Front yard landscaping is one of the most difficult challenges a homeowner faces. The typical front yard is not a place we spend much time, yet it is on full view for the public as they walk or drive past our home. The front yard design presents an image to the world – or at least the neighborhood – and most of us want that to be an attractive, welcoming image.
Too many front yards have only a line of shrubs against the house and a single tree somewhere between the house and the street. The rest of the front yard is grass that has to be mowed every week or two and, perhaps, regularly fertilized and reseeded if it is going to look as good as the neighbors’ lawns.
The problem is, many do not know what to do with their front yard to make it better. Sure, you can add some more plants, maybe a few flowers and another tree, but where to put them? How do you make your front yard something more meaningful than a nice arrangement of plants and turf?
Here are some answers: five big ideas to turn your front yard into a beautiful, inviting and functional space where you will enjoy spending time. Even if it’s only while walking from your car to the front door, you will discover a difference in how you feel. In addition, neighbors and guests will notice your yard and comment. You are soon to be the envy of the neighborhood.
1. Welcome the Visitor
This is our first front yard landscape design concept. A welcoming front yard is a pleasant place to be. The landscaping in your front yard contributes to how comfortable both you and your guests feel when in front of the house, whether it is spending time in the yard or simply walking to the front door.
Make a gateway – Gateways are a point of entry, letting us know we have left one space and entered another. A front yard gateway tells a visitor they are officially on your property and helps you feel you have arrived home, before you get to the front door.
Gateways can be actual gates, like a wood gate in a fence, or a symbolic gate, such as a pair of trees on either side of a walk to pass through as you enter the yard. If your front walkway goes from your front door straight toward the street, then your gateway can be part of your foreground zone landscape. If your walkway connects the driveway to the front door, then you might have a side gateway along the edge of your drive.
Enclose the entry zone – Generally speaking, when in a space that is somewhat enclosed, we feel more comfortable than in a wide open space. Enclosure protects us so that we are less vulnerable and, at the same time, provides definition – a boundary – for the space we are in.
Note that we are not talking about full enclosure like a room. It does not take much to provide a sense of enclosure in the landscape. A low hedge, fence, or wall helps to enclose the front yard. A gateway can be part of this approach. Beyond these two features, additional enclosure creates a more inviting and welcoming entry zone.
This entry zone might simply be your front porch or the section of walkway closest to your front door. If you have a short walkway from your drive to the door, then it might be the full length of the walk. A planting bed boundary, either loose or formal, is the easiest way to enclose the entry zone. Try a mixture of plant sizes, but at least a few that are medium height shrubs, three feet or so high.
Within your entry zone, there should be a small space for you and your guests to gather. It is the kind of space where you come outside to welcome visitors or pause to chat and say goodbye when they leave. The front porch is often enough to serve this purpose. Another option is to widen the walkway close to the house. Add pavers on either side of an existing walk to accomplish this.
2. Unite and Simplify
Many beginning landscape designers and home gardeners make the mistake of trying to put too much in their yard. It is easy for a yard to quickly become cluttered with too many things, whether it is different species of plants, bird baths, or garden gnomes, that do not relate to each other.
The most successful landscapes are often simpler than they appear, for example, a small variety of plants in complex shapes or a large number of different plant species in clearly defined, simple layout. Colors are chosen not to clash and textures are used to complement each other.
Though the finer points of planting and landscape design take many years to master, there are a couple of tips that almost everyone can use to simplify their landscape. One of these is to connect small, individual mulched beds into one or more larger beds. Too many yards have an abundance of mulched tree circles and small planting beds competing for attention. In addition, mowing around multiple beds takes extra care and effort. If you have several mulched islands that are fairly close together, turn them into one larger mulched shape with smooth flowing lines. If there is too much open, mulched space, plant a groundcover to unite the other plant materials.
The second simplification tip is to make a focal point, one feature that is most prominent. It might be a single flowering tree, a piece of lawn art, or a small cluster of interesting trees. While it is possible to have one tree that shows off its flowers in spring and a different tree with an amazing fall color, try not to have competing focal points.
3. Plant Something to Eat
This landscape idea is not targeted specifically toward design and layout like most of the other tips, but is intended to make your front yard functional, as well as attractive and inviting. Anytime a plant can play two or more roles in your landscape, you are making good use of resources.
The idea of edible landscapes has been around for many years, but seems to be enjoying a surge in popularity. Many food producing plants are also quite attractive and do not have to be confined to an orchard or vegetable garden. For homeowners without enough space for a veggie garden or who simply do not want to make the needed investment of time, it makes perfect sense to include a couple of fruit or vegetable plants in the landscape.
