In all my garden scouting, I very rarely saw front yard gardens. Most had the typical smattering of evergreens and deciduous trees, but few relied on perennials to carry a design. Oftentimes, front yard gardens are like mullets – business in the front, party in the back. Fortunately, the figurative garden mullet is much more appealing than the actual hairstyle. Homeowners often save the good stuff for the backyard or more intimate spaces not observable from the street. What a treat it was to experience a true front yard garden where the homeowner let it all hang out! In a good way, of course.
The garden was designed by landscape architect Robert Milani for a home on Chicago’s North Shore. There’s nothing cookie cutter about the area. The one thing most homes have in common though, is a well-kept front yard garden where green is the prevailing theme. Except this house…
My first question for Robert when we arrived was “How old is the house?” Everything about the exterior – established garden, ivy covered brick walls, slate roof, copper gutters – spoke to a permanence that didn’t really exist. If I remember correctly, the home and garden were less than five years old. Robert smiled and said that was the point of the project – to make the home appear to have been there far longer than it actually had. He accomplished this with a beautiful palette of hardworking perennials, grasses and flowering shrubs in a riot of colors.
Unlike its neighbors, this front yard garden was low on lawn and heavy on planting beds. Deep ones that allowed for varying plant heights and shapes. That’s not to say a lawn didn’t exist. In fact, there was just enough to anchor the space and allow the eye to rest. I wish I could remember the exact shape of the lawn. It was bordered by flower beds on all sides and was most visible from the front porch looking out into the garden.
Two access points – one from the front sidewalk, the other from the paver driveway to the left – were done in bluestone and gave a watery affect to the walkway. I loved how the plants poured over and softened the edges. Based on my own experience, I wonder how the Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ has held up. Mine have developed significant bacterial/fungal issues and will be removed this year.
Timing is everything in this front yard garden. It’s an excellent example of what a gardener can achieve simply by knowing the bloom times of plants so that they bloom in unison or in succession. Deadheading is a key factor in maintaining color in the coneflower, phlox, black-eyed Susans, and Shasta daisies. I wish I had a fall photo to show the seed heads that would be prominent as well as all the interesting shapes and colors on the spent blooms when left intact. Alliums are especially interesting with a “snow cap” in winter.
I loved how the variety of flower shapes – the roundness of the alliums, the spiky upright form of the speedwell, and the flat landing pads of the daisies and black-eyed Susans – were just as important as flower color.
The homeowner invested in a few zinc planters that were placed at key spots in the garden. One at the front entrance off the driveway, the others at the front door and on the porch. I’m especially keen on coleus which was used as the “thriller” plant in the container above. You can pinch them back time and again and get a bigger, fuller plant.
While the garden is at it’s pinnacle, there are still plenty of plants that have taken a back seat to the summer color explosion but are equally important to the design. Small crabapple trees, clipped boxwood and ornamental grasses may not be center stage right now, but their presence will be crucial in the winter garden when everything else goes dormant and the structural plants, or bones of the garden, carry it through.
I’ll always remember this garden for it’s fullness, and most importantly, it’s simplicity. Yes, simplicity. There’s nothing simple about weaving plants together in a harmonious way. I’m still working on the weaving part in my own garden. When I say simple, I’m referring to the plants. There’s nothing finicky about the plant palette. I like that they’re all tough, Midwest-loving plants. I think that’s the most important aspect of gardening with success. Pick plants that work for your situation. Unless, of course, you prefer the opposite.