Front and Center

– Posted in: Garden Design

Rudbeckia Zinnia Aztec Orange Panicum Atriplex Catalpa Aug 15 07Steve and Fran have already shared their front-yard plans and dreams for this month’s Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop, so I figured I’d chime in too. I must admit that Steve’s definition of a “front yard fiasco” doesn’t quite measure up to some of my own spectacular disasters: If any of my gardens looked like that photo of his, I’d be pretty thrilled. I think my own front yard is better described in the phrase Fran used in her Front Yard Gardens post: a “personal laboratory.” Elegant it’s not, multi-season it’s not, but it sure teaches me a great deal, and it’s great fun to look after as well.

To give you an idea of the setting, below is a series of photos taken – as near as I can figure – in 2002 (the first summer), 2004 (when the roughly four-square layout was established), and in fall of 2007. These were taken from the road end of my driveway.

Front from driveway 02, 04, and 07

That last photo gives the impression of a good bit of privacy from the road, but it’s rather misleading. Yes, it looks like that in late October, but it doesn’t always look so full. The two photos below – one taken a few days ago, and one taken in early August of 2005, give you a better idea of what’s really going on here.

Front path April 19 08 and early Aug 05

Yep, the whole garden starts pretty much from ground level each spring, and yep, I really like it that way. Maybe it’s the result of growing up in suburbia, where our tidy annual beds and vegetable garden were blank slates each spring, offering the exciting opportunity of trying new flowers and veggies every year. Or maybe it’s part of my agricultural mentality, enjoying the progression from bare earth to harvest through the changing seasons.

Whatever the reason, I’ve pretty much abandoned all pretense of having a year-round garden out there. I have richness in summer, abundance in autumn, and terrific forms and textures for winter interest. But come spring, what’s left gets cut down and chopped up to make room for a new growth cycle. I do leave a few shrubs in place, but even for those, a hard cutting-back is generally their spring fate. After cleanup, everything looks fresh, tidy, and primed to jump into new growth.

Below is another seasonal progression of the front garden, as seen from my front porch. (That’s my uncle’s house across the street, and his place for currently for sale, if anyone happens to be looking for a small farm in southeastern Pennsylvania.) These pictures are from a few days ago, then September 26 and November 18 of last year.

Front garden from porch April Sept Nov

From the porch perspective, the garden feels very exposed, both to the road out front and to the houses around me. But when I’m actually down in the garden, as in the shots below, surrounded by lush annuals, fast-growing tender perennials, and hardy perennials that are plenty taller than I am, it’s easy to pretend that I’m out in the middle of nowhere, hidden in my own secret garden – at least until the next car goes by. (As always, you can click on the images in this post to see larger versions.)

Front garden collage 07

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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gina April 20, 2008, 9:26 pm

nan – its amazing to see that tranformation. posts like this give me hope that my own garden might look this great one day. some day, but not this day. my front yard garden is sitting totally bare, still.

Well, my garden is pretty bare right now too, Gina, so in a way, we’re at the same stage: We both have a lot of excitement to look forward to. But yours is all the more exciting because it will be all new to you! And remember, I’m starting my seventh year here, so I *do* have a bit of a head start.

Pam/Digging April 21, 2008, 12:56 am

Your summer and winter photos are truly lovely, but I think your fall garden is my favorite. Those grasses! I love them. You’ve done wonders with your front yard garden.

Thanks, Pam. The garden really is at its best in fall, and that’s my favorite time to be out there.

Nancy Bond April 21, 2008, 8:27 am

What a charming house, and a positively enchanting garden! What a lot of work you have done.

I appreciate your comment, Nancy. Yes, the garden certainly keeps me busy!

Sylvia April 21, 2008, 8:45 am

Nan, you have achieved what I am trying to in my front garden. The cycle of the low young spring plants (with some bulbs for colour) to large autumn vigor. I was beginning to think I had the wrong ideas and considering digging very thing up and trying something else, until I read this. I am getting there with spring and summer, but not sure about the rest of the year, the site is a bit too windy for the tall plants! Your post is full to inspiration. Thank you. Interestingly I come from a farming background as well. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

I understand about the wind problem, Sylvia, because my site is also very exposed. I find that the tall meadow-type perennials, such as eupatoriums, veronicastrum, and vernonias, have sturdy stems that hold up well without staking (maybe with just an early- or midsummer shearing). Panicums, calamagrostis, and other tall ornamental grasses work great, as well. I don’t know how any of these would perform in your area, though.