Blueberry bushes are one of the best choices for an ornamental that looks at home in a foundation planting while producing cups and pints of delicious berries during the summer. Blueberries grow in most parts of the country and do not require a lot of extra care to remain healthy.
Most small fruit trees are also attractive, flowering ornamentals. Peach, cherry, and apple trees grow in many parts of the United States and can fit into almost any home landscape. Figs and citrus trees are also an option, depending on where you live. A local nursery or garden center is a good source of information about what kind of tree has the best chance of success in your yard.
It is worth remembering that the landscape also serves as a source of food for small animals, including birds, butterflies, and bees. The right plant choices support your local wildlife and regional ecology. Native plants – those that grew in a region before permanent human settlement – with noticeable berries or flowers are almost always favored by small creatures. Many native plants are attractive ornamentals (think dogwoods and redbuds) that do well with only minimal maintenance.
Though some gardeners landscape their backyards with the goal of turning them into a wildlife sanctuary, there is no reason this idea has to be relegated to the backyard. Make your front yard popular with birds and butterflies while using the other design concepts presented here. A small butterfly garden can be a front yard focal point.
4. Celebrate the Seasons
Seasonal change is one of the characteristics that makes landscape design different from other forms of art and design. Though music and dance have movement and change, it takes place over a few minutes or hours. Landscapes evolve for years and decades, and while other designed features in your home remain virtually static, unchanging, your landscape is constantly growing. This should be celebrated.
Thoughtful designers plan for and highlight seasonal change in the garden. The anticipation of spring flowers and emerging green foliage is one of the things that helps us get through the winter. For those less fond of summer weather, changing colors in the fall is a welcome sight that coincides with cooler days and nights.
Find at least one plant or group of plants in your front yard to feature in each of the seasons. For example, there are several species of small ornamental trees with impressive displays of blooms in the spring. Dogwoods, redbuds, shadbush, and fringe tree are just a few. One of these – or a group of three to five in a large yard – is all you need to know that spring has arrived.
In general, there are fewer plant species that flower during mid summer. Perennials are a good choice if you want to schedule a sequence of summer blooms. Coreopsis, black-eye Susan, columbine, and Joe Pye weed are a few plants that have June, July, and August flowering times. Native milkweeds are also a good choice, particularly since they are a favorite of the threatened Monarch butterfly.
Native grasses are an excellent choice for the late summer and fall garden; it’s the time when they naturally send up shoots of new growth, often with shades of blue, red, and green. Little bluestem, big bluestem, and switchgrass are among the most popular native grass species and grow to three, or more, feet tall. They make an effective contrast against typical shrub plantings and fit in with your summer flowering perennials.
The winter garden is a challenge in some parts of the United States, but every region has evergreen trees and shrubs for those that find months of brown and gray depressing. Those fall native grasses keep their foliage – though it may be brown – through the winter. The fluffy seedheads usually hang around for a part of the winter.
If you do not have many evergreens in your landscape, winter is the time for trees with interesting bark patterns. Beeches and ironwood both have smooth, light gray bark. Birches all have interesting bark, white or gray and papery depending on the region where you live. Any of these trees make a lovely winter focal point.
5. Create Depth
Creating visual depth in the landscape is one of the best ways to make any yard more interesting. The concept of layers in the landscape using a foreground, middleground, and background is discussed in more detail in the companion post to this one, “Front Yard Landscaping – How to Design for Depth.”
Summary – Putting it all Together
If you are not experienced in the design process, a home landscape design project can seem overwhelming. Start by listing your goals for your front yard, what you want it to be. You can use this article as a guide. Do you want it to feel larger? More welcoming? Have seasonal interest? Prioritize your goals and design ideas from most to least important. Then, start your design plan with the most important idea in mind, making sure you will accomplish it.
If you are not sure about how to move forward, consult a professional designer. It’s an investment that often saves time and money in the long run, avoiding mistakes and increasing the chances of getting a yard you are truly happy with. Many garden centers and landscape construction companies have landscape designers on staff.
A landscape designer will usually have a strong horticultural background – a good knowledge of plants – with some additional training in design. A landscape architect typically has a broader and deeper knowledge base. They have passed a registration exam and are familiar with all aspects of outdoor construction and design.
The extent and type of your project, as well as your budget, may determine who you choose to work with. Whether you go the do-it-yourself route or work with a professional designer from start to finish, following the ideas presented here gives a better chance of a successful project and a beautiful, useful front yard you will be proud of for years to come.
Note: All photos and illustrations are by the author unless otherwise noted.