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Front yards that feature native and well-adapted plants turn wasted space into sustainable, outdoor living rooms
Article by Nan Booth Simpson
Photography by Scot Hill
For most Americans, the term “front yard” evokes an image of a manicured lawn and tightly pruned shrubs that line the base of the house like soldiers on guard duty. In the repetitive yards of the endless suburbs that surround cities throughout this country, acres upon acres of water-guzzling grass demand to be fertilized and mown. With land becoming an increasingly precious commodity and maintenance costs soaring, perhaps it is time to question traditional thinking about what constitutes “street appeal.”
Building standards in most cities require that houses be set back a specified distance from the street. However, homeowners in all but the most restrictive neighborhoods are free to use the space that divides house from street as they wish. Some are deciding to create private entrance courtyards with walls or hedges. Others are inviting neighbors into a more open space with comfortable chairs, attractive plantings and perhaps a water feature. Some simply may be planting a more sustainable, grass-free garden to create a pleasant vista from the house.
No matter how homeowners choose to design (or redesign) their front yards, “sustainability” and “usability” are among the key words that seem to motivate the changes. Two Austin, Texas, homes are prime examples of innovative thinking. In 2005, Johnny Wilson and his wife, Debra Leff began craving a more interesting approach to the front yard garden of their cottage in one of central Austin’s old neighborhoods. “We wanted something that was easy to maintain and less dependent on the city’s increasingly expensive water supply, so we decided to replace all the grass between the street and the front porch with xeric plants,” recalls Wilson, who teaches biology at St. Stephens Episcopal School. He frequently takes students to study at a Nature Conservatory property in the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend Region, so he knew that he wanted a desert feel to the garden, but also that they needed help with the design.
The couple sought the services of landscape designer and contractor Fred Strauss, who then brought architect and garden designer Gregory Thomas into the collaborative process. What the team designed for this 2,000-square-foot space is visually rich yet minimalist in concept. A low wall now defines and frames the front garden without closing it from view. Large cast pavestones detour around a circular fishpond on the left side of the wall opening, leading the eye to the home’s wide front porch. Water trickles from a pipe in the end of the wall into the pool, recalling a windmill pumping into a stock pond.
Sculptural plants from the Hill Country and Trans-Pecos regions of Texas play off of the elegantly simple architectural elements. The entire space is “paved” in gravel, which provides continuity and makes the small garden seem much larger than it actually is. Native and well-adapted plants are arranged to separate the garden’s different functions. A large bur oak forms a canopy over the outdoor dining table. Although there are no defined planting beds, artistic groupings of native trees, shrubs and perennials provide screening for a parking area and from the neighbors’ property on each side.
Wilson worked closely with Strauss, a consummate plantsman, in creating magical compositions of textures and colors. Beside the entry walk, a thornless mesquite (Prosopis alba) that is native to South America forms a canopy over an unlikely mix of pink fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla), esperanza (Tecoma stans), desert fern/resurrection plant (Selaginella lepidophylla) and blue twist-leaf yucca (a cross between Yucca rupicola and Y. pallida). Also planted are the Mexican natives thread-leaf agave (Agave celsii) and pink skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens), black dalea (Dalea frutescens), Dyckia sp. and several species of Manfreda. “I go to specialty growers all over Texas and buy a bunch of interesting plants that I arrange on-site,” explains Strauss. Wilson contributed hardscape pieces like a few rubber snakes and bleached bones to the landscape just for fun.
Wilson notes that they had lived in the house since 1980 but until recently only knew neighbors on their block. “Then the whole neighborhood went into shock when a backhoe arrived to scrape our lot clean and excavate a hole for the fish pond.” Now that the garden is complete, everyone seems captivated by it. “We enjoy having supper outdoors when the weather is pleasant. Neighbors perch on the wall and chat, have a glass of wine, feed the fish or just hang out. It has changed the way we live, and it’s such a community builder that I wonder why more people don’t design their front yards like this. There is always something interesting – bees, butterflies, birds – which is neat for me,” says Wilson. “It’s even a Zen experience to pull weeds.” Although the garden was initially his idea, his wife, Debra, who works with visually impaired children, has become enchanted with it as well. “We chuckle when neighbors complain about water rationing.”
At about the same time Wilson and Leff were creating their dream garden, Jim and Lynne Weber built their “Lodge at Woody Hollow” on a steep slope in a subdivision in the hills northwest of Austin. They call it “the culmination of our dream to combine the energy-efficiency of a green-built home with the warm casualness of a Hill Country lodge.” They have paired local materials with native landscaping to seamlessly blend rustic architecture with the natural beauty of the area. Their modestly sized home sits on a small lot, but the back of the house overlooks a deep, verdant canyon and the Balcones Canyonland Preserve beyond.