Dave April 21, 2008, 9:12 am

The result looks great! I imagine that having a blank slate to work with each year is the painter’s equivalent of a blank canvas just waiting for its masterpiece. I need to get my front yard garden post up soon. A work in progress…as always!

Thanks, Dave. I know you’re plenty busy with all of your other projects, but I look forward to seeing your front-yard story.

our friend Ben April 21, 2008, 9:22 am

So beautiful!!! I remember it well from the earliest days when the house was still going up. What a tribute to your talent and joy to you each and every day!

Ah, yes – I remember that you were here before the house was even finished, just as I got to see Hawk’s Haven from the very beginning. I think we’ve both made a lot of progress since then.

Steve Silk April 21, 2008, 5:06 pm

Just wanted to say the pic I included with front yard fiasco, was front yard, but not fiasco. Someday I’ll show the whole ugly mess in a before-and-after post that better shows the evolution of the whole space rather than a single slice of a planting combo that worked. Until then…

You did explain that in your post, Steve; I’m just teasing you. I keep going back to that photo to admire the beauty you created as a gardener and captured as a photographer. The presence of the word “fiasco” anywhere near that image gives me a chuckle.

Lisa at Greenbow April 21, 2008, 9:05 pm

wow, is it as large as it appears? I like the idea of a clean slate each spring.

I think the space is about 50 feet by 70 feet. It looks a lot bigger now than is will six months from now.

Curtis April 22, 2008, 6:01 am

How great is that. I can imagine that having it down to bare earth still brings surprizes every season. Gives me something to look forward to.

Oh, yes – there are always lots of surprises, and yes, that’s one of my favorite parts of the blank-slate approach.

naturehills April 22, 2008, 7:56 am

Your front yard is fantastic! The October shot was the best in my opinion. You are an plant artist!

Thanks so much, Jeff! I maintain the illusion of control over the garden until early August; after that, it takes on a life of its own, and I just watch and enjoy.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens April 22, 2008, 11:23 pm

The variety of shapes, colors, and textures you use and how you interweave them amazes me–especially how they grow and blend and change over three seasons.

I like gardens like yours which change dramatically over time best of all.

Thanks, mss. I admit to being surprised at all the positive responses to this approach. For most of my gardening experience – until I started gardening here – I considered mixed plantings with structure, foliage, and flowers in all seasons to be the pinnacle of good garden design. I do still consider that to be a very sophisticated approach, and I think I’d like to attempt at least one area like that someday. But for now, I’m having a great time with this much more simplistic style.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter April 23, 2008, 5:17 pm

I totally disagree with you – your garden does have multi-season interest, despite the fact that there are no evergreens or sculptures. In spring things are waking up & showing their bright colors. In summer, it’s a joyous explosion of bloom, in autumn, a festival of colored foliage, & in winter a somber but still interesting meditation on the forms & colors of dormant plants.

I appreciate that, MMD! I honestly do feel the same way. I guess I just get a little defensive when later-season visitors make comments like “Well, this must not look like much in spring,” or when I have to try to explain to people that no, I don’t have garden tours in spring or early summer, because there’s really not much to look at. You’d enjoy the abundance of chartreuse right now, I think, but most people just see the bare soil and are underwhelmed.

2greenthumbsup April 26, 2008, 10:39 am


Your gardens are glorious! By the time spring arrives at the end of a long winter we have been starved for the sight of a full, colorful gardenscape. It would be wonderful to have an instant garden to satisfy our immediate hunger, but there’s also something fulfilling about the clean up and cutting back – setting the stage for a new growing season. I love keeping watch over the transformation from spring emptiness to late summer overflowing. Each plant that pokes up through the earth is cause for celebration!


Exactly, Cathy: It’s a treat to have spring flowers, of course, but the ability to be out in the garden doing something is a delight in itself!

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