How to Make a Front Yard Garden even the Fussiest Neighbor will Approve Of.
by Carol Wallace
A topiary hedge of dancing
penguins - definitely rude.
No one has ever called my gardens polite.
The front yard, for instance, is downright rude. Somehow we are always so busy with different back yard projects that we never seem to get to it. What used to be a hated yew hedge is now a line of yew trees. Since the brakes on the lawn tractor started to go, the especially steep parts of the front lawn have reverted to meadow. The lawn there is SO steep that it takes a pair of spiked shoes to get up or down it. I plan on replacing grass with groundcover as soon as I get a myself a pair.
People driving by the front of our house would probably be shocked to discover that gardeners live here.
You may be asking, "Exactly why is that impolite?" (Although I doubt you'll need to.)
But I'll tell you anyway. It upsets the neighbors, whose lawns are carefully manicured. Of course, due to the way our streets were built, they all have lawns that can be handled with a weekly pass of the manicure scissors, while my husband and I deal with half an acre of steeply sloped grass and a broken lawn tractor. The neighbors have a right not to have our poorly tended lawn inflicted on them. Unfortunately, that lawn is too large for them to be able to ignore, and far too large and steep for us to be able to deal with when the tractor, an antique Cub Cadet, is out of commission. Which is why my next summer's plan includes doing something with the front yard.
Exactly what I'll do, I'm not sure. But for the sake of neighborhood relations, I can try to follow the thought processes of the people who garden around here. Unlike me, they have very polite gardens.
Polite gardens do not upset people. They do not make people feel uneasy, or envious, or overly picky. Polite gardens try not to raise emotions at all.
Which is why, while I solemnly promise to tackle the front yard, it will probably not be polite when I am done with it, either. But perhaps it will no longer upset those concerned about property values.
To achieve politeness is to create a garden that makes no waves - one that is safe, full of the tried and true - and done with exquisite good taste. That means not one single pink flamingo. No topiary hedge of sculpted dancing penguins. No amorphophallus. Not even a canna. One of the prime elements of good taste is suitability - and cannas are not perfectly suited to a front yard in a zone 6 garden.
Good taste and good manners avoid excess. What it boils down to is that I will have to scrap my vision of a bed of pink and green nicotiana in front, because the little dears seed like mad and those seeds may even blow over and sprout in the neighbors' manicured lawns. So self-seeders are forbidden. Nor would a lavishly frothing swag of wisteria be allowed, for wisteria is nothing if not excessive. A polite garden is a restrained one. Those who enjoy dinner plate sized dahlias, or even beds of exuberantly increasing sweet woodruff need not apply. As for my favorite solution for covering that unmowable slope - dwarf yellow bamboo - I shudder to think of the reaction that might provoke. Uneasiness, condemnation of excess, people feeling a moral obligation to warn me of the folly I have committed. . .
And since we don't want to make onlookers feel uneasy, we should not do anything too unusual in our polite little gardens. So much for my secret desire to create a garden without anything green in it. I had concocted a lovely plan involving purple, gold and silver foliage but alas, it is not to be. People may not recognize what is wrong with this picture but they will know something is off kilter, which will disturb them. Disturbing people is frowned upon in polite company.
Nor should we incite envy. Which means I will also have to abandon plans for replacing the yew hedge with a line of weeping Japanese maples. Anyone who shops at even a discount place like Wal*Mart knows that these are expensive; a line of them would also be perceived as excessive - a double flaw. And I should probably decide against training New Dawn roses around the doorway. They twine so beautifully and flower so abundantly that they are sure to arouse envy in the hearts of even the most benevolent onlooker. So what if they also delight the soul? So what if most of my neighbors have never planted anything more adventurous than 'Simplicity' roses which, since they were planted in fairly deep shade, soon died. It would surely be nasty of me to make the neighbors feel bad.
My color combinations need to be safe. Judging by the reaction when I decided to paint our barn pale gray with apricot trim, I KNOW they will need to be not just safe, but staid. An exuberant garden of brightly colored blossoms is not everyone's cup of tea. Anyone seeing all that flourishing plant life and finding themselves wishing I would tone it down would surely feel unduly critical. And that would never do.
So what does that leave me? The same things the neighbors who have planted anything at all in the front yard have planted for decades. Yews - so somber that they couldn't possibly excite any kind of emotion except gloom. Hostas - preferably plain green since many people violently object to variegated leaves as looking like a viral infection. Hostas know their place, never wander and have such unobtrusive flowers that few people realize that they are flowering plants. Pachysandra - so unassuming as to be almost invisible. And, of course, the ubiquitous impatiens, which never seem to reseed up here, perform admirably for a summer and then politely take their leave before they have overstayed their welcome. Daylilies - but only if they are called 'Stella' and perform all summer. Maybe creeping juniper, if I stick to the green shades and forget the gold that looks like splashes of sunlight on a winter's day.
That's what polite gardens are around here - and that is exactly the garden I do not want to plant. A great deal of the joy of gardening, for me, lies in the creative challenge. I don't WANT a garden like everyone else's. I don't want a yard full of the same tired old plants that you can pick up outside the grocery store in spring. I want gardens that, when I go out to work in them, or just stand back to admire them, stir my soul.
And that is my challenge - to be creative without being shocking. Tune in again and see if I can come up with a solution.