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Creating a landscape from the ground up

Let's pretend you're going to redo your front yard landscaping, or maybe you really are just starting out with a new home.

We'll start by standing near the street and looking at the house. Now let's try to let go of our assumptions about what a landscape has to be. Let's question what most people have and what's been done for decades.

We will start with a clean slate, in our imaginations at least. We have lots of decisions to make. The first big ones have to do with how we divide up the space. Then we'll tackle the question of walling in the beds.

>Foundations, islands, borders

This is not the first time I have written (nor the first time you have read) about "foundation plantings" -- those ubiquitous lineups of shrubs smashed up against the bottom of the house.

It became the norm during the last 60 years, originally because home foundations were formerly ugly and deserved to be hidden. But like many styles, once we started doing it, we just kept it going. Landscapers followed other landscapers' practices -- and a whole lot of houses ended up with those predictable same-old shrubs planted way too close to the house for their own good.

Many homes still look well with a planting around the foundation -- like a skirt or collar framing the house. But let's apply some good horticulture as we design them.

Leave a couple of feet unplanted (perhaps with gravel) around the foundation, for access to the house and moving behind the planting. Place the plants several feet out from the house, where the rain and sun can reach them, where the snow and ice from the roof won't crash down on them, and where they have room to grow without brushing the wall.

And make any foundation bed 5 or 6 feet wide at least, to accommodate the plants as they will be (not just the size they are now.)

A 3-foot bed is too narrow for most plants and just looks dinky. Skinny collars are out.

But maybe the whole planting would look better away from the house. Consider planting outside the walkway to the front door, or an island in the lawn, or wide beds framing the entire yard, or no lawn at all. Think creatively; then choose.

>Layers, levels and walls

Once we know roughly where you want some plant groupings, you have another set of choices. They're all about layering, levels and walls.

Does the front yard slope, or is it boringly flat, so you want to consider planting on several levels? Would you like the island, foundation planting or border enclosed by raised beds? And if you do, what materials will you choose -- natural stone or synthetic pavers?

Today there are so many product and material choices -- way beyond what was available just 10 years ago. So it's a very good time to get advice from educated, professional landscapers and landscape designers. (Landscape architects and Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals -- CNLPs -- are some best bets.) Ask to see their pictures of other jobs, and then you'll learn quickly what you really want or don't want.

Raised beds have a valuable function in landscaping. They help when the existing soil is compacted, heavy and clogged with tree roots, and may help with poor drainage. They decrease maintenance (if the new soil is weed-free and high quality).

Design-wise, they add definition and drama and offer opportunities to show off draping, tumbling plants, spilling over the walls.

But raised beds can be designed and used badly. I asked landscape designer and CNLP Joe Han (The English Gardeners Ltd.) what makes him grit his teeth: "The worst mistakes are creating 'negative drainage' toward the house, excessive slope of the soil (causing runoff or washout), and installing poor soil/clay that compacts. Also proper base preparation for the stone enclosing the bed is essential for stability and integrity of the garden walls."

And then the materials used -- texture, color, age -- should relate to the house.

In Joe's words, "the natural or manufactured stone should complement the architecture, the garden style, and other elements -- so it's a duet between the 'hardscape' and the planting."

The height and width of the beds should also be proportionate to the house.

Frustratingly, I'm seeing some very silly (in my opinion) narrow beds, still packed in under the eaves, enclosed by blocks or pavers that have no connection whatsoever to anything else in the architecture. And the poor little plant roots have no place to go once they bang into that wall. No matter what materials are available these days, good taste is good taste, good gardening is good gardening, and a home landscape needs both.

I would also like to give a nod to the perfectly acceptable style of planting shrubs and flowers in flat planting beds at ground level. You don't have to choose that popular paver-enclosed bed in the front of the house.

Instead you or your landscape professional could put your money and effort into making larger beds, improving the soil with lots of compost, digging a clean V-shaped edge, and installing the best quality plants (suitable for the site). A clean edge around the bed, and neat mulching, can set off the planting as well as some walls. It's a choice.

>Please yourself

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, and in this case it's your eyes that count. It's your home that we're beholding, so don't accept anything that makes you unhappy.

But do ask the questions and consider alternatives to the common assumptions about what a front landscape should be. The size and placement of beds, the levels and layering, and the materials (or absence of materials) that surround them are all choices to be made with your eyes wide open.

Most of us never get to express ourselves as artists, but your home landscape may be your moment. Here's your palette. Develop your vision, learn from experts wiser than me, and enjoy the process.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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