Design with Natives – Front Corner

Front Corner Before

In my last post I resigned myself to (celebrated) redesigning a corner of the house where I had lost a tree.  OK, this was a good opportunity to put into practice some of the techniques I’ve learned this year about visual design. Even though this is a simple project, I found that spending time on my design goals before diving into plant selection, and pausing after each iteration for a critique, resulted in a more satisfying design at the end. But you will be the judge of that!

Site Assessment

The starting point is always an assessment of the existing site:

  • Corner of house between garage and potting shed, at front of driveway.
  • Gray cedar shingles, white trim, electric meter.
  • Space is 8’ wide x 7’ deep. We installed a curved stone pathway along the front edge. The bed continues around corner to front of potting shed.
  • Mostly high shade, acidic and sandy well-drained soil, average moisture.
  • Stump was cut down, but only to the ground to avoid in-ground electric and cable wires, so the planting has to work around the stump.

Design Goals

The second step is a thoughtful articulation of the design goals for this spot.  As usual, I started out pretty vague:

  • Have something interesting to catch the eye as you walk by this corner from the driveway around to the side yard. Not a destination.
  • All natives, keeping with the overall naturalistic planting theme of the garden.

Then, over the course of the project I added three more design goals:

  • The eye should flow both along the front edge around to the side as well as from front to back to observe interesting textures and contrasts.
  • There should be something new – blooms or color – in each season.
  • Have a large plant at farthest right corner to define turning point of pathway, partially block view for a little mystery.

The overall concept for the design was to have a dense, multi-layered textural planting, anchored by shrubs in the back, incorporating flowering plants in spring, green texture in summer and rich colors in fall.  No need for winter interest.

Design Iterations

The design process itself consisted of multiple iterations, trying out various plants and various layouts to see what looked good, and critiquing each one.  I won’t bore you with every iteration, but wanted to show you the starting point and a middle point.

The starting point was a rough colored-pencil sketch for a class:

Front Corner 1

The object of the exercise was to use semi-abstract shapes and colors to incorporate a lot of variety into a design without losing unity.  This design shows concentric semi-circles around two coarse-leaved shrubs in back, with layers of green fine-textured ferns, mid-sized colored-leaf perennials, front rows of a grasses and a circular-leaf ground cover, and the stone pathway.

Translating that into pictures, this design would look like this:

Front Corner 2

The plants in this picture are, from the back, oak-leaf hydrangea, lady fern, heuchera, tufted hairgrass, curly hairgrass and native pachysandra. I did enjoy this arrangement as it has lots of visual interest – makes you want to stop and look at all the different plant juxtapositions.  It is unified by general flow from bottom left around to top right and by repetition.  However, this would be more complex and higher-contrast than nearby parts of the yard. Did I want to draw the eye and the visitor here first thing?

The second iteration was intended to be simpler and less contrast:

Front Corner 3

The heuchera was removed and the remaining plants rearranged.  I found there to be almost as much textural interest as before, but without the color of the heuchera, it was more restful to look at, except for the high contrast of the curly hairgrass.  However, it looks almost too symmetrical and with maybe too many fine-leafed textures.

Final Design

It was in considering this final design that I realized I needed to add the design goals of more spring flowering and rich fall color, as well as a larger plant at the back right to lead around the path:

Front Corner 4

In this design, the high-contrast curly hairgrass is gone, but there are two new plants, woven into drifts with the lady fern – wild columbine and white wood aster.  The native pachysandra is replaced with barren strawberry, also a low-growing round-leaf groundcover, but which also blooms.  And the taller cinnamon fern at the end punctuates the planting and partially blocks what is around the end of the path.

The arrangement of the three mid-tier plants into drifts rather than masses makes this a lot more visually interesting. Also, there is something going on throughout the year, in addition to the textures.  The wild columbine and barren strawberry will bloom in June; the hydrangea in July and August, and the aster in August and September.  In October the hydrangea leaves turn deep burgundy.

This design has even more textural interest than earlier versions, but without the high contrast of the colored leaves, it is more visually restful and has both spring and fall color.  This is the design I am going to plant this spring.

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