In this and a couple of future articles I’ll be considering the role of the front garden in landscape designs – and in people’s lives. Perhaps I can add some points to the on-going discussion in the gardening community about landscape design that is not only contemporary and sustainable, but also homeowner-friendly.
My garden aesthetics are forever shaped by childhood memories where our garden gate opened to a romantic hide-away with play lawn, perennial borders and shade trees that we kids could climb in to hide, have our private “club” meetings, tell stories and make plans. The romance and seclusion of that place is still shaping my attitude towards gardens that I visit today: If it doesn’t give me a feeling of privacy and I can’t see any significant evidence of the owner’s personality in it, it’s not a garden for me but only an impersonal outdoor space.
Almost everywhere in our County we can observe the legacy of an American garden design approach that is neither suited to our California lifestyle, our changing tastes nor to our environment: Although ever smaller lots are making garden space more precious, the setback regulations in most Californian communities have not changed, to the effect that houses are still built with a considerable portion of their front garden given over to the public. The attitude towards front garden design is still dominated by the unquestioned expanse of “green”, and all other elements seem to be mere after-thoughts. One of my horticulture teachers called this lawn the “most expensive crop that is watered, fertilized, cut, and then thrown away”.
This was sadly evident in our own community in University City/San Diego where we lived with our 2 young children for a few years. In the front yard there was a lawn, a shade tree and some shrubs – the typical subdivision landscape. Although the children discovered that they could climb the tree easily and we built a tree house in it, all activity here was in the public’s eye; there was no shelter from noise and passers-by and certainly no visual interest. Aware that water is not in abundance in Southern California, we asked ourselves also whether it made sense at all to water here when we clearly had so little enjoyment from our front yard.
So the lawn had to make room for a flower and shrub buffer between street and front door. We stopped watering the lawn and at the end of summer dug up the dead sod, imported a few cubic yards of good soil and created a low stretched-out mound along the street. We planted California Natives and compatible drought tolerant plants on this little berm to create a living “lacey” screen between the street and the mulched play area. The following spring our front garden was a blooming sea of foliage and flowers which attracted bees, birds, neighbors, and kids who came to play in the tree house. By the second year most of the shrubs were tall enough so that the play area felt even more secluded, and we added a swing so that the adults could enjoy some of the fun here, too.
As Rita Sackville-West, the English garden designer and writer, observed about the lack of fencing or boundary in the American front yard: “Americans must be far more brotherly-hearted than we are, for they do not seem to mind being over-looked. They have no sense of private enclosure.”
This is an interesting thought, but I don’t think that my attitude towards gardening and design is born out of the reluctance to be “sisterly” or democratic. When a design has fulfilled the first demand: To satisfy the homeowner’s needs and marry them pleasingly with the constraints that the terrain, the architecture and the environment present; my second and vital desire is to make this outdoor space enjoyable and appealing to all senses and make every square inch of it count. But how could I enjoy this space when it’s indistinguishable from those on either side and when it is not mine, but the public’s?
I view the front yard as an opportunity for creativity rather than as a space given over to convenience or to the obligatory anonymous, park-like setting of the past.
In my next article I will continue to share some of my experiences and thoughts on this topic, and if you are interested, please read more about this in a couple of weeks.