My Forlorn Front Yard 1 (The Saga Begins)

YOU SHOULD SEE WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE in my imagination, is what I usually say to friends viewing my front yard for the first time. When I look at this space, I see a serene woodland garden that will show off some of my region's loveliest native plants.

But the reality is quite different, as you can see in the picture. This is no woodland paradise. At best it's an empty canvas. At worst it's forlorn, a narrow wasteland in which all the elements that once anchored the space are gone.

What's more, it's a wasteland with the kind of problems that can drive landscapers nuts:

  1. Strange shape. The old farmhouse is wedged between the road to the north, a brook-fed marsh to the east, and a pond to the south. The space between the house and the road is only about 30 feet wide, but it's about 65 feet long. And then it tapers another 60 feet down to the edge of the marsh.
  2. Power lines. A long, narrow space is difficult enough, but this one also has a pair of power lines immediately above it. Almost any large tree planted here will eventually have to be cut down or heavily pruned in order to avoid the lines.
  3. Architectural elements missing. The original farmhouse, built in the 1930s, had a front porch. When my parents bought the place in the 1970s, the porch was rotting, so they quite sensibly had it torn off. But the move, while sensible, removed a key element of the farmhouse architecture of the period, and left the house looking naked.
  4. Loss of key trees. At one time this space was dominated by two elm trees, a landscaping look that was as characteristic of old farmhouses as the sagging front porch. By the time my parents bought the property, the elm trees were enormous; the larger one towered over the house. But the elms succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1980s, despite my mother's heroic attempts to save them. After a piece of the larger one fell through her roof (and all but into her bed), she had it cut down.
  5. Trees that are not where you want them. Most people around here mow the edge of their property that borders the road, because if you don't the strip of soil along the road will eventually grow up in some of the "weedier" species of trees. Apparently my parents couldn't bear to cut down baby trees, however weedy they may have been, because their roadside sprouted up in white spruce, larch, and a couple of wild apples. The trees haven't been well tended, aren't arranged in any particular order, and aren't particularly pleasing to look at, but I'm not going to be cutting any of them down anytime soon. Nobody in her right mind cuts down a 30-year-old tree, weedy or not, unless she's very sure she's going to be happy with the results.
  6. Bad soil. My parents were avid vegetable gardeners but not very interested in flowers or lawn care. The soil in front of the house contains a lot of clay and was fairly compacted when I bought the place. I made both problems even worse by having the land re-graded. I had to do this in order to prevent flooding in the basement, but the backhoe operator had to scrape away much of the top layer of soil, leaving mostly clay behind.
  7. Bad drainage. See "to prevent flooding in the basement," above. The natural drainage is from a ridge to the south down to the marsh and pond behind the house and from there down to a river. Unless of course you put a house with an eight-foot-basement in the middle of that natural drainage system, in which case the water just naturally drains into that nice big hole you dug for it. Anyone for a basement swim? The backhoe fixed this problem by directing the drainage east toward the marsh instead of north under the house. But anything I do in the front yard could easily un-fix what the backhoe did. So everything I do has to be guided, first and foremost, by a conscientious landscaper's favorite question: Where will the water go?
  8. Ugly utilitarian features. Note the woodpile and the compost bin. These either have to be moved (but where?) or integrated into the garden in some fashion.
  9. Dogs. You can't see them in the photo, but they're there, they're very, very there. Dogs are hard on plants, and of course they leave reminders everywhere.
  10. Cheap, lazy owner. That would be me. I don't have a lot of money to spend, and, though I love gardening, I'm not about to turn it into the moral equivalent of a job.

All of which is to say that my forlorn front yard is the kind of project that, were I still a professional landscaper and were someone trying to hire me to do this, I might give a glowing recommendation to my least favorite competitor. But it's me who's hiring and me who will be doing the work. And besides, I have a plan.

Can I turn this poor front yard from forlorn to fabulous? Hang in there with me, and we'll all find out!

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