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Bones for My New Front Garden

August 4, 2015

hardscape bonesGardeners and garden designers often talk about the “bones” of a garden to refer to the fairly permanent structures that give the garden form and frame the plants. These structures might include specimen trees, hedges that are used to create garden rooms, berms that define the shape of a garden, and grassy areas that separate and connect plantings. The bones of a garden can also include non-living structures like a garden shed or a seating area or hardscape.

When I began planning the new addition for my house and thinking about a new front garden to go with that addition, I was intimidated by the blank slate that this project presented, the lack of any bones to structure the garden other than the house itself. So I hired a landscape architect, Peter Burke, to design the bones of the new garden. My hope was that Peter would be able to design the contours of the land around the new addition, the hardscape, and the location, sizes and shapes of planting areas. The reality was that my landscape budget wasn’t large enough to pay for such an extensive design and that the excavation for the new addition changed the contours of the front of my property considerably. So what I got from my landscape architect was an invaluable conceptual design for hardscape – including an L-shaped retaining wall to divide the front of my property into two levels; a patio atop the retaining wall that echoes the size and shape of the deck on the front of the house; and a series of walkways that connect the patio, the front and back doors, the steps up from the driveway to the entry level, and the lower garden level.

The retaining walls were created as part of the construction process in the fall; and last week, I completed the two-month job of laying the 1’ square concrete pavers (220 of them!) to create the patio and the walkways. This hardscape provides a good set of bones to shape the design of my new front garden. It clearly separates the garden into two levels, and it defines the shapes and sizes of planting areas on the upper level.

I am anticipating that realizing the garden to go with these bones will take about 5 years. This year, I am focusing on the upper level, where the walkways and patio have clearly defined planting areas. I have already planted the small ‘Blues Border’ in the area between the front stairs and the front of the house, and I have bought some creeping thyme to plant in the narrow strips on two sides of the patio where it is bordered by the retaining walls. This week, I will begin amending the soil in the 18’ x 4’ area between the porch and deck and the walkway leading to the patio. lavender walk bonesI have already selected plants and created a planting plan for this area. Once this ‘Porch Border’ is planted, I will move on to the ‘Lavender Walk,’ the two rectangular areas between the front deck and the retaining wall that are divided by the walkway leading from the patio along the front of the house to the lower garden. As the name suggests, this planting will be anchored by lavender plants, and I already have a good idea of what I will combine with those plants. By mid-September, I hope to be done with all this and to tackle the area bordered by the front and back door walkways and the walkway to the patio (the ‘Patio Border’).

fragrant garden bones side slope

Next year, I will move on to the large area under my bedroom window bordered by the front of the addition, the walkway, and the deck (the ‘Fragrant Garden’) and the large slope on the driveway side of the retaining wall. Because these areas are so large, shrubs will be important in creating structure beyond the bones provided by the hardscape.

lower garden site1 lower garden site2

In the third year of this project, I will move on to the even larger, undifferentiated area at the front of the house below the retaining wall and hardscape. I am thinking of this whole area as the “lower garden,” and it consists of a fairly steep slope with a flat area at the bottom. I am happy to have two years to think about how to create a good set of bones for this area. I already know that I want to create a wide grassy swath along the flat part at the bottom of the slope that will curve around and up the slope near the woods to create a path from the driveway to the walkway along the front of the house (thereby connecting the upper and lower gardens). I also know that I will create a large roughly triangular planting of shrubs at the front corner of my property away from the driveway (which will balance the L-shaped retaining wall), bordered by the grassy path where it will curve around to go up the slope. I am also imagining some kind of small seating area in that grassy curve near the shrubbery.

My new front garden is a big project, both to design and to execute. By dividing it into smaller segments and thinking first about the bones, I can make it more manageable, much more enjoyable, and (I hope) more beautiful.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2015 12:25 pm

    I totally agree on the great bones of your new garden space; I am anxious to see what you make of this great space.

    • August 9, 2015 8:10 pm

      Charlie, I’m eager to see how it turns out, too! 🙂 I don’t know how it is for you, but the way I envision something in my head and the way I plan it on paper is not the same as how it looks when the plants go in the ground. I’ll report progress here periodically.

