trees.
  • Perennials look best planted in colonies of odd numbers (three plants rather than 2). Repeating colonies of plants within the same species will create a sense of order, rhythm and balance in your design.