After acquiring eight acres directly behind their lot, the Webers spent two years removing invasive plant species and several tons of garbage, as well as carving about a mile of walking trails through the woods and meadows. The couple (both of whom are certified Texas master naturalists) has observed and photographed numerous species of birds, butterflies, reptiles and amphibians and counted more than 100 species of plants on the property. They presently are investigating the best possible way to ensure that this land is kept pristine in perpetuity as part of the adjacent Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.
Their steep west-facing front garden appears as natural as the acreage at the rear, but this is a carefully crafted “wildscape.” When the Webers set out to landscape the 60-foot-wide, 45-foot-deep space in front of the house, the only existing plants there were two mature Ashe junipers (Juniperus ashei) and four Texas red oaks (Quercus buckleyi). Russell Womack of Capital Landscaping designed and built limestone steps alongside the driveway and worked a three-tiered water feature into the slope. From rocking chairs on their front porch, the Webers can enjoy the sight and sound of splashing water and an array of wildlife. Thickly planted gardens on both sides of the driveway and along the street provide a sense of seclusion.
The outer edges of the main garden are interwoven with a combination of deciduous and evergreen native trees, including Anacacho orchid (Bauhinia lunarioides), Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa), possumhaw (Ilex decidua), Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) and Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana). Shrubs like woolly butterfly bush (Buddleja marrubiifolia), coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) and canyon mock orange (Philadelphus ernestii) lend varied colors and textures to the landscape. Surrounding the water feature, beneath the shade of the large junipers, are a colorful assortment of late- and early-blooming perennials. The red hues of Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana) and rock penstemon (Penstemon baccharifolius) dominate the spring and summer landscape. Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and yellow Lindheimer senna (Senna lindheimeriana) come into play in the fall.
The Webers prefer to leave most of the deciduous plants’ seeds and berries intact for wildlife to enjoy during the winter, agreeing that a “natural setting is infinitely more interesting.” Lynne adds, “When you can observe the seasonal cycles of plants and animals up close throughout the year, you realize that you are an integral part of nature.” Their woodland-style garden is profoundly influencing the entire neighborhood.
“We love it when children come by to see what is growing or a mother stops to point out a butterfly to her toddler in his stroller.” Basking in the numerous awards their efforts have garnered, they maintain that “living sustainably has never looked so cool!”
Of course, the orientation of a house must play into a decision about how to treat the front of any property. The east-facing garden at the Wilson-Leff house, with its morning sun and afternoon shade, is ideal for enjoying the outdoors. A south orientation can be made equally comfortable with structures or trees. A north-facing front will be cooler and shadier than the sunny south side in summer, which can be an advantage. But it also will be in complete shade in the winter, which makes it less desirable for a seating area unless the owner is willing to build walls to buffer winter winds and install an outdoor fireplace to create a cozy winter retreat. A west-facing front yard is the most problematic, unless it is protected by a canopy of mature trees or other shade structures. The Webers are able to enjoy their southwest-facing front porch on summer afternoons because it lies well below street level, beneath existing shade trees. For many properties in hot climates, during parts of the day a western exposure can be unusable for outdoor living until winter, when the sun angle is lower.
After studying the existing sun and shade patterns, homeowners should select the most comfortable spot on their property for a primary outdoor living area. If that happens to be the front of the house, consider it an ingenious way to maximize space. Both the Weber and Wilson-Leff entry gardens are especially successful because they work with the architecture of the owners' houses and relate, through the use of native plants, to the natural beauty of the Texas Hill Country.
Gregory Thomas says, “I advocate that front yards be actively used and gardened rather than simply serving as a tidy ‘straight arm’ that keeps the world at a comfortable distance. I encourage folks to engage the street side of their property with a real garden, rather than a few foundation plants and a water-hungry lawn. An interesting, cared-for yard that blooms and attracts wildlife can be a beautiful thing to behold. Designing with natives is different from non-natives, in that native plants know perfectly well how to navigate the extremes of our climate.
“Gardening in the front yard is a way to maintain contact with neighbors, a way to ‘give something to the street,’ almost as a gift.” He concludes, “One can be fully exposed or more shielded for privacy. In my experience, most folks who do this sort of project don’t mind being somewhat on display. Having stepped out of the pack, they usually just go for it. But we always try to provide some definition of where private, claimed space begins and where the public realm ends.”
Nan Booth Simpson is a landscape architect and freelance writer who lives in Wimberley, Texas.