  2. August 4, 2015 4:22 pm

    yes, yes and yes. Each little bit that gets planted is such a delight.

    • August 9, 2015 8:12 pm

      Diana, Doing a little bit at a time also allows me to revise as I go in response to what is actually happening as the garden takes shape. I’m now halfway through digging the 18′ x 4′ porch border and looking forward to the delight of getting that part planted in a couple of weeks.

  3. Nell Jean permalink
    August 4, 2015 7:14 pm

    Made to order. Just beautiful.

    • August 9, 2015 8:13 pm

      Thanks, Nell Jean. I’m looking forward to seeing beautiful plants around all those paving stones.

  4. August 4, 2015 8:11 pm

    I am so impressed that you laid the patio and walkways yourself – picking up and moving those pavers about couldn’t be easy and I know from personal experience how crazy-making it can be to get them properly leveled. I’m sure the planning and step-by-step approach you’ve started will yield wonderful results.

    • August 9, 2015 8:18 pm

      Kris, I decided not to be a complete perfectionist about how level the stones were because it can be an endless process. Even so, I figure I moved each paving stone 5-6 times — once to get them off the shelf and onto my cart at Home Depot, once to get them out of the car and carried to the site where they would be used, and 3-4 times of positioning and repositioning them to try to get them properly leveled. Even though each individual stone is not that heavy — 17 1/2 pounds — I figured I lifted a total of about 11 tons by the time I was done!

  5. August 6, 2015 9:34 am

    The walks look great and I like the clean modern look. Isn’t it great to see progress and be able to check off one more thing on the list?

    • August 9, 2015 8:19 pm

      Bittster, It’s a great relief to have this done! It would have been nice if I had been able to do a somewhat warmer and less utilitarian look for the retaining walls — but basic concrete slabs was what I could afford and plants growing in front of the wall will soften the look.

  6. debsgarden permalink
    August 6, 2015 11:33 am

    Jean, you have made tremendous progress, and the hardscape you have put in looks great. I can see your vision, and it will be wonderful! Already your home is so charming and just waiting to be surrounded by lovely gardens. I swoon over the idea of a lavender walk!

    • August 9, 2015 8:21 pm

      Deb, The lavender walk will be a kind of memorial to my mother who always wanted to grow lavender in her own garden. Let’s hope it works out as I am envisioning it.

  7. August 6, 2015 5:22 pm

    What a lot of patience it takes to carry out a garden plan. When we first moved in our landscape architect had a three stage design and we followed the first year, then winged it after that, completely ignoring what was in his plan. People gave us plants, I remember things from my youth, we saw stuff we liked at garden centers. His design probably would have looked better but as it turned our hodgepodge probably has more soul.

    • August 9, 2015 8:24 pm

      Jean, I think you are right that deviating from the landscape architect’s plan probably gave your planting more soul. I had a little bit of tension in my first interaction with my landscape architect around the fact that I did not want him to choose plants. I want this garden to be an expression of me, not of him. I think garden designers who get upset when clients deviate from their plans don’t understand what gardening is about.

  8. August 14, 2015 4:38 pm

    Hi Jean, you’re so well organised compared to how we’re going about restoring our garden, with a bit here and a bit there, your methodical approach is interesting to read. I’m also loosely following what you;re doing in terms of working on the smaller parts closer to the house first for gain confidence and for “quick wins” to show progress, then it’s on to the larger parts where a “divide and conquer” approach of breaking the large areas into sections to work on means you’re not overwhelmed.

    • August 16, 2015 5:59 pm

      Sunil, “Organized” and “Methodical” are my two middle names. 😉 I admire people who can create a whole master plan for their garden before they begin work, but I’m afraid I would just become overwhelmed and paralyzed if I tried that approach. “Divide and conquer” works for me!

  9. August 15, 2015 9:32 am

    I love hearing about your ideas and the steps you are taking…breaking into years and smaller steps does help and gives me pause to slow down again and take my time….of course I had to injure myself again….I am a rock head some days. Always an inspiration Jean!

    • August 16, 2015 6:00 pm

      Donna, I’m sorry to hear that you injured yourself again. One of the lessons I have been learning from my increasingly injury-prone body is to pace myself — keeping heavy work sessions (like digging new flower beds) to two hours or less and never two days in a row.

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