February 27, 2009

All I Want From My Yard Is . . .

A mantra of good design is to consider function before form. In landscape design, this means thinking about how you want to use your yard before starting to draw up a plan and picking the plants. Think 'Outdoor Rooms' not 'Plant Museum.'
I do a decent job of this with other people's yards, but I'm not so good in my own yard. I began accumulating lists of Must Have Plants years before buying a home. Thank goodness none of my friends presented me with a list of 200 Must Have Plants when asking for my help in planning their landscape - but that's what I've done to myself. Actually, I can probably reconcile the problem by listing 'Display Must Have Plants' as one of my landscape's chief functions.
I have several friends who have asked for my help with their landscapes, but first they need to think about how they want to use their yards. So to give them an example, I'm going to list some of the functions I want from my landscape. A few 'Before' photos of the yard are included so you know what I'm working with. It will be years - decades? - before the 'After' photos are ready. Randi, Marcia and Abby B. - this is for you!
1. Display my Must Have Plants. My landscape design needs to have room to grow english roses, delphiniums, hostas, heucheras, daylilies, hellebores, iris, anemones . . . my goodness, the list is long! That means I need plenty of bed space in both sun and shade. Those beds need good soil and an efficient irrigation system (the current lawn-focused sprinkler system won't be effective when I start planting bushes and taller perennials).
2. Provide a temporary place for me to observe plants until I gather enough specific information about color, bloom times and growth habits to organize them into the final plan. I'm calling this place the 'Plant Evaluation & Propagation Area' (PEPA) to distinguish it from the haphazard mish-mosh it currently resembles. Yeah, I know plenty about 'Stella d'Oro' daylilies, but what about 'Millie Schlumpf' and 'Lavender Stardust' daylilies? Will my 'Worth the Wait' siberian iris bloom at the same time as my 'LD Braithwaite' english rose? I want to know my plants well before assigning them a permanent spot.
3. Provide play opportunities for my kids. We have three of them, and outdoor play preserves my sanity in the summer. They'd like a play structure with swings, room to run around, and digging areas.
4. Include convenient, comfortable places for grilling, eating, sitting, reading, talking, and entertaining variously-sized groups of guests. Much of this will happen on the patio (which will be redone eventually), but a few carefully placed benches will also be needed.

5. Feature photogenic backdrops for portraits. Wouldn't it be great to have lovely family pictures taken right in our own backyard? That might require large shrubs, a bench, rocks, an archway, or other photo-friendly additions.
6. Offer cut flowers and foliage. I love making nosegays and other arrangements for my home and to give away. When considering a new plant, I usually ask myself if the leaves or flowers would be useful in arrangements. I don't have enough space for a dedicated cut-flower garden, though, so cut flowers will just have to come from the regular flower beds.
7. Screen unattractive views, provide privacy and create attractive views from both inside and outside the house. From various points in our backyard, we can see over 50 other houses. 50!! I don't want to see all those houses when I'm out in my backyard (or have all of them watching me), which is why we planted a small forest of 14 trees around the border of the backyard. Our lot is also graced with the neighborhood's bank of mailboxes, which I would like to surround with plantings that curtail my view of it from the house and front porch.
8. Minimize non-fun maintenance. I enjoy puttering around in the garden doing things like deadheading, pruning, transplanting and dividing. I don't enjoy pulling grass or weeds out of the flowerbeds, or taking care of the lawn (especially as I have an allergy attack after mowing - what a great excuse to pass off this job to dear hubby). This means I need to include sturdy barriers between lawn and beds. I'm trying to think of a good way to keep the neighbor's grass from coming under the fence when we turn the edges of our yard into beds, but haven't come up with a great one yet. Dig a trench and pour concrete? Buried boards? Any ideas?

9. Create an attractive setting for our home that fits into the neighborhood, aka curb appeal. The front yard design is mostly about just looking nice. The challenge with our home is to draw the eye away from our unfortunately prominent garage.
10. Offer a setting for a wedding reception. In a couple of decades, I'd love it if one or all of our kids decided to hold a garden reception in our backyard. This idea requires some traffic-flow planning.
11. Grow veggies and fruit. I'm not sure that I want to devote a large rectangle of ground to the veggie garden, so I'm thinking of ways to mix the produce in with the flowers. Not quite decided about that.
12. Allow flexibility for when I change my mind. That's a when, not an if. It's a blessing that our budget won't allow all the landscaping at once, since I'll have plenty of time to make changes, and more changes, as I think of new ideas.

The first three photos were taken when we bought our home in 2007, and this last one shows its current state as viewed from the master bedroom window.
So what do you want from your yard? Randi, Marci and Abby B. - make your lists. Everyone else, please leave a comment to help me add to my list. Surely I've forgotten something.


  1. It sounds like you already have a great list. I like how you talked about a garden of must-haves rather than planned out gardens. I've tried to concentrate more on the overall look too now and decide if they pretty new plants I see will really work.
    I love that you are thinking of far off future too. My husband and I got married in my parents backyard.

  2. Hi VW, It looks like your backyard is more than adequate to fulfill everything on your wish list. I like the white fence--well defined borders. I guess the one difference between us is that I'm impetuous. I don't plan. Number 2 wouldn't work for me. I plant, evaluate, dig, replant, evaluate, dig, replant.... I'm constantly moving plants. But I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening. But I will say that I've got a million (give or take)containers planted with smaller specimens (cheaper) and simply plants I don't have room for. So now I'm thinking this might be a point on your list. Container plantings and where. Just my two bits. I predict you're going to have fun this spring. :-)

  3. Good morning VW, my goodness, what a tall order! When you look at a blank slate and imagine all the possibilities it can be overwhelming. Your front yard seems to be set with the concrete edgers... once the plantings are more mature it will soften the front more.
    As we have Bermuda grass that can be a 'bit' invasive, I have trenches for edges, and I suppose you could do that at the fence line...that and some Roundup handy. With your love for roses I think I would make that your framework- a starting point and a focal point. You have the bones of the trees along the fenceline. I would create sweeping curved gardens encompassing the trees. I would also extend the patio with some flagstone or other pavers...bring the sitting area out into the yard a bit. Maybe with a pergola -- something to support some flowering vines or ramblers.
    Oh I am sure you have lots of ideas...it is just trying to do them in a wise and learned way. One of the bloggers suggested using the paint box program on your computer to create/ design a garden. I have been playing around with it using a photo of the house and then adding and subtracting garden areas and plants. Mine looks very non professional, but it helps me envision some of my ideas. You have some good photos to play with in this endevour.
    Good luck!

  4. Thanks for the ideas, Catherine, Grace and Janet. Grace - I'm finding that I have problems remembering to water my containers, so I should plan for them to be watered by the sprinklers or a drip system. Containers certainly add to the hardscape portions of the yard.
    Janet - Your ideas are very close to what I've been thinking. I do have a program that allows me to place plants on a photo. The colors never turn out right, but it's very helpful for shapes. I'm planning to post a few of the designs that I've been drawing for the yard. Expanding the patio, a pergola, and curving beds with trees inside are all in the plan! And I have mixed feelings about the concrete edgers. They are ubiquitous in our neighborhood, and do help keep out the grass but not completely. I don't think they're attractive, but one home nearby has edgers that are stained and patterned like stone, so they're more attractive. We'll see. It will take years to get all these projects done, but the journey will be great. - VW

  5. Thanks VaLynn. GREAT ideas. I will go around our yard, take pictures of the various angles and views and make our LIST! This will really help! I am excited again, not overwhelmed.

  6. Wow you have years of work ahead of you. I have a customer that her yard looked about like yours 5 years ago. Now it is amazing, butterflies everywhere and a kickin veggy garden. WE built a screened in porch for her.

    Take your time and enjoy.

  7. I want all of these things too, and an area for wildlife to live and raise their families, primarily birds. So maybe add a wildlife attraction area?

  8. Hi VW

    You can't be accused of not taking a logical approach.

    I reckon the best way to stop your neighbour's grass from creeping is probably a barrier. Planks or similar sunk down on the edge to just soil level would be discrept. Need to be treated though.

    I think I have caught the Day Lily bug after reading one of your earlier post.



  9. Lots of good advice VW!

    Non-gardening friends usually ooh and ah over my garden, and plant nuts like me usually recognize themselves in it since it's more 'Plant Evaluation & Propagation Area' than garden. That's never been more the case since moving here and still figuring out what will grow in the challenging dry shade under three silver maples that comprises my garden.